Instructor / GTA Roles and Responsibilities

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What do I do?

Professors, adjuncts, lecturers, instructors, and GTAs have different roles and responsibilities, but they all bear the responsibility of teaching their students. Some will need to develop new courses, while others will teach already established courses. Creating a syllabus, preparing a lesson plan, determining classroom rules, grading, lecturing, answering students questions and helping students are all responsibilities that come with teaching a course.

GTAs may be assigned to teach a lecture or laboratory course, but they may be tasked with additional responsibilities from their departments as well. They may be asked to assist a professor with a large class during the lecture or with grading or have meetings to attend. Depending on the department and university, GTAs will have differing duties. They may be required to create their own syllabus and lesson plan or be required to follow their department’s.

Best Approaches

One of the best approaches to teaching is to be approachable. Create a friendly atmosphere, tell your students about yourself and learn their names. If English is not your first language, try to speak slowly and urge your students to ask you right away when they do not understand you. Using verbal signals while speaking may help with communication. Preparing students for exams is a key mechanism in your relationship with them. Students value their grades, so any effort in helping them do well on exams, such as study guides and sample questions, will also be valued. It’s always good to make yourself available to your students. You can do that by assigning office hours when your students can stop in without an appointment.

Asking Students Questions

In American classrooms, questions and answers are very common. Students will ask many questions and classes are very interactive. Instructors are expected to ask questions of the students too, which follows up how well the content was learned. Questions should start with a yes/no question and be direct, clear, and pertain to the topic being taught. Do not ask more than one question at a time and give students time to think. Never interrupt the student’s answer. When students respond to a question, you should always acknowledge their attempt whether it is right or wrong. If they answer incorrectly, avoid emphasizing the mistake. Instead, show them a way to think about the question in a different way.

Scenario 2

In a biology class, the TA asks “who can tell me what distinguishes an animal cell from a plant cell?” A student responds, “Well, I don’t think a plant cell has a cell wall” (an incorrect response).

Option 1

Even though you know the response is not correct, do not emphasize the student’s mistake. Rather, use it to review course materials and lead the student to the correct answer.

  • “Ok, let’s take a step back first. Who remembers the characteristics of a plant cell from last week?”
  • does not emphasize the student’s mistake
  • serves as a way to review and consider recent material

Option 2

Mention that the response is not correct and use it as an opportunity to compare the two concepts and review other materials.

  • “No, that is not quite right. One of these cells has a wall while the other does not. Can you remember what distinguishes the two?”
  • encouraging feedback that does not alienate the student
  • restates the student’s response and clarifies what is incorrect
  • uses the incorrect response as a chance to compare two concepts and to review other material

Responding to Students

American students ask a lot of questions and are open for discussions. Although the instructor is the classroom authority figure, students may question or challenge the instructor about a point or topic being taught. This is not disrespectful but part of the learning process, showing students are thinking critically about the material. Make sure to always give positive feedback for students’ questions, comments, and responses.

Scenario 2

A GTA is lecturing on balancing chemical reactions, and a student asks “can we change the subscript to get the equation to balance?” Although you know that is a major misconception in balancing, you should address the question carefully.

Option 1

Avoid pointing out the student’s misconceptions. Always appreciate students for asking questions, and validate their question. Make sure the rest of the class heard the question, and pass it to them. Doing so encourages participation.

  • “Thanks for bringing that up. The question was ‘can we change the subscript to get the equation to balance?’ Does anyone know the answer?”
  • “thanks” validates the student’s participation
  • restating the question for the class ensures that everyone can hear what was asked
  • passing the question on to the whole class encourages participation

Option 2

Validate and restate the student’s question. Show them the right way of balancing the equation. This leads to a lecture that might clear the student’s misconception.

  • “Interesting question, the question was ‘can we change the subscript to get the equation to balance?’ In fact, changing the subscript instead of the coefficient changes the molecule as a whole. For example…..”
  • starting with a positive response validates student participation
  • restating the question ensures everyone in the class can hear
  • allows the GTA to move into a lecture-style format and present additional information

Option 3

What do you do if you don’t know the answer to the student’s question? Don’t worry, that is absolutely okay! You still need to acknowledge the question, and restate it for the rest of the class. Be honest, admit that you do not know the answer, and pass it over to the class. Tell the student that you will look into it and make sure you get the solution for the student.

  • “Good question. The question was ‘can we change the subscript to get the equation to balance?’ I believe this question requires that all sections we’ve talked about be considered, but I am not sure. I will look into it and let you know by email. In the meantime, is there anyone else who knows?”
  • positive response
  • restates the question for everyone to hear
  • admits the GTA does not know the answer (honest response) and demonstrates accountability
  • passes the question on to the class for group participation