Training Course Philosophy

My teaching philosophy and yours might not align, but there are some aspects of mine that I believe are particularly valuable in a TA training course.

1 Trust

Trust your TAs and they both (a) rise to that trust and (b) trust you.

Many rules and activities in many courses are based on catching the worst students and keeping them from succeeding without working. These can create an antagonistic feel in the course. I assume, with some evidence, that TAs are generally selected by instructors from the best students and that such failsafes are not needed. I do all I can to give the TAs a feeling of openness and trust. For example,

1.1 Teach, don’t Preach

Don’t I never tell how TAs to feel: when discussing diversity, for example, I inform them about forces such as stereotype threat and how to combat them and warn them that detected bigotry will result in their being fired, but I never even broach the topic of the propriety of valuing diversity.

There is a lack of trust implicit in telling people what to feel or believe about what ought to be. I have personal goals, objectives, and beliefs, and I’m not shy about sharing them, but I share them as mine (or the departments’, if reflected in policy), not as what the TAs ought to believe.

2 Why → What → How

I always try to start with the why before the what. I find this stimulates the minds of good students (as TAs almost universally are) and helps foster conversation.

A common model I use in many sessions is

  1. I explain the why
  2. I ask them to produce the what
  3. We discuss the how together

One example of this is in the learning session,

  1. I explain the basics of cognitive load theory sans application
  2. I ask them what does this tell you about being a TA?
  3. We discuss their answers and how those answers can be realized in practice

Incidentally, I usually ask the step-2 questions twice back-to-back with slightly different words, as in So, given all this information about the brain, what does it mean for us as educators? What should we be doing as TAs given that we know this information? I also almost always have them discuss in pairs or trios before sharing ideas with the class.

3 Too little is better than too much

We go fast. We cover a lot of material so briefly that it is almost more a summary than a lesson. This is by design. A few of the motivations include:

As a sign of success, I look for comments like these at the end of each semester:

It might be nice to extend the time to an hour and fifteen, or an hour and a half to help get in all the information.

Could some topics stretch over more than one session? It felt like for some topics we didn’t really get to talk about everything we wanted to. Maybe some of the optional sessions could be like a further look into x topic.

3.1 Beware of Guest Experts

There are many people at UVa more expert on the topics I cover in this class than am I. I rarely invite them to speak: experts very often see as too little what the TAs see as too much. Consequently, boredom can result from even good guest lecturers.

I have yet to try inviting in experts and explaining my go fast philosophy. Trying that out remains on my to-do list for future semesters.

4 Ask only what they’ll give

Telling students to read before they come to class is similar to telling them to come to class feeling guilty. Asking them to report 100% attendance is similar to asking them to lie. Asking them to sit still for 75 minutes is similar to asking them to hope you finish early. Only ask for what they will willingly give.