The Handbook for Economics Teaching Assistants

Sometimes classes can seem to become unfocussed because different students are interested in different aspects of the topic or problem. As a consequence, students can feel frustrated by what they see as irrelevant comments by others. By having a very clear view of the steps of a useful session the GTA can achieve the balance between over-directing and abandoning responsibility. Moreover, it is important to give students a sense of which arguments/assumptions are of primary importance and which are secondary or minor.

The examples of frameworks below may help structure class activities and discussion/dialogue between you and the students and between the students themselves. Note that you may actively involve the students at any/all points in each structure.

Example 1: A "problem-solving" structure

  1. Formulate the problem/define the issue
  2. Suggest hypotheses/reasons
  3. Review relevant data, and
  4. Evaluate alternative solutions, consequences, and implications.

Example 2: Comparing/contrasting different models or theories

  1. Outline/describe competing models
  2. Compare/contrast the models (e.g. through a matrix device)
  3. Conclude on relative merits of the models

Example 3: Analysis and critique of a given theory

  1. Review key concepts connected with a particular theoretical position
  2. Consider the evidence in support/refutation of the theory
  3. Consider the implications of the theory (e.g. for practice, for future theory development)
  4. Link theory from this session to the forthcoming session

These are simply examples. You may need to adapt or design a framework that suits your discipline and class topics better. However, keeping a clear sequence or structure in your mind may help you to maintain a clear focus in the discussion and help you to meet your learning outcomes for the class.

In many cases, you may find it helpful to structure the session around an essay or exam question. In some courses, the tutor responsible may well provide guide questions.

For many quantitative classes, the aim is formative: students should go away understanding the theoretical and technical issues raised by a given set of exercises, and therefore able to tackle similar problems which they meet in future. Ideally, before the class students should have done and handed in some pre-set homework, which the class teacher has marked and will use in the class to illustrate those theoretical and technical issues. Different departments have different policies, both in terms of what they expect from students and class teachers. However, class teachers generally agree that classes based on problem sets are much more successful where students are encouraged to do the work each week and to hand it in so the class teacher can get a feel for problems arising before the session.

On some quantitative courses the teacher in charge will provide written solutions to the exercises, to be handed out in class; but on other courses depending on the content of the exercises and the preferences of the teacher in charge solutions (or sketch solutions) may not be available until after classes are finished. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and the teacher in charge has to decide on the balance of the two in each case.

One advantage of not handing out solutions in class is that students are apt to pay more attention to the work done during the session; one advantage of handing them out is that, in very computational exercises, the class teacher can refer to pre-printed algebraic and numerical details of the solution, and hence concentrate on the basic theory and strategy involved. On some courses, students will complete problem sets online in advance of the class. You will then get the results prior to the class and you can use this data to help plan your session.

On some quantitative courses it is possible to cover all the exercises in a homework set, while on other courses there is too much material, and it is necessary for the class teacher to judge - in the light of the student work they have marked and of their overall understanding of the course - which questions and/or which topics to prioritise. Example 4 below is a suggested structure for running a quantitative class.

Example 4

  1. Take Register and hand back marked homework (each of which provides a way of matching students' names and faces).
  2. When pre-printed solutions are available, it is sometimes appropriate to pass them round at this stage, especially when the problems are very computational, while in other cases it may be better to hand them out at the end of the session.
  3. Discuss with the class which selection of questions from the homework should be addressed in class; in some cases the class teacher might have (and insist on) a definite preference, in others it will be more appropriate to go with the students' preferences. It is important to check with the lecturer's intention is for all questions to be discussed in the class and, if a more selective approach is followed, which areas should be emphasized. Also ensure that your class group is not lagging behind or speeding ahead compared to other class groups and in light of the time available.
  4. Check with students whether there is anything else - typically, a difficulty to do with recent lectures - that they would like you to talk about.
  5. If the answer is NO: work through the chosen questions from the homework, with the emphasis on explaining theory and strategies for future application, not simply on "solving" particular questions.
  6. If the answer is YES: the class teacher may need to extemporise about the issue which the students are interested in. It may or may not be possible to revert to discussing issues from the homework after such alternative topics.

It is always advisable to start any class by checking with the students that what you are proposing for the session is going to be useful: it does happen (although rarely) that the students will much prefer you to spend time clarifying something that has come up in lectures. Be prepared - to some extent! - to be flexible.

Top Tip

"With respect to the structure of my teaching, I have seen that creating links of each week's work to what has been taught during the previous ones has helped students in using each class as a building block for the next ones."

In preparing you should be thinking about two aspects of your role:

  • The topic to be discussed.
  • The management and facilitation of the class.