Case study from a Graduate Teaching Assistant workshop

by Suparna Ray, University of Exeter
Published December 2012

A new academic year had begun. We the newly recruited graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) were stuggling to cope with the expectations put on us by the course lecturers (who we tutor for) on the one hand and the students on the other. Amidst all of this, the recently organised GTA workshop at the University of Exeter came as a fruitful solution. Not only did it help sooth our apprehensions and answer our queries, but the workshop also provided ample guidance on what is expected of us GTAs.

The workshop dealt with both theoretical (for instance, roles and responsibilities of GTAs, guidelines on teaching and evaluating) and practical issues (such as tackling the first class, GTA-lecturer relations, management of an international learning environment and how to mark and give effective feedback to students).

There were two presenters – Dr Iain Long from Cardiff University conducted the first part of the presentations on the theoretical aspects, corroborating them effectively with practical tips thoughout; while Juliette Stephenson from the University of Exeter gave us hands-on experience with marking and providing feedback to students.

“Not only did it help sooth our apprehensions and answer our queries, but the workshop also provided ample guidance on what is expected of GTAs”

We were guided through how to make our tutoring more useful for all types of learners: visual (those who learn best with whiteboards and slides); auditory (those who learn through listening); and kinaesthetic (those who work through problems to learn). The presenters gave us helpful advice on how to prepare and structure our classes, keeping in mind these different learning requirements.

In addition, the importance of communicating skills, patience to deal with diverse cultures and time management were emphasised and a host of other practical tips were given – for instance, demonstrations on teaching microeconomics showed us how to convey the basic concepts of a course that students are required to be familiar with, as well as how to motivate and keep them engaged in the class.

The workshop gave us additional advice on gauging student participation in class, for example, through their facial expressions. Ever since attending the training, I have tried incorporating these tips in my classes. I now have a better understanding of whether my students comprehend what I intend them to learn about a topic. Before attending the event, I asked questions to the whole class and would not pay any particular attention to the number of students participating and answering my questions, but now I try to make sure that I initiate more student engagement in class.

Furthermore, we had a one-shot exposure to grading essays and providing feedback on the grade. Juliette took us through the generic criteria for assessment, explaining these in more detail with respect to our assessment exercise. Also, examples of feedback from a couple of experienced professors were shared with us to illustrate that feedback needs to be encouraging whilst pinpointing any flaws succinctly.

Equally key to a GTA’s efficacy is their interaction with the course lecturer for whom he or she is tutoring. This is important as GTAs need to be aware of what they are expected to cover for the course and follow the guidelines of the lecturer to that effect. As a new GTA, I am currently taking the tutorial classes for a Mathematical Economics module and since the GTA workshop, I have made sure that I go and meet the course lecturer once every week to get an idea of how she has conducted the tutorial for her group. I follow her methods and adapt mine to attempt to provide my tutorial groups with a better learning experience as a result.

Last but not least, the GTA workshop also held a panel of experts session at the end to address any unanswered queries or concerns of the GTAs, which further enriched our training from this workshop. The event not only dealt with our anticipations of GTA roles and responsibilities, but also gave us valuable practical advice, ranging from how to prepare for the class and manage different learning styles to evaluating and giving effective feedback to students.