2 Preparation and Planning

Many new GTAs wonder how there can possibly be enough to say to fill the class period. However, this will be the least of your worries. Your job is facilitating and moderating the class, not doing all the work for the students. New GTAs sometimes tend to over-manage the situation. Remember that the class isn't just a matter of your communication with your students; it's a chance for your students to share and explore ideas, explain their confusions, pool resources and develop their understanding. Your classes might include students from all over the world with a tremendous variety of educational and cultural experiences. It is easy to overlook this potential and the value of student input and to end up trying to carry the whole conversation yourself - which is incredibly exhausting and certainly unnecessary.

2.1 Thinking About Content

You may wish to attend the lectures for the course to help you orientate your class teaching and synchronise your approach with that of the lecturer. Some courses require GTAs to attend lectures. Lecture materials may be available on the course web site or virtual learning environment. Looking at past exam papers can also help you determine the themes and issues that should take a greater priority in your teaching. Some class teachers describe allocating the content of their classes into two planning columns, 'must have' and 'nice to have'.

2.2 Structuring Class Activities

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.

2.3 The Topic to be Discussed

Have you done the necessary topic reading and thinking, have you informed yourself of what the students studied in any related lectures and have you thought of some helpful questions to ask and points to make? A course will usually have clear, written course aims and some have more detailed objectives or outcomes. It may then be useful for you to prepare some more specific learning outcomes. A learning outcome\objective is a statement that describes what a student should be able to do or understand after attending the class and completing the associated work assignments. These will clearly inform and help focus your class discussions. Here is an example of a set of learning outcomes from a second year Economics course at the LSE.

Microeconomic Principles

  • understand the working and applications of the standard general equilibrium model;
  • understand the basic elements of welfare economics;
  • know how to apply elementary game theory to microeconomic models of firms;
  • be able to make economic application of equilibrium concepts in multistage games;
  • understand the basic role of uncertainty and imperfect information in analysing economic incentives.

2.4 Class Management and Facilitation

How are you intending the students to engage with the material, what learning processes do you want to use and how will you ensure all those attending can fully participate? For instance, you may decide on a horse-shoe arrangement of seats, to ensure that a student with a hearing impairment can see each person speaking.

Students give a presentation in the seminar session which is not assessed but which links directly to a question in the final examination. The case study Linking Student Presentations to Exams shows how it is used in an international trade policy module, but could be adapted for use in any undergraduate economics unit/module.

"Students are divided into groups of 3 to 4. I assign groups randomly each time so that the groups change. Divide the number of students in the class that day by the target group size (3 or 4) and round down. Then count students out to that number, repeating. 1's are in a group, 2's, etc.
Students are given a set of questions to guide their discussion and then turn in a sheet with notes at the end with all of their names. Not all that they discuss will make it onto the write-up sheet, but I have found that turning in notes helps to keep them focused during the discussion."

For more details look at Case Study: Small Group Discussions

"For the purpose of adding structure, I begin each class with an overview of the material to be covered in the class, and where it fits into the course structure. In particular, I outline the key questions that need to be answered. After this introduction, I proceed to work through the problems and discussion questions in turn, making note of associated references that students should consult, identifying the most important passages."

See Case Study: Motivating Students in Small Classes

There are more case studies of classroom practice and student engagement on our site.

2.5 Considering Expectations

Before you can successfully implement a discussion session, you will need to become aware of the implicit set of attitudes and messages you bring into the classroom with you. Equally important are the attitudes and expectations that your students bring with them.

You - Your reactions, your responses to students, the attitudes you project in your actions all suggest to your students the sort of interaction they can expect. The way in which you field students' comments will give the most important clue. No one wants to feel that their remarks will be put down or put off. Students are also sensitive to what they think you REALLY want (e.g. does he want a discussion or a chance to give a mini-lecture on his favourite topic? Does she say she wants disagreement and then gets defensive when someone challenges her?). Your students will try to read you so that they can respond appropriately. Be sensitive to the clues you give them and do your best to create a 'safe' place for open and frank questioning and discussion to take place.

Your students - It is well worth the time and effort it takes at the beginning of a class, with a new group of students, to find out what they are expecting from you and the class. You could simply ask them and some confident students may respond helpfully. Better still, you could ask the students to write down some brief notes about how they see your role and theirs in the class and what they see as the purpose(s) of the class. This would also provide an opportunity for students to explain privately any special arrangements they may need in order to participate fully. If your students are first years you may even wish to facilitate a discussion about how you will work together. Some GTAs find it useful to draw up class ground-rules.

Top Tip

"I tried using ground-rules last session and was pleased by the students' reaction. I gave them a list of 5 points, things like 'we will start on time', and I asked them to edit the list in pairs. They added some really interesting things, "no one should dominate the discussion" and "everyone should do the core readings each week". I think it helped us to get off on the right foot."