How do I Plan and Deliver an Effective Lab?
First, be prepared. A good piece of advice is to go through the activity of completing the questions in the lab yourself, just as a student would. As you complete the lab, ask yourself the following questions: What parts of the lab instructions are clear or unclear? If you were a student, what questions might you ask your TA? What problems or misconceptions do you anticipate, and at what points in the lab might these issues occur? What materials do you anticipate that students will need to bring with them to the lab?
When instructing the lab, start by telling the students what you expect they should be able to do by the end of the lab. Prepare a short and simple introduction to the topic, with clear instructions for how students are to proceed in completing the lab. As students are completing their labs, encourage them to ask each other questions, and circulate amongst the room so students know you are available to answer questions. At the end of the lab, it’s a good idea to check in with students to find out what they have learned. You can do this by having each student write down on a slip of paper his or her answer to one of the questions below:
- What was the muddiest concept in the lab today? (e.g. What concept was most unclear?)
- What is one thing you learned about the topic we studied in the lab today?
- Summarize, in one sentence, what the main goal of the lab was today.
How do I Answer Questions Effectively in the Lab?
When a student asks you a question, your natural response will likely be giving them, or at least guiding them along to the right answer. But simply giving the student an answer to a question, or telling them they have the correct answer does not help develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills. You can use questioning as a strategy to get your students actively involved in the learning process in the following ways:
- When a student asks you a question, respond with a probing question that guides them in the correct direction. For example, if a student says, “I don’t understand what to do,” respond by asking “What part of the instructions is unclear for you?” or “ Can you tell me about what you’ve already done?” or “What do you think the next step should be and why?”
- Rather than giving the student the answer, provide some hints and clues to the student regarding what they need to think about next (e.g.) “That’s close… Is there another…?” or “You’ve almost got it. Can you think of anything else?”
- Provide connections between the lab and lecture. For instance, ask students “How does what we are doing in the lab today relate to what you are discussing in the lecture?”
- Use probing questions that get students to think about their answers, even when they have the correct response. For instance, “Yes, that is the correct technique; and what would be the common errors made in applying it by novice users?”
Examples from BCIT Learning and Teaching Centre handout, Burnaby, B. C., entitled “Using Classroom Questions Effectively.: Retrieved August 11, 2010 from http://www.bcit.ca/files/idc/pdf/htquestionin.pdf
How do I Build Rapport with my Students?
Getting to know your students will greatly improve your students’ learning experience and will make your job as a TA more fulfilling and enjoyable. As a TA, be aware that your relationship with students must always be of a professional nature. A common phrase is though you may be friendly with students, you are not their “friend.”
There are many simple techniques a TA may use to build a positive and encouraging learning environment:
- Set accessible office hours: Not all students have the exact same timetable. If you have 2 hours a week set aside for office hours, it’s a good idea to set 1 hour on 1 day/week and the 2nd hour on a different day of the week. Let students know they can see you via appointment if they are unavailable to see you during your office hour times.
- Be available before, during, and after the lab to answer any questions. Arrive at the lab at least 5-10 minutes early, circulate around the room and check on student groups as they are completing the lab in case they have questions, and stay for a few minutes after the lab to address any remaining questions.
- Learn your students’ names. Ask for a few volunteers to help with demonstrations or activities and throughout this process, learn some student’s names. During the first few weeks of lab, you could ask students to write their names on a folded piece of a paper displayed as a tent in front of their workstation. For more ideas on how to learn students’ names, check out the online learning resource written by Joan Middendorf, Director Teaching Resource Center, Indiana University, on Learning Student Names at http://www.ntlf.com/html/lib/bib/names.htm.
- Encourage questions during the lab. Listen carefully to the question and acknowledge the person who asked the question. If it’s a good question, say so. By providing positive encouragement, more students will ask questions, which benefits the whole lab.
- Provide constructive feedback. This applies when students ask a question, or when grading lab reports, assignments, or exams. A good rule of thumb is to use the sandwich technique - start by saying something about what the student has done well, followed by a suggestion of what needs to be improved, and then ending with something positive, e.g. next steps for what the student should work on.