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Teaching your First Lab

How do I Get Started?

Teaching assistants (TA’s) play a variety of roles in the lab: lecturer, demonstrator, discussion leader, safety inspector, and grader amongst many more. With fewer students and typically more hands-on learning TA’s are more easily able to interact with their students on an one-to-one basis, helping their students develop their problem-solving, critical thinking, and questioning skills. Working with students in small groups also provides an opportunity for TA’s to get to know their students better, and to provide a greater degree of personal feedback and encouragement, which leads to improved learning.

However, depending on your discipline, there may or may not be any formal training available to you before you teach your first lab. So what do you do if you are a new TA teaching your first lab, without any teaching experience? How do you build rapport with students?  How do you develop your students’ problem-solving, critical thinking, and questioning skills? Here are some ideas and resources for getting started, as well as some common questions from TA’s.

Talk to other TA’s (with previous teaching experience) or the senior lab coordinator in your department. If you can, try to talk to a TA who previously taught the lab you have been assigned to teach. Ask them any questions you have- perhaps regarding the structure of the lab, common misconceptions the students have, and any challenges they may have faced. You may also want to ask them about how the labs are typically graded, and if there are any grading guidelines or rubrics to follow. It’s also a good idea to talk with the professor who will be teaching the corresponding lecture, to find out what his/her expectations are regarding your work in the lab. For example, some professors will expect a TA to attend the lecture so they are aware of the sequence of topics discussed in class, others will feel this is unnecessary. For TA’s with some teaching experience, there may be the opportunity to give a guest lecture, but for first-time TA’s this may not be an option.

If you have time to invest, you might even consider a course like GSR 989:Philosophy and Practice of University Teaching or attending a teaching workshop at the GMCTE to help develop your teaching skills.