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2.2 Gathering information about the courses you are teaching on

It is important that new GTAs consult with the teacher responsible for the course from an early stage. Even if you have taught on the course for a year or more, do keep in close contact, and make sure you are properly briefed. The teacher responsible should provide guidance on course aims and objectives, the reading list, student course work and assessment arrangements, and may possibly suggest teaching approaches. Some may specify the approach they wish their GTAs to take in class teaching tightly, whilst others are happy for the GTA to design their classes with greater flexibility. Find out how much choice you have.

In my course, there is a detailed course handbook with all the lectures, all the class problem sets, and the answers for each of the problem sets. In addition, for each session, the teacher responsible has outlined the 'difficult' parts of the topic, and suggested ways of tackling them.

Economics GTA

I developed a GTA pack for my course, including detailed lesson plans for each week, handouts, common problems encountered in essay writing, my TQARO feedback detailing students' likes and dislikes, and my reflections on how to motivate and facilitate critical reflection. Subsequent GTAs have found this pack extremely helpful. Most GTAs have probably developed something similar, especially those who have done the PGCertHE. 

Geography GTA

You will certainly want to read the information that is provided to students about the courses that you will support, including any course guides produced by the teacher responsible and any departmental handbooks. Make sure you are familiar with the course structure, aims and objectives, syllabus and particularly the assessment requirements of the course (eg hand-in dates for course work). It is very helpful to look at the past exam papers for your course too, although do double check that the course and exam paper have not fundamentally changed from one year to the next. Check out whether there is a Moodle online support site for the course (see Technologies for teaching| Section 8.1). These often contain lots of course material, including detailed lecture material. In some cases, the full materials from the previous year will be available and can provide useful background and briefing for your work.

You may also benefit considerably from talking to class teachers who taught in the department and on your course last year. They will be extremely knowledgeable about teaching your course, having developed lessons plans, given feedback and formally reflected on appropriate teaching styles (sometimes as part of the PGCertHE). Learning from and building on their experience will enable you to improve your own teaching and save you a great deal of time. They may also be able to give you inside information about the teacher's preferences or highlight the course topics that students seem to struggle with, note frequently asked questions or suggest interesting examples that they have used in their teaching.

The teacher responsible for your course should arrange a briefing session for you. At this, it is worth checking what is expected from classes. Ask specifically about your role vis à vis:

  • content (eg What are the 'core' topics? Are any 'optional'? Where is the focus and emphasis of the course? How are theory and application of theory balanced? To what extent will students be expected to recall, apply, critique theories/models/formulae? And do you have any role in deciding any of this?);
  • preparing students to do 'academic writing' (eg Are there any departmental style guides, emphasis on particular forms of argument, marking criteria, etc?);
  • preparing students for exams or other assessment (eg Will you be running revision classes towards the end of the year? How much emphasis is put on exams? Is this year's paper likely to be similar to previous years? Are there examples of past essays that you and students can see?);
  • developing students' intellectual skills (eg critique, analysis, evaluation, synthesis - what's the emphasis?);
  • improving other student skills (eg oral communication, team work, problem solving ability, presentations);
  • guiding students on proper citation and referencing conventions, and on how plagiarism is defined in the discipline; and
  • the underlying logic of the course (eg How is it structured? Does the order of topics matter? Is there a 'theory' part, then 'applications' later, or are they interwoven?).

Quite often the person who has designed the course sees the underlying logic as obvious or taken for granted - yet it might not be either to you or the students. Getting a clear understanding of the course structure can also be important in helping you decide how to approach the teaching of particular classes. In Section 3| a variety of teaching approaches are discussed and it is helpful to 'align' your choice of teaching method with the learning aims and outcomes of the course, the detailed learning outcomes for a given class and the way in which the students will be assessed. For example, if all students need to be able to work with a particular set of theoretical ideas that cut across several aspects of the course, then the initial work on understanding that theory needs to be worked on by all students (rather than, for example, allocating it to one student for a class presentation and hoping that others might do a bit of the associated core reading). Alternatively, there may be some aspects of the course (eg particular examples, reference to specific countries or sectors, specific applications, etc) which are illustrative, but where it is very much up to individual students what direction to take, what focus to give and how much effort to expend.

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