3.2 Planning classes

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 to facilitate and moderate 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. At LSE, classes are very diverse and often 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 and counter-productive.

Thinking through the main learning aims of the class

Most courses at LSE set out clear course aims and some have more detailed learning outcomes for the course as a whole. It may then be useful for you to prepare some more specific learning outcomes for each class. A learning outcome is a statement that describes what a student should be able to do after attending the class and completing the associated work assignments. These will clearly inform and help you plan your class design.

Make sure you have done the necessary reading and thinking for each class. Inform yourself of what the students have studied in any related lectures and think of some helpful questions to ask and points you can make.

Alex, a GTA in Government, suggests that for each class you should have three clear points to make.

Below are examples of learning outcomes for some LSE courses, extracted and adapted from recent course Moodle websites.  


  • appreciation of accounting/finance as social science
  • understanding of the underlying concepts and theory of the subject and of its limitations
  • familiarity with contexts in which it is used
  • ability to use, manipulate, analyse and evaluate numerical and other data
  • ability to prepare basic accounting statements
  • ability to think critically and communicate effectively


GY 240
  • examine the methodologies used in geographical research and evaluate their application to different kinds of research problems
  • develop practical skills in the application of a range of contemporary quantitative and qualitative research techniques, in the use of computers in solving research problems, and in the presentation of research proposals and results
  • prepare second-year students, who already have a grounding in social science methodology, to undertake their Individual Research Projects (IRPs) in Year 3
  • enable students to critically assess the methodological validity of the research contained in geographical literature


Including teaching and learning activities in the class

In preparing your classes, take time to consider what activities the students will do to enable them to enhance their understanding of the topic covered.

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.

A GTA in Government likes to run her classes around student presentations, so, at the start of the course, topics are divided between students and dates for discussions allocated. Students prepare a ten-minute talk to introduce the topic for discussion before taking part in an open question and answer session. There are usually two presentations in one class session.


A GTA from Social Psychology has a different view: I generally find that the standard presentation format, whereby students are responsible for a presentation at the start of the class period, is not always the best method. Although students do gain confidence and specific knowledge about the reading, they do not actively engage in the topic at hand. I believe presentations should be used sparingly, for those topics that are difficult to discuss as a class. Shared experience and discourse, to me, allows for the best form of learning.


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. The examples of frameworks below may help structure class activities and discussion/dialogue between you and the students and among 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.
  4. Evaluate al ternative solutions, consequences, and implications.
  • Example 2: Comparing/contrasting different models or theories

  1. Outline/describe competing models.
  2. Compare/contrast the models (eg 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 (eg for practice, for future theory development).
  4. Link theory from one session to thenext.

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, particularly in the more discursive subjects, you may find it helpful to structure the session around an essay or exam question. In some courses, the adviser 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.

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.

Economics GTA

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 Moodle 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: Structure for running a quantitative class

  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.
  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.

In preparing you should be thinking about two aspects of your role:

  • the topic to be discussed, and
  • the management and facilitation of the class.

An Economics teacher tries to find events that the students hear about in the news and links them to problem sets. This helps to make classes more interesting and stimulates discussion. 


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