3.3 Running classes: generic considerations

Class registers

At LSE, attendance at lectures is optional but attendance at classes is compulsory for undergraduate students. It is also an institutional responsibility to the main HE funding agency that undergraduate student attendance be monitored to some extent. Therefore, a small but important job for the GTA is to keep an accurate class register each week.  It is important that your data entry is systematic, regular and accurate as class registers can provide vital 'early warning' signals of students who may be in difficulty.

Student records can be marked in three different ways: P (present) if the student attended this particular class; A (absent without reason) if the student failed to attend this class and did not provide a valid reason for doing so; R (absent with reason) if the students did not attend this class but provided a valid reason for doing so (eg, they were ill).

You can access your class register through LSE for You on the School's main website. For step-by-step instructions on how to access a register, see IT Services' "Class registers" document. There is also a 'Tutorials' link at the bottom of all LSE for You pages, providing guidance in using the various sections, and training in LSE for You is a standard part of the induction for all new class teachers.

Each student registered to your class(es) should be on the register. If students come to class and are not on your register, you may allow it for one week (on the assumption that things are in a state of flux at the start of term) but you should request that students sort out their timetable. In order to maintain reasonable class sizes, do discourage students from simply turning up to the classes they prefer (some may try to avoid early morning classes!). You need to mark in attendance each session, record any course-work grades, and write brief comments (see Section 4.4| for more on class reports). The register also includes photographs of the students you teach, which can be a great way to start learning their names and faces!

Students who have disclosed a disability or dyslexia which requires 'reasonable adjustments' will have an ISSA (Individual Student Support Agreement). If this has been disclosed to you, it should be taken into account when looking for reasons for absences and when commenting on class reports.

The GTA provides a regular point of contact with students through the classes. If a student is experiencing difficulties and begins to miss classes it is the GTA who will be the first person to see this. It is, therefore, crucial that concerns are reported to academic advisers and departmental tutors. The online system will now automatically email the student and his/her academic adviser if you mark the student 'absent without reason' from class on two consecutive weeks. If students show irregular attendance at classes, if they do not complete course work and if they fail to turn up for a class in which they are presenting work, it is worth adding a note to this effect on their online record. Through this early detection system many of the more serious difficulties and course failures can be avoided.

But be warned! Students have direct access to anything you write. So keep it accurate and polite.

Note, some students in your class register may be highlighted in yellow. These students are being monitored by the Student Progress Panel (because they have already failed some exams).  It is particularly important that you keep the reports on these students up to date, and note any relevant information.  Please do not make the register 'public' to the student group, as this could cause embarrassment.

Managing expectations

Before running a class, 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 (eg 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, irrespective of the subject.

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 and new to classes at LSE 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.

See Section 2.4 |and Section 2.6| for more on, respectively, ground rules and managing your workload.

I tried using ground rules last session and was pleased by the students' reaction. I gave them a list of five points - things like 'we will start on time' - and I asked them to edit the list in pairs. They added some really interesting things, like '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.

Listening effectively

As a class teacher you will need to hone your personal and communication skills, in particular your listening and questioning skills, your ability to give clear explanations and your ability to end classes effectively. This and the following sections offer some useful hints.

  1. Try to keep an open mind and listen to what is actually said.
  2. Listen for meaning. For example a student maybe asks you a muddled question about a small detail. Actually, what s/he may be telling you is that s/he is completely lost and doesn't understand this at all - or this student may be dyslexic.
  3. Try not to pre-empt what a student is saying, by cutting them off mid-question and giving them an answer to a problem as you see it. As much as possible, let them explain their uncertainties and confusions. According to a reasonable body of the Higher Education research literature, concept development often requires that students first understand how the new ideas presented fit on to what they already know, and IF the new concept requires them to let go of some previous understanding, this needs to be actively acknowledged. In other words, you can't simply overlay a new and contradictory set of ideas before the old ones have been explored and deconstructed.
  4. Try to find a workable balance between, on the one hand, thinking ahead in the discussion in order to maintain the flow and focus and, on the other, being overly directive and forcing the discussion along your set path.

Questioning skills

There are a number of techniques you can use to encourage students to ask questions and to open up discussion.

The most obvious is to draw on students' questions and comments and to enlarge upon them with your own remarks. What do you do if the subject matter is new and your students are too? You may want to jot down several statements or questions beforehand and use these as a springboard.

For many quantitative subjects, you may want to plan out a sequence of short questions aimed at helping students work their way through a problem, or grasp a better understanding of a theory or model. A number of class teachers in Economics, Maths, Statistics and Accounting use this approach. Some will go round the class more or less sequentially, so students know when their 'time' to answer is approaching and can prepare. Others take a more random approach, calling on people by name. Yet others ask questions to the group as a whole, and let whoever wishes to respond.

This issue of whether or not to call on students individually and by name to contribute to the class, is one of the more controversial aspects of questioning. Clearly teachers have different styles and students will have varied expectations. The advantage of addressing individual students is that you can tailor comments and make interventions that are appropriate for specific students. It may be a way of involving a very quiet student who you know has useful contributions to make but finds it difficult to raise them in the class. However, great care should be used when 'spotlighting' students. If some students think that they may be 'picked on' to answer questions it may make them very uncomfortable in the class and less able to think and work out their own position or solution. (This may particularly affect the non-native speakers of English in your class and those with disabilities.) This may also have a knock-on effect on the other students and so the positive atmosphere in the class can be eroded.

If you choose to use a direct questioning approach it is also sensible to think through what you will do when a student cannot answer your question or gives a muddled or an incorrect response. It is likely to fall to the teacher to 'rescue' the situation and in some circumstances to help re-build the confidence of an embarrassed or flustered student. Because of these potential difficulties it is, therefore, suggested that you do not ask individual students to answer your questions so directly until you have established a good rapport with your class and you have got to know your students better.  

I think the most important ingredient in a good class is enthusiasm for the subject matter. This gets the students interested and makes the class more interesting for all. I also focus on creating a supportive learning environment so that all students feel that they can contribute/ask questions. To do this, I have lots of group exercises and make sure that everyone speaks in the first two weeks - if they don't speak then, they may never speak!

Law GTA

With more discursive subjects, it is generally preferable to open up discussion with open-ended questions which will get students thinking about relationships, applications, consequences, and contingencies, rather than merely the basic facts. Open questions often begin with words like 'how' and 'why' rather than 'who', 'where' and 'when', which are more likely to elicit short factual answers and stifle the flow of the discussion. This more closed questioning approach tends to set up a 'teacher/student' 'question/answer' routine that does not lead into more fruitful discussion of underlying issues. You will want to ask your students the sorts of questions that will draw them out and actively involve them, and you will also want to encourage your students to ask questions of one another. Again, it is for you to decide whether to call on students directly, or leave the discussion and discussant 'open'. Above all, you must convey to your students that their ideas are welcomed as well as valued.

Sometimes people are too shy to speak in front of the whole class, which is why no one wants to answer questions. I find that if you get people to talk in front of the class by eg, reading out a question (people are usually not too shy to do that),  they are subsequently less shy about speaking in class. This is a good way to get people to answer your questions.

Very occasionally you may have a student in your class who suffers from more than the normal level of anxiety or shyness when called upon to contribute to the class discussions or to present their work. Treat such situations with sensitivity and if appropriate seek specialist guidance from the Disability and Well-being Service, Teaching and Learning Centre or the Language Centre.

There are a number of pitfalls in asking questions in class. Here are the four most common ones:

  1. Phrasing a question so that your implicit message is, 'I know something you don't know and you'll look stupid if you don't guess what's in my head!'
  2. Constantly rephrasing student answers to 'fit' your answer without actually considering the answer that they have given.
  3. Phrasing a question at a level of abstraction inappropriate for the level of the class - questions are often best when phrased as problems that are meaningful to the students.
  4. Not waiting long enough to give students a chance to think.

The issue of comfortable 'thinking time' is an often-ignored component of questioning techniques. If you are too eager to impart your views, students will get the message that you're not really interested in their opinions. Most teachers tend not to wait long enough between questions or before answering their own questions because a silent classroom induces too much anxiety for the class teacher. It can be stressful if you pick on a student for an answer and all the group are waiting for a reply (see below). Many students, particularly those with certain disabilities or dyslexia, students who are not confident in speaking in public, or not confident in speaking English, may become unduly flustered in such a situation. Creating a more comfortable space in which to think is likely to induce a better 'quality' of answer and increase the opportunities for all students to contribute effectively.  

I've found that paired discussions allow students to test out and articulate their ideas in a non-intimidating environment. To enrich debate, different pairs are tasked to discuss different aspects of a common topic. Having built up confidence, someone from each pair contributes to a general discussion. Midway I'll point to differences in approach, highlighting controversies. This usually kickstarts collective debate and full participation.

Geography GTA

The above approach is likely to help make your students feel more confident for a number of reasons. First the students have the chance to 'check out' their answers with a peer; secondly, they are required to 'rehearse' and put their thoughts into words; and thirdly the answer gains a form of endorsement from the peer which increases confidence in its value. Once the students have confidence that you will give them time to think their responses through, and you show them that you really do want to hear their views, they will participate more freely in future.  

I divided the classes in groups to work on questions I bring to the class. This is a main pattern of work, but I try to vary depending on the issue. I have even brought postcards to the class to ask them about Catalan architecture when we were talking about the role of the regionalist movements in the consolidation of democracy in Spain.

Government GTA

Asking students questions about work that they have not done is clearly a different issue from those noted above, and comes back to issues around agreeing ground rules with students to ensure that they prepare adequately for class. It is important to establish agreed working patterns from the start, and follow them through. Here are a couple of examples of approaches some class teachers use.  

A class teacher in Sociology starts each session with a 'round' to establish who has read what. All the students know this will happen, and so can be sure to be prepared - even if they only read a chapter of a core text.

 

A class teacher in Accounting uses a similar approach. Each week he goes round the class to check who has attempted the problem set for the week. Students only need to hand in two pieces of work per term for marking. However, he finds that by doing the round weekly, most students do the exercises in advance most weeks, and will be candid (and generally give convincing explanations) when for some reason they have not been able to do the work.

Giving a clear explanation

The first piece of advice here is to try not to do too much explaining in class. This may sound a little strange but it is all too easy to be drawn into the trap of giving mini-lectures rather than facilitating learning. However, there are times when your students will look to you to help in clarifying points or linking class discussions and course work with related lectures.

In giving a clear explanation you should start from where your learners are. You may choose to summarise 'what we know already' or indeed ask one of the students to do this task for the group. There are four quick tips to help structure your explanation:

  1. Structure what you say so that you have a clear beginning, middle and ending.
  2. Signpost your explanation to make the structure clear to everybody.
  3. Stress key points.
  4. Make links to the learners' interests and current understanding. You can do the latter through the use of thoughtful examples, by drawing comparisons and by using analogy.  

I try to think of really good examples to illustrate the main points I want to make. If you can find something current from the papers or the news then you are often onto a winner - I like to bring along the paper and hand it round the group. I thought about asking the group to bring in their own examples too and I might try this next year.

It is worth re-iterating that classes should not turn into lectures - but for further advice on how to go about preparing and planning more formal presentations and lectures, see Section 6|.

Teaching considerations when a GTA's first language is not English

Many LSE class teachers are post-graduate students from overseas. Teaching in a foreign language can be a fantastic way of improving your English. However, it may also present a number of challenges too. Here are a few common-sense reminders if this applies to you:

  1. Always face your students when you are talking to them so that they can also use your eye contact and body language to fully understand your meaning.
  2. In discussion, write down key terms and names when you are referring to them. You can do this on the white board or flipchart as you speak or include them in a brief handout and explicitly refer to them in class.
  3. Encourage your students to ask questions.

I know my English isn't perfect, so when I met my class I said to them 'You need to stop me if I talk too fast or my accent is too strong.' We needed to sort out how they could stop me without feeling embarrassed - one of my groups actually wave at me if I lose them!

4. Try to talk slowly and clearly so that students will have every opportunity to understand what you are saying.

5. If your students ask you a question that you don't understand, you can:

 -  ask the student to repeat or rephrase the question;
- open up the question for the whole class to think about (eg 'That's a good question ... Can someone begin to help us answer it?');
- attempt to rephrase the question yourself and answer it when you are sure you understand correctly.  

Because English isn't my first language I am very careful not to make mistakes when writing feedback. To get the wording right I look at model answers and write the comments on a word processor which checks my spelling.

Methodology Institute GTA 

A number of class teachers take up the option of additional voice and pronunciation training. This is freely available at the School through the Teaching and Learning Centre and the Language Centre. The Teaching and Learning Centre also offers one-to-one voice training with an experienced voice trainer, along with a small group workshop on voice training for speaking to large audiences. The Language Centre offers longer small group courses, tailored to specific needs. See Section 10| for contact details.

Note: Many students find different regional and international English accents as hard to understand as those teachers for whom English is a second language.  If you get feedback on difficulties with audibility do consider voice training as it is available for all staff.

Ending a class, with prompt to future study

Getting the timing of classes right can be a challenge to most teachers. There is inevitably pressure on time, as many classes try to 'do' as much as possible in the time available. Finding that time has simply run out is a common experience. With that in mind, it is useful to plan the end of sessions as carefully as planning the beginning, and then to watch the clock so that you can decide when the 'end game' needs to start. An obvious element in 'ending' that many class teachers include is to summarise the ground that has been covered, key learning points, or main issues raised. This can give a sense of 'neatness' and closure to sessions.  

At the end of each session, I like to give a quick summary of the main points we've covered in the discussion. After the session I write up some brief notes to bring these together, and post it up in public folders, so we all have a brief record of what we've covered in each session. The students seem to like this and find it useful.

                                                                                                      International Relations GTA

 

In quantitative classes students usually come up with questions at the end of the class, so to allow time for that and to finish the class on time I usually start wrapping up early.

Methodology Institute GTA

Another way of looking at the end of a class is to see it as an opportunity to prompt students to further study. Rarely will a class manage to 'complete' the topic under discussion. As such, you may wish to consider ways of using the summing up more as an opportunity to identify any 'gaps' or issues that haven't been addressed, key readings which you have noted students have not yet read but probably would benefit from spending time on, and in giving students some pointers as to further work they may engage with. Finally, it is often worth prompting students to plan ahead, to make links to the next lecture and next class, and ensure that everyone is on track to make the most of the next class in the series.

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