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Teaching Concerns and Solutions


Rationale: This is a good exercise for the middle or end of a workshop. It taps into TAs' worries about problems they have encountered (or anticipate they will encounter), shows that they are not alone in feeling such concerns, and explores a range of solutions. By using a small group format, with ideas reported back to a plenary, the approach shows the ability of collaborative learning to generate ideas that might not have been considered by individuals. The task is particularly effective when used with a mix of experienced and new TAs. Also, participating in this exercise is a good way for faculty members to keep in touch with their TAs.

Method: Participants jot down any concerns, worries, or problems they think they might encounter in their role as TA during the coming term/year. (For experienced TAs these may be problems they did in fact encounter in the past.) (Allow up to 5 minutes for this part.)

In groups of three, participants share their lists, and decide on their top three or four concerns. For their major concern, groups next try to suggest a range of possible solutions. If faculty are present, it may be best to have them form a separate group in case they dominate discussion (or are the focus of some TA problems!). (Allow at least 10 minutes for this part.)

A spokesperson from each group reports ONE item from their agreed list until all groups have offered a suggestion; the facilitator lists characteristics on a flip-chart, overhead, or chalkboard. When every group has made one suggestion the facilitator asks if there are any other MAJOR concerns to be added to the list. The facilitator then asks for suggested solutions to each problem on the list, beginning with concerns that seem to be the most general. If faculty are present they can be asked to report separately with their own solutions. All this can take quite a time (20 minutes is a minimum), and it may be necessary at the outset to select three or four major concerns from the list on the board, and leave the others aside.

An alternative method for this exercise is to have the small groups FIRST generate concerns (as described above), with the facilitator listing them on a chalkboard/flipchart. This time each group gives all three of its concerns, and the facilitator notes on the flip-chart the number of times a problem is mentioned. SECONDLY, the top four or five problems are identified, and the small groups re-convene to consider as many solutions as possible to these problems.

A Note of Caution. Facilitators must be prepared to LISTEN to TA's voiced concerns. Also, be prepared for the fact that some concerns may necessitate longer term solutions -- in this case you may need to ensure TAs that follow-up will be provided and/or some appropriate action will be taken. It's best if TAs have the opportunity to devise their own detailed action plan, but time constraints may not allow for this. Generally speaking, we recommend that a workshop not end with an unresolved problem, so be sure your workshop plan takes this into consideration.

Variations:

1. Case studies. Another way to examine teaching problems is through case studies. Case studies encourage focused discussion on concerns and problems that are known to be fairly typical for TAs. The case study should describe a situation which requires some decision, and should be set up in a way that asks the group to work out its solutions). The following instructions may accompany the case study:

In workshops, cases are best approached in small groups, followed by a plenary group discussion. (If several cases are available, each small group can work on a different case and then share their conclusions with the large group.) Several sample case studies, prepared and used by the IDC, are attached.

2. Video clips. An alternative to the written case study is the problem or incident presented on video tape. The IDC has available a variety of videotaped incidents showing TA-student interactions that are suitable for TA training. The main difference between a written case study and a video clip is that the video usually demonstrates how one TA has managed a particular situation. In a workshop, TAs view one or more of these short video segments. Guidelines for analysis and discussion might include the following:

The facilitator should present the discussion guidelines to TAs before the videos are viewed. Analysis may be done in either small or groups.

3. Modified role-playing. This alternative approach to problem-solving separates problem definition from problem resolution, encouraging TAs to focus first on a clear description of a problem, and second on identifying specific workable solutions. It also emphasizes the importance of using each other as a source of valuable expertise. It does take a little more time than the other problem-solving exercises and is best used where the large group is not too large and can be easily divided into an even number of small groups (4-6 small groups are easy to manage). Then, in groups of 3-4, TAs address Part One of the exercise:

The facilitator may ask groups to address specific types of scenarios. For example, group 1 might think of a problem they had while TAing a large (greater than 60 students) class. Group 2 might think of a problem they had TAing a small (less than 20 students) class. Group 3 might imagine a problem with an individual student and so forth.

The facilitator then collects the written problem descriptions and distributes them again so that each group has another group's problem. (The facilitator may plan to have a short refreshment break after Part One, which gives the facilitator the opportunity to quickly review the described problems.) The small groups then address Part Two of the exercise:

In the large group, the facilitator asks each small group to share the problem description they were given, along with their proposed solutions.

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Last updated June 24, 1997
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