Rationale: This simple, engaging activity makes a good beginning to a workshop and encourages participants to reflect on the specific characteristics that make teaching assistants effective or ineffective. It is suitable for both experienced and new TAs (and any faculty who may be attending the workshop). The task also demonstrates two teaching techniques that are suitable for tutorials and seminars individual problem-solving and small group work.
Method: Participants are asked to think about the qualities of an effective TA, based on their own experience as a student, teaching assistant, or faculty member. Answers, in point form (short list of characteristics), are jotted down on a piece of paper. The facilitator should encourage everyone to write something down (provide paper and pencils if required) and discourage collaboration at this point. (Allow up to 5 minutes for this part.)
Participants form groups of three, share their lists, and decide on their top three characteristics. The facilitator should try to ensure that, as far as possible, the groups comprise people who do not know each other well. If faculty are present, it may be best to have them form a separate group in case they dominate discussion. This will also bring to light any differences between faculty and TA perceptions of "effectiveness". (Allow at least 5 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 qualities to be added to the list. (in practice this takes less time than might be expected, since many groups will have similar qualities on their lists; the whole process can take up to 20 minutes, depending on the number of participants.) If faculty are present they can be asked to report separately, and their responses compared to those of the teaching assistants.
The facilitator summarizes common themes, and draws attention to two teaching methods that can be used in seminars and tutorials. The first is having students work individually on a simple task and WRITING DOWN their responses (written responses seem to encourage concentration, and make it easier for students to contribute later). The second is having students WORK IN SMALL GROUPS to solve a problem or discuss an issue. A group size of three seems to work especially well, since it allows (forces?) all members to contribute.
Variations: The effective group-member. TAs who are responsible for leading seminars or small group tutorials could ask the learners in their group to complete this activity with a focus on "characteristics of the effective seminar participant". This would help clarify expectations, which is particularly important when learners will be assigned grades for participation.
Personal effectiveness rating. As an extension to the first task, individual TAs can rate their personal effectiveness on a scale of 1-5 (where 1 is "much improvement needed" and 5 is "terrific at this") for each of the characteristics suggested as important by the group. This encourages TAs to engage in critical self-evaluation, and to make realistic plans for improvement.
Critical incident. This is a slightly more sophisticated approach to consideration of effectiveness, which is based on analysis of past personal experiences. Participants are given the following directions: