Teaching Assistant Handbook

Compiled by Prof. Gary E. Ford, September 1999
Revised by Prof. Richard R. Spencer, July, 2000

Laboratory Instruction

Another important function of the TA is assisting with laboratory instruction. In the laboratory, as in other teaching situations, you may be asked to prepare the assignment and set up the learning environment. You will certainly be responsible for staffing the laboratory and grading laboratory notebooks or reports. However teaching in the lab does have elements which differ from other teaching

Preparation

If you are asked to assist with the preparation of laboratory assignments, you should work closely with the instructor to develop materials that meet the objectives of the course and which are well coordinated with the lecture presentations.

If you didn't assist in the preparation of the laboratory assignments, you should familiarize yourself with these assignments. Discuss the assignment with the instructor and experienced TAs. With this preparation, you will be able to anticipate student questions and problems.

Study and be familiar with the relevance of the lab and the theory on which the experiment is based. A lab is only a practical performance of a theoretical premise. To truly understand a lab you must understand the theory behind it. This will also prepare you to respond more effectively to student questions. You also need to be familiar with other applications of this theory to "real world" problems, thus demonstrating that the experiment has a wider application.

Be in control of all materials necessary to complete the experiment. Know what instruments and equipment are be required, where to get them, how to operate them, and how to make adjustments (only in cases of minor malfunction). Know what other materials (breadboards, electronic components, etc.) are needed, where they are stored, and how they are to be handled. You can make these arrangements for electronics labs by working with the Laboratory Assistant, Jim Gage 2136 Kemper Hall. Above all, be aware of any dangers involved in the use of these materials and make sure the students understand how to use them and know about other relevant safety procedures as well.

If you are not familiar with a lab project, you should complete the project yourself in advance. Just because the manual states that an experiment can be performed in a certain way, there is no guarantee that it will work for you. It is therefore important to complete each project yourself before students encounter it in the lab. In this way you will be familiar with the procedure, the problems, and the short cuts involved. You can alert the students to potentially difficult areas and possible responses, and estimate the amount of material needed for the class. Pre-performance is the best way to avoid the unexpected and prepare yourself for the many problems that can occur in a laboratory.

Plan the best way to introduce the project. It is usually helpful to make a short statement about the lab before allowing the students to begin work. Decide beforehand what needs to be demonstrated and what can simply be explained. Is the manual enough or will you need an extra handout? If there are formulas the students will have to access, you might consider writing them on a handout or on the board. Should the students work in pairs or is there enough of everything to go around? Determine how much theory is needed before they can proceed and how best to communicate the material. Finally, are there short cuts that will enable the class to finish on time; are there pitfalls they may encounter? All of this must be decided before you enter the laboratory.

Visualize each class meeting and try to understand exactly what will transpire. Develop a plan for how to use the time and decide how to handle different situations that may arise. The instructor in charge will have given you explicit instructions. Use these directions and make notes to yourself so that you can run the meeting efficiently.

Conducting the Lab Session

In most classes having laboratory sessions, the TAs are fully responsible for conducting the sessions. Each TA will typically have responsibility for about 20 students in each 3-hour lab session.

As you should do throughout the term, arrive early and start promptly. By starting promptly, you let the students know that they must arrive on time to get the full benefit of the pre-laboratory discussion.

At the beginning of the first lab session, write pertinent information such as your name, the course name, number, and section on the whiteboard. Discuss the text materials that will be used in the course. Give your office hours and location. Take roll to learn names and to learn who is present. If students are to work in groups, form the groups as directed by the instructor. Assign groups to lab benches and record their locations.

Set and maintain the proper tone for the laboratory. The students should understand that you plan to be prepared for each laboratory and that, in the future, they should be prepared as well. The best way to do this is to be as organized as possible. This is where you will, in a real sense, set the ground rules even though you may not actually list them. Generally what you do this first day will affect how the entire quarter proceeds. For example, do not allow students to talk when you are speaking. Be businesslike when you speak so the students will know that you are serious about your role as a Teaching Assistant. You must have the respect of your students in order to be an effective teacher and this comes from being prepared, organized, confident, honest, enthusiastic, and willing to help.

Explain your role as a Teaching Assistant. Explain your goals and how you plan to attain them. Explain how you plan to lead the laboratory. Explain the importance of the pre-laboratory discussion and that students must arrive on time. Stress the importance of each student reading the assignment carefully before entering the laboratory.

At the beginning of subsequent lab sessions, you should address the students for a short time, outlining the work that they are expected to complete during the session, and answering any questions they may have. Announce relevant completion deadlines.

Assess the level of student preparation before beginning the lab. If a project has been planned based on a certain level of understanding on the part of the students, it is important to confirm that assumption before continuing. This is especially important if extra reading or research has been assigned. Such assessment can be accomplished by reviewing the preparation recorded in the laboratory notebooks, asking questions, offering a review of problem points, or calling for quick summaries from several students. The information you obtain about the students' level of preparation will dictate the continuation of the lab experience. If everyone is ready, go on as planned. If some are unprepared, make a note of those students because they will inevitably need extra help. If no one is prepared, consider how best to deal with the information that is missing and what your alternatives are as far as the lab is concerned.

During the lab session, circulate among the students in order to check their progress, answer questions and provide assistance. One of the best aspects of teaching in the lab is the level of contact you have with your students. Rather than a separation between teacher and student, the lab setting encourages involvement. Don't wait for questions or problems, be alert to what the students are doing so you can spot difficulties before they happen. Ask questions that can help lead them forward. Be mobile, moving around so as not to alienate students in the corners, but be careful not to hover or interfere with their work. The key is to be reasonable, friendly and accessible. You should be careful to guide the students in their work, rather than doing their work for them.

In a circuits laboratory, you should resist the temptation to operate instruments or modify the wiring on a breadboard. If students ask you to solve problems with a circuit, you should guide them in solving the problems themselves. Ask how they know that a circuit isn't working properly and what measurements they have made. Be VERY careful to observe their measurements, one of the most common errors students make is to improperly measure something and have the incorrect measurement result lead them astray. Be especially careful with the "auto setup" button on the digital oscilloscopes. It will frequently lock onto the wrong signal; have them check the horizontal and vertical scales and tell you if they are reasonable for the signal being examined. Suggest other measurements that they could make. Suggest isolating and testing subcircuits individually in order to identify problems. Give them time to work on the problem, returning to see that they have made progress. If they are still encountering problems, give them additional hints and suggestions.

In a computer laboratory, you should resist the temptation to take over at the keyboard and execute commands to solve a problem presented by the students. Ask the students to explain the problem they have encountered and suggest possible approaches to its solution. Rather than monitoring their progress in detail, continue to circulate around the laboratory and return later to see that they have made progress on their problem.

At the end of the lab session, remind the students of completion deadlines and the assignment for the next lab session. Be sure that students have carefully cleaned their work areas before they leave.

Evaluation

TAs are typically responsible for the grading of lab notebooks or reports. The TA should first discuss grading standards and expectations with the instructor. If a lab project has been used in a previous offering of the course, a grading guide or examples of graded notebooks may be available. From this information, prepare a grading guide for the assignment to be graded. In many cases, it is adequate to develop a general guide, in which points are allocated only for major topics that are expected to be covered in the notebook or report. If you are a TA for a course which has multiple TAs, special effort must be made to ensure that all TAs are grading as uniformly as possible. Clearly, one set of students should not be arbitrarily penalized because their TA has higher standards than another TA in another section of the same course. Two possibilities exist to normalize grading. First, all TAs for a given course can discuss grading strategy for each assignment or laboratory. As an alternative, the overall scores can be normalized at the end of the quarter. Discuss this issue with the instructor in charge of the course and develop a strategy.

Safety

The ECE laboratories provide safe environments which TA's have an educational and legal responsibility to maintain. The following are general policies and guidelines;

  • A TA is responsible for notifying the instructor/faculty supervisor or the department Vice Chair for Undergraduate Studies immediately of any unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Correct these conditions or activities where possible. If you are unable to locate either of these people, contact Carlene Blaylock, in the ECE Main Office (752-0583).
  • If a personal injury occurs, the injured person must be taken to the Student Health Center (by ambulance if necessary). Paperwork must be completed within 24 hours (available in the ECE Office).
  • No student is to be in the teaching labs at any time except under the supervision of department staff (TAs are department staff).
  • No casual traffic through the teaching labs is permitted.
  • No equipment is to be moved from the teaching labs, or moved from one bench to another.
  • No equipment is to be opened or calibrated by anyone except Electronics General Services staff.
  • Test cables, patch cords, or adapters are not be be cut or modified.
  • Bare feet are not permitted in any laboratory.
  • Bicycles are not permitted in any laboratory.
  • No food or beverages are allowed in any laboratory.
  • Separate policies and guidelines apply and should be consulted for the IC Fabrication Facility, supporting EEC146A and EEC146B.

Security

TAs are responsible for security and proper treatment and use of the equipment and instruments in the laboratories.

  • Do not allow students to move instruments from one bench to another in the laboratories.
  • Ask students to report instrument malfunctions to you. Verify that there is a problem, as many of the reported problems are simply operator error. Report confirmed problems to Jim Gage in 2136 Kemper Hall who will often be able to replace the instrument before the end of the lab period.

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