Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Promoting effective instructor-TA interactions

Contributed by: Rachel Welch

This week, the Graduate Teaching Community was joined by Dr. Claudia Sánchez Gutiérrez from the Spanish and Portuguese Department who led a discussion on instructor-TA interactions. She shared her insight from the perspective of an assistant professor and her experiences with TAs during her time at UC Davis.

Claudia emphasized that if graduate students want to bring up issues about a professor’s teaching with that professor then they should come prepared with data. She said it is much more effective to bring comments from students or an evaluation of an activity rather than just ranting about how a teaching strategy isn’t working. The best option is to propose a solution to the problem you have seen, be it an additional element for the present quarter or a different strategy for the next quarter. One of the techniques used in Claudia’s department to improve undergraduates’ experience is to give out student evaluations each week and discuss them during the following class period. In this way, small adjustments can be made in the first few weeks that improve students’ comfort level and ability to learn in the classroom.

Another major point the group discussed was about the timing of these discussions. Instructor-TA interactions can become strained as professors and graduate students alike grow stressed near the end of the quarter, and discussions at this point are often unproductive. Ideally, the instructor and the TAs should sit down for a conversation when the quarter begins. The instructor should be prepared to set guidelines and expectations for what will be accomplished in the course, and the TA should be prepared to nail down hourly commitments and schedule conflicts early. This sets the stage for the next 10 weeks (which will fly by) and allows each party to begin the quarter knowing their voice has been heard.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Encouraging Participation in Large Classes

Contributed by: Mina Azimi

Many issues can arise as class size increases. A large classroom is not conducive for instructor-student interactions and this lack of personal attention causes students to feel anonymous and isolated. This, in turn, has been shown to cause a drop in motivation, less involvement, poorer attendance, and an increase in distracting behaviors, such as talking, texting, using social media, etc. Even if attendance can be accounted for in some way, students are still likely to adopt a passive role during class since they feel invisible given being surrounded by a crowd of people. They may have shown up physically, but that doesn’t mean they are present mentally.

From the instructor’s perspective, a big issue is having to teach to a large, diverse group in which one style of teaching may not work for everyone. There’s an idea of there being different teaching styles for different people, and unfortunately, large classrooms don’t allow for tailored-teaching styles that can occur in smaller class settings. Also, most professors have a lot of material that needs to be covered in the allotted class time, which makes it difficult to make time for student input.

Nonetheless, there are ways to circumvent such issues. The instructor can take initiative to promote participation. One way is to dedicate 5 minutes of every lecture to allow for small group activities, think-pair-share sessions, or even class-wide discussions. Another is to motivate students with incentives, such as bonus points for their participation in class discussions. And finally, since we are in the age of technology, incorporating virtual aids can help encourage students to partake in the class. Things like clicker questions throughout lecture and having discussion forums available will promote more student involvement, and thus, greater their motivation for learning.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dealing with Gender Biases as an Instructor 

Contributed by: Michelle Cohn (UCD, Department of Linguistics) 

How can we talk about and address gender biases that affect us, as instructors, but also our students? Using a Gender Inclusive Schools Framework by Gender Spectrum (2017), we discussed two approaches to improving gender inclusivity as graduate student instructors. The first is an internal entry point, which “focus[es] on educators’ own knowledge and experiences of gender” (Gender Spectrum, 2017). This is a reflective step in which we update our definitions and knowledge of gender. The second consists of interpersonal entry points, or “interactions, intentional [or unintentional] behaviors & communications that reinforce the school’s commitment to gender inclusion for all” (Gender Spectrum, 2017). That is, we consider how we interact with others in either reinforcing and/or challenging gender biases at the college level.

Internal entry point: Defining gender
According to Gender Spectrum (2017) and Harbin (2015):

While our gender may begin with the assignment of our sex, it doesn’t end there. A person’s gender is the complex interrelationship between three dimensions:

Body: our body, our experience of our own body, how society genders bodies, and how others interact with us based on our body. 

Identity: our deeply held, internal sense of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither; who we internally know ourselves to be.

Expression: a term that refers to individuals’ external display of their gender either through clothing, demeanor, social behavior and other factors. Also referred to as gender presentation.

We used the following “Gender Unicorn” infographic (Trans Student Educational Resources, 2018) to demonstrate that gender identity, gender expression, assigned sex, physical attraction, and emotional attraction are dissociable.

Internal entry point: Defining bias. We defined gender bias as “a preference or prejudice toward one gender [identity or expression] over [an]other. Bias can be conscious or unconscious, and may manifest in many ways, both subtle and obvious” (adapted from Diversity: A World of Change).

Interpersonal entry point: How does gender bias affect students? We watched the illuminating ten-minute documentary “'Ask Me': What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know”, published on the Chronicle for Higher Education. After, we discussed what gender inclusive practices we could incorporate in our own teaching.

Gender inclusive pedagogical practices: For example, we were interested in how using a student’s legal name could leave them feeling “outed” on the first day of class. For those of us who like to use students’ introductions as a way to help remember their names, we came up with one possibility: on the first day of class, have a sign-in sheet that allows students to note if they want to go by a different name and give all students the space to indicate their pronouns. Instructors can use that sheet on Day 2 to practice names. To further support students’ pronouns and help create a safe space, instructors/TAs can include their pronouns in an email signature, on the first day of class, and/or in the syllabus.

Interpersonal entry point: How does gender bias affect instructors? Gender biases affect instructors, as well. We discussed an empirical study that examined the effect of perceived instructor gender on student evaluations (MacNell, Driscoll, & Hunt, 2014) for an entirely online course. Interaction between the students and the two instructor assistants (equivalent to a TA) – one male identifying and one female identifying – was limited to grading and online feedback on students’ posts on a discussion forum. Each instructor taught two sections: (1) with their original name, and (2) with the other TA’s name. The goal was to disentangle gender biases from variation in teaching effectiveness. Overall, MacNell, Driscoll, & Hunt observed significantly higher evaluation scores for the perceived male instructors than perceived female instructors. On the other hand, there was no statistical difference in evaluation score based on actual gender, demonstrating that the differences observed for perceived gender were not based on teaching effectiveness.

Furthermore, we looked at the frequency distribution of gendered comments on “Rate my Professor”, compiled by Schmidt (2015). Of interest were adjectives such as “sweet”, “caring”, “teacher” vs. “professor”, “cool” for female/male instructors.

Chronicle of Higher Education (2015, September 03). 'Ask Me': What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know. Retrieved from LGBTQ- Students/232797

Diversity: A World of Change. (n.d.). What is Gender Bias. Retrieved from

Gender Spectrum (2017). Dimensions of Gender. Retrieved from

Gender Spectrum. (2017). Gender Inclusive Schools Framework. Retrieved from chools%20Framework.pdf?dl=0

Harbin, B. (2016). Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary in the University Classroom. Retrieved from the-gender-binary-in-the-university-classroom/#cred

MacNell, L., Driscoll, A., & Hunt, A. N. (2014). What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 40(4), 291-303. doi:10.1007/s10755-014-9313-4

Price, J. (2010). The effect of instructor race and gender on student persistence in STEM fields. Economics of Education Review, 29(6), 901-910. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2010.07.009

Schmidt, B. (2015). Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews. Retrieved from

Trans Student Educational Resources. (2018). Gender Pronouns. Retrieved from

Trans Student Educational Resources. (2018). The Gender Unicorn. Retrieved from

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Helping students overcome academic challenges

Contributed by: Gabe LaHue

This week our Graduate Teaching Community members had the chance to speak with Sara Hawkes, Inez Anders, and Kevin Sitz of the Student Academic Success Center (SASC) and ask questions about how best to help students overcome academic challenges. Sara, Inez, and Kevin are the Assistant Directors for Academic Assistance and Tutoring in charge of math and science, tutoring, and writing, respectively. The Student Academic Success Center serves over 9,000 individual students each year, or about 35% of the undergraduate student body, which highlights one of their main points: the center is a resource for all students regardless of how they are performing academically.

Kevin started us off by talking about writing assistance, which includes one-on-one appointments with writing specialists or tutors, as well as a writing studio for drop-in consultations with tutors. There is an approximately equal split in the clients of the writing assistance program between domestic and international students. The types of advice the specialists and tutors provide ranges from reviewing grammar to helping students break apart essay prompts prior to starting the essay. Building on this last point, Kevin suggested that teaching assistants (TAs) encourage students to schedule consultations early in the quarter (rather than the day an assignment is due), that they bring a hard copy of the assignment, and that they bring any additional resources such as reference books, TA feedback, etc. The point about coming early in the quarter (and often) is particularly important, as there is research to show that the writing assistance program improves students’ GPAs with each additional consultation, but only after several initial consultations.

The math and science assistance program that Sara Hawkes leads has a similarly impressive track-record. The program offers drop-in tutoring, either with undergraduate student tutors or math specialists, in addition to drop-in content reviews, workshops, online tutoring, and online resources. Inez spearheads the coordination of all the undergraduate tutors, who are union employees and receive rigorous training prior to working with SASC. She is also coordinating a pilot program for online tutoring, which is just in its first year. Tutors generally focus on large enrollment undergraduate classes, but they can help students in other classes think through a problem-solving approach, especially if the students bring in enough resources from the class. All three of the speakers stressed that tutors are trained so that they don’t give students the correct answers, rather they help them think through the process that leads them to the answer; students should be informed ahead of time about what to expect from the tutors and this way they are less likely to be frustrated with tutors who won’t confirm whether an answer is correct or not. Like for the writing assistance program, students should bring in all the materials and resources they can, including their notes, their textbook, past assignments and assessments, etc.

The most important thing we can do as TAs is be aware of the resources that SASC offers ourselves and make all our students aware of them at the beginning of the quarter, rather than just referring particular students later in the quarter (although recommending it to individual students again can also be beneficial). Sara even showed us a handout that she helped an instructor create, which lists supplementary resources available to the students for that class, including all the resources at the Student Academic Success Center. University courses can be extremely challenging for our students, and neither ourselves as TAs nor our students should have to overcome these academic challenges alone – the Student Academic Success Center is there to help.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Optimizing review sessions

Contributed by: Marc Pollack

What makes a great review session? As TAs, we are meant to go over days of material in a much shorter period of time, convey that information to a diverse audience, and generally provide preparation for exams. However, we don’t want students to just walk out of a review session with the tools to get an A and then toss the information aside. We want what they learn to last. Balancing the need for exam preparation with the goal of deep learning is no easy task, and there are many views on how to do it. TAs have to balance the need to cover every topic in the class with student concerns and interests, managing both the breadth of those topics and the depth of more difficult issues. We have to meet the expectations of both students and the professor, becoming knowledgeable in all the topics of the class.

So, what do we do to make this process work? A good review session is one well-prepared for, with notes and extensive conversations directing much of what goes into it. Preparing to adapt to student demands is also important, and to student needs. Emailed questions can provide a strong basis for a successful review session. Provide meaningful opportunities for students to process the information by pushing them to interact and think in the review session – use active learning to stimulate thinking. TAs should also learn from their experiences, receiving feedback on how well students are learning from them during and after the session. There are also opportunities to improve review sessions by altering the way we think about them, using strategies to push students to write out exam questions, then critique and collectively answer them. We have opportunities to innovate with our review of the material, and strategies like this can help engage students without just teaching to the test.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Utilizing Reflective Teaching Practices

Contributed by: Marisella Rodriguez, PhD Candidate, Political Science

The first session of the 2018 winter quarter focused on promoting and utilizing reflective teaching practices. The objectives of this session were to better understand the definition and qualities of contemplative pedagogy and discuss how we can apply these practices in our own teaching. Contemplative pedagogy “uses forms of introspection and reflection that allow students to focus internally and find more of themselves in their courses” (Barbezat and Bush 1995, 9). There are a wide range of contemplative practices that can be used in and out of the classroom to the benefit of both teachers and learners, including yoga, deep breathing, journaling, purposeful listening, and reflecting thinking (see “The Tree of Contemplative Practices” below). Contemplative practices are deeply rooted in the long-practiced traditions of religions and cultures, such as Buddhism and Indigenous cultures. The ancient traditions of contemplation and reflection have been shown to significantly improve attentive capacities, immune systems, empathy, and self-compassion, all leading to increased learning capacities (Chugh & Bazerman 2007; Pace et al. 2009; Lutz, Dunne & Davidson 2007; Birnie, Speca & Carlson 2010).

In our session, we practiced contemplative pedagogy by reflecting on our time and experience as graduate student instructors at UC Davis. The objectives of this activity were to take time for quiet, individual self-reflection on our experiences in and out of the classroom and to examine how our capacity to instruct undergraduate students can be improved. We spent time free writing on the following questions:

What has enhanced your ability to instruct undergraduate students effectively?

What has hindered your ability to instruct undergraduate students effectively?

To make our reflections a productive process, we discussed the importance of developing measurable and realistic strategies to improve our future teaching experiences at UC Davis. We organized ourselves into small groups of 2 or 3 and responded to the following question:

What suggestions do you have for UC Davis as an institution to improve your ability to enhance undergraduate student learning?

As a group, we collected and discussed a wide range of recommendations for how our respective departments and/or UC Davis can facilitate the development of our teaching skills as graduate student instructors. Our recommendations include department-specific courses on instruction and teaching pedagogy, opportunities for team teaching and/or teaching mentorship, establishing consistent expectations for Teaching Assistants across courses and departments, and abolishing grading as a primary responsibility for Teaching Assistants to permit practice with alternative instructional skills.

Barbezet, Daniel P. and Bush, Mirabai.1995. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education.

Birnie, K., M. Speca, and L.E. Carlson. 2010. “Exploring self-compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).” Stress and Health, 26(5): 359-371.

Chug, D. and Bazerman, M. 2007. “Bounded Awareness: What you fail to see can hurt you.” Mind and Society, 6: 1-18.

Lutz, A. ,D. Dunne, and R.J. Davidson. 2007. “Meditation and the neuroscience of consciousness: an introduction.” In P.D. Zalazo, M. Moscovitch, and E. Thompson (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pace, T.W.W., L.T. Negi, D.D. Adame, S.P. Cole, T.I. Silvilli, T.D. Brown, M.J. Issa, and C.L.

Raison. 2009. “Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress.” Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(1): 87-98.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Welcome to the Winter 2018 Graduate Teaching Community!

This quarter we will focus on the theme of "Evidence-based strategies for teaching and learning". Meetings will be in Surge III, Room 1310B from 12:10 - 1 pm on Wednesdays. Specific topics for each meeting date are listed below.

January 24th:
Utilizing reflective teaching practices
January 31st: Optimizing review sessions
February 7th: Teaching effective hybrid and online courses
February 14th: Helping students overcome academic challenges
February 21st: Dealing with gender biases as an instructor
February 28th: Encouraging participation in large classes
March 7th: Promoting effective instructor-TA interactions