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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Student Motivation

Contributed by: Marc Pollack

When we consider the factors that affect a student’s motivation to participate and excel in a course, basic motivators are usually the first to come to mind. These usually focus on extrinsic methods like grading, as well as intrinsic factors like student interest, though the number of ways to engage students goes well beyond that. The value of both extrinsic and intrinsic factors seems intimately linked, particularly as they relate to building on a student’s stimulation and personal control within the classroom, both of which are necessary to draw in students that aren’t immediately interested with the material. Appealing to students with a given lesson can take a variety of forms, including showcasing novelty, utility, applicability, anticipation, and challenge. Motivating factors for engaging students both inside and outside the classroom generally require more effort on the part of the teaching staff, though the clarity and support provided by this effort makes a significant difference in student engagement. There will always be challenges to motivating students in the classroom, especially among students who care little about their grades, but a bit of extra effort to make teachers appear more approachable and challenge failure mentalities builds tremendously on a good lesson plan.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Supporting Multilingual and International Students

Contributed by: Stacy Wittstock, PhD Student, School of Education

UC Davis is a linguistically diverse campus, with much of its student population being bi or multilingual.
  • According to UC Davis Admissions, of the undergraduate students admitted in 2016-2017, about 41% spoke only English at home, 27% spoke English and another language, and 33% spoke only another language at home.
  • Additionally, in the 2016-2017 academic year, about 14% of the total enrollment at UC Davis were international students (Budget and Institutional Analysis, 2017), with the university accepting over 60% of its international applicants for 2017-2018 (UC Institutional Research and Academic Planning, 2017).
While supporting multilingual and international students has always been an important part of teaching at UC Davis, the University’s increase in recruitment abroad has increased the urgency for developing classroom teaching strategies and campus-wide support structures for multilingual students.

Quick Note on Terms
Largely due to differences in theoretical approaches and critical perspectives between the various fields that work with and/or study multilingual students, there are a lot of different terms used in the literature for these students.
  • ESL—English as a Second Language Student
  • EFL—English as a Foreign Language Student (when taught outside the US)
  • ELL—English Language Learner
  • Non-Native Speakers
  • Bilingual and/or multilingual
  • Emergent bilinguals/multilinguals

Who are Multilingual College Students?
Multilingual students come from a variety of backgrounds in terms of language, culture, immigration or visa status, and time spent in the US. These differences in background often translate to vast differences in their English language abilities.
  • International Students:
    • Most are bi or multilingual, with some having taken English classes throughout their schooling, while others attended international high schools where English was the primary language.
  • Refugee students (or those with similar backgrounds):
    • May have fled political violence, social upheaval, economic deprivation, or other similar situations.
    • May have limited or interrupted literacy development in both their home languages and English (Menken, 2013).
  • Generation 1.5:
    • Long-term permanent residents and the children of immigrants who arrived when they were young children.
    • These students primarily grew up learning English in the US school system (Menken, 2013).

Challenges Multilingual Students May Face
  • May be proficient in some modalities of English, but not others
  • May experience a high amount of cognitive load
  • May overestimate their level of preparation, both academically and linguistically
  • May have difficulties completing or understanding course readings
  • May feel uncomfortable participating in class discussions or activities
  • May submit writing with consistent grammar or syntax errors, or lack knowledge of US writing conventions
  • May experience cultural, racial, religious, and/or linguistic discrimination
  • May also be first-generation, transfer, low-income, underrepresented minority, academically underprepared, or other intersectional identities and experiences

Other Challenges Facing International Students Specifically
  • May experience culture shock, or have difficulties with cultural adjustment
  • May have difficulties understanding culture-specific references
  • May experience social isolation and/or a lack of meaningful relationships with their peers
  • May experience homesickness, depression, or other issues related to mental health

Broad Teaching Suggestions
These are strategies that work for all students, not just multilingual and/or international students. Also, check out CEE’s Just-in-Time-Teaching resources on Multilingual and International Students for more specific teaching strategies.
  • Take some time to understand your students’ backgrounds, and the knowledge, experiences, and skills they bring to your classroom
  • Provide regular opportunities for students to interact with their peers and with you
  • Provide frequent, timely feedback on writing and other work in class
  • Be strategic in your feedback, and focus on what relates most closely to your course objectives
  • Build in opportunities for student self-reflection and formative assessment
  • Provide numerous opportunities for students to ask questions
  • Intervene when you notice a student is struggling

Additional Resources and Services on Campus

Center for Teaching Excellence [CTE]. (n.d.). Strategies for Teaching International Students. Retrieved from students/

Freedman, L. (n.d.). Teaching multilingual students. Retrieved from

Gareis, E. (2012). Intercultural friendship: Effects of home and host region. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 5(4), 309-328.

Glass, C. R. (2012). Educational experiences associated with international students’ learning, development, and positive perceptions of campus climate. Journal of Studies in International Education, 16(3), 228-251.

Menken, K. (2013). Emergent bilingual students in secondary school: Along the academic language and literacy continuum. Language Teaching, 46(4), 438-476.

Shi, X. (2011). Negotiating Power and Access to Second Language Resources: A Study on Short-Term Chinese MBA Students in America. The Modern Language Journal, 95(4), 575-588.

Purdue Libraries. (n.d.). Global Learning Guide: Best Practices & Teaching Tips. Retrieved from

Sato, E. (2015). Six Insights for Teaching Multilingual Learners [Research]. Retrieved from

Sweller, J. (2017). Cognitive load theory and teaching English as a second language to adult learners. CONTACT Magazine: TESL Ontario, May 2017. 5-10. Retrieved from

UC Davis Budget & Institutional Analysis [BIA]. (2017). Data visualization. Retrieved from level-dashboard.html

UC Institutional Research and Academic Planning [UCIRAP]. (2017). UC student/workforce data. Retrieved from

Wu, H. P., Garza, E., & Guzman, N. (2015). International student’s challenge and adjustment to college. Education Research International, 2015, 1-9.

Yan, K. & Berliner, D. C. (2013). Chinese International Students' Personal and Sociocultural Stressors in the United States. Journal of College Student Development, 54(1), 62-84.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Transfer Students

Contributed by: Gabe LaHue

            In keeping with our theme of “Equitable Access to Education: Supporting Students from Diverse Backgrounds”, this week we chose to focus on transfer students, and students that transferred from community colleges in particular. UC Davis admitted 39,306 students in 2016, of which 9,587 were transfer students from California community colleges1. Transfer students from California community colleges therefore represented 92.8 percent of all transfer students and 24.4 percent of all new students. Given this sizeable presence (and the importance of teaching to benefit all types of students), it is essential that we understand the unique challenges that transfer students face and the strengths that set them apart.

In our discussion, we first focused on brainstorming why students might choose to attend community college in the first place. Our list included financial reasons, staying close to family, uncertainty about their career path, improving academic performance, the flexibility of class times (especially for students with careers), and the flexibility of enrollment. We also came up with some potential strengths of transfer students (previous college experience, greater time for maturation, a possibly greater sense of purpose and personal responsibility, and coursework at an institution that focuses on teaching) and some potential challenges (more working hours, a lack of familiarity with the campus and community, less support for academically-challenged students than they might be used to, credit-transfer problems, etc.).

After our initial brainstorms focusing on who transfer students are, we shifted to looking at how we can best serve transfer students by analyzing two research articles about community college transfer student persistence and degree attainment at 4-year institutions2,3. Although the studies differed in their rigor and some notable results (like the importance of gender, ethnicity, working hours, and participation in social clubs), there were several factors found to be important in both studies. The socioeconomic status of the students, their parents’ highest degree level, and the student’s degree goal were all deemed to be important. One of the studies found that whether a student’s high school curriculum was vocational or academic in nature affected degree attainment. The other study found that interaction with academic advisors was an important positive factor. Interestingly (and in line with current thinking at universities), remediation in math was found to be negatively correlated with persistence or degree attainment. At the end of the day, many of these factors are beyond our control as teaching assistants or instructors. However, I was struck by the importance of high ambition (as evidenced by the degree goal and to a lesser degree by the negative correlation with remediation). In addition to sound teaching techniques that benefit all students, we can encourage our students to set ambitious goals and help connect students to resources and organizations around the campus.

1.     Easley, J.A., 2016. “UC Davis admits more than 39,300.” UC Davis. Internet Resource. Available from:

2.     Wang, X. 2009. Baccalaureate attainment and college persistence of community college transfer students at four-year institutions. Research in Higher Education. 50:570-588.

3.     Lee, H., and Schneider, T. 2016. Does post-transfer involvement matter for persistence of community college transfer students? Community College Journal of Research and Practice. DOI: 10.1080/10668926.2016.1251351