Center for Teaching and Learning

Advice from experienced TAs

We asked experienced teaching assistants (TAs) from across the UW to answer some of the most frequent questions new TAs have about teaching. Below are their responses.

How do you encourage people to speak up in discussion sections?

Ellen Ahlness, UW Political Science

Ellen Ahlness, UW Political Science

“I like to start out discussions by having students work in small groups, because there are multiple benefits to breaking classrooms up. First, students feel more comfortable asking questions and expressing uncertainty in smaller spaces. When I ask what needs more clarification, students can ask their questions as a group. Second, studies show students in the “T-zone” (the front row and middle aisle) talk more. Shuffling group members and placement gives everyone a chance in and out of the “T-zone” while making sure they interact with their classmates. Soon, students are having discussions with their peers, not speaking to strangers.”

– Ellen Ahlness, Department of Political Science

Eldridge Alcantara, Electrical & Computer Engineering

Eldridge Alcantara,
UW Electrical & Computer Engineering

“To encourage my students to speak up in class, I try to offer other modes of participation besides raising one’s hand and being called on. I will either use a Google Doc or something from Poll Everywhere for people to submit anonymous questions or responses. I find that my students are far more active on these platforms. I also learned over time that if I give them some time to think about a question I am asking and then some additional time to talk it out with another peer, then my students feel more confident to speak up in class.”

– Eldridge Alcantara, Electrical & Computer Engineering

Guillaume Tourniaire, School of Drama

Guillaume Tourniaire,
UW School of Drama

“I use a variety of activities and active learning techniques. For instance, having everyone write down their takeaway from an assignment, then breaking into pairs to discuss, then opening it up to the entire class. By having an opportunity to think through and then rehearse their responses, students feel more confident and engaged to participate. I will also use a deck of cards: the objective is to get rid of all your cards by the end of class, by contributing in some substantive way to the discussion (classmates can weigh in if someone got rid of their card “too easily”!)”

– Guillaume Tourniaire, School of Drama

How have you developed confidence in public speaking?

“I’ve been a TA for over four years, and I still sometimes get anxious about stepping in front of a classroom! What I often tell my students is to capture that nervous energy and turn it into excitement. Rather than trying to talk yourself into feeling calm and collected, acknowledge and accept how you’re feeling, and then move forward. It’s a kind of “fake-it-’til-you-make-it” mentality, except you’ve already made it! So, remind yourself of how far you’ve come and that, in every public speaking engagement, you’re saying something worth listening to.”

– Anna Lee Swan, Department of Communication

Guillaume Tourniaire, School of Drama

Guillaume Tourniaire,
UW School of Drama

“I get to know my students’ names as soon as possible. Once they are no longer strangers, I find it much easier to engage with them. I also begin the quarter with games and activities, for them to better get to know each other and the expectations of the course, and to help combat nervousness. I also move around the space, whether in section or in the lecture hall. By not remaining in the fixed teaching position at the front of the room, but rather moving into their space, teaching becomes more of a conversation than a didactic explanation.”

– Guillaume Tourniaire, School of Drama

How do you balance your TA work time with your other responsibilities?

Guillaume Tourniaire's golden retriever, Shakespeare.

Shakespeare (Guillaume’s golden retriever)

“I try to balance my work time and other responsibilities by blocking out sections on my calendar and committing myself to only those activities then. This includes my coursework, conference papers, and my personal time. This way, all aspects of my life get some attention, and I avoid the all-to-easy atrophy that happens in graduate school. When I work, I follow the “pomodoro” model of 25 minutes of work on one task, followed by a 5-minute break. Doing so helps me keep track of time, be accountable to myself, and be more efficient.”

“It also helps that I have a wonderful work companion, our 100-pound Golden Retriever, Shakespeare, who makes sure I take breaks and walks throughout the day.”

– Guillaume Tourniaire, School of Drama

Advice from past TA Program speakers

Panelists Penny Poon, Julian Barr, Bingni Brunton, and Gino Aisenberg share their experiences, advice, and suggestions with new TAs at the 2017 TA conference.

Department of Chemistry graduate student Penny Poon discusses her experiences with first-day of class anxiety, defining boundaries, and the need to balance work, study, family, and friends.

Department of Geography graduate student Julian Barr shares his strategies for building rapport with students, realizing career goals, and connecting with people and resources at the UW.

Biology Professor Bingni Brunton talks about taking charge of your education, being professional, communicating expectations, and finding teaching support.

Graduate School Associate Dean Gino Aisenberg discusses ways to engage difference in the classroom, and how to foster a positive, vibrant, inclusive learning environment.