Effective Teaching

Good teaching is not easy, and like any other skill it can only be developed with practice. A good understanding of the subject matter is important, but teaching is more than just a process of transferring information from your notes to the students'.

As an experienced chemistry student you have been able to take a body of knowledge and organize it logically in your mind; you are now able to fluidly use concepts that you struggled with in the past. Using language and arguments that you now see as obvious may prove meaningless to students who have not developed these into their working knowledge. As a teacher you should consider how your instruction can help lead a novice chemistry student through the same untangling of chemical ideas that you went through.

Best teaching practices will be discussed in more depth during TA training. Some other key points that you can begin to think about now are discussed below.

Teacher-Student Interaction

As a teaching assistant you will work with students to help them understand material presented through lecture and/or laboratory work; you will be asked to help them work through the concepts problems, and data, but not to present any new information.

For this instruction to be beneficial you will need to interact with your students. Get to know your students, and let them get to know you. Students will respond to you if you are approachable, and make it clear from the beginning of the semester, in words and actions, that you are interested in their mastery of the subject. A dedicated and non-intimidating TA can mean much more to a student's success than an excellent lecturer, a well-written problem set or a textbook.

Here are few ideas to consider in beginning a successful relationship with your students:

  1. If you have high expectations for your students and believe in them, they will rise to your challenge.
  2. Be yourself. Your students will be at ease with your classroom atmosphere if you are.
  3. Humility goes a long way. Do not be afraid to make mistakes in front of your students (although too many mistakes due to a lack of preparation is not beneficial to your students).
  4. Let your students know about yourself. Why did you come to MIT? Why do you find chemistry interesting? Why did you decide to make chemistry your career?
  5. Come early to class, and do not run out immediately following. This will give you a chance to talk to your students informally and answer any questions students are not willing to ask in front of their peers.
  6. Know your students by name.
  7. Smile.
  8. Although not required, consider allowing students to e-mail you with questions (make sure it is clear how quick of a reply they should expect from you), and making appointments for students who can not make your office hours or need extra help.

Promoting Active Learning

I hear, I forget.
I see, I remember.
I do, I understand

-- (Chinese Proverb)

The more you can involve your students in recitation, the more successful they will be in mastering the subject. Keep your students active participants in your recitation, as they will have minimal possibility for doing so in lecture. Get your students up to the board. If that approach seems like too much for your students at first, you can also put a problem up on the board and have them solve it while you walk around the room and look at what they're doing.

Another method of successful teaching involves asking your students to solve problems during recitation in small groups of 3 or 4. This technique of collaborative learning will help students put concepts into their own words. If a student can successfully and accurately explain a concept to someone else, then the student fully understands the concept.

Your first meeting will be the most important meeting of the semester. If you encourage the students to talk and interact from the start, chances are they'll feel more comfortable participating in later sessions.

Teaching in the Laboratory

The Chemistry Department undergraduate program includes a sequence of laboratory subjects that is distinct from the lecture subjects. These laboratories are "integrated courses", each of which is a blend of analytical, biological, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry experiments. An undergraduate typically starts this sequence during his or her sophomore year. Students generally perform experiments in a rotating manner.

Laboratory TAs have the unique opportunity to develop a one-on-one relationship with their students, serving as mentor and instructor. In laboratory courses, where students are learning new skills which they have never used before, it is absolutely essential to be helpful and supportive. Students may be shy about asking for assistance or reassurance. It is essential that you go to the students rather than expecting them to approach you.

In the introductory lab courses, most of the students have had little or no experience in reducing theory to practice. This makes your help the most important factor contributing to their successful acquisition of those skills required of a good experimental chemist. Promote active thinking by asking questions that force the student to make the connection between what they observe and the chemistry behind the observation.