Monday, August 25, 2008

(Un)welcome visitor?

Note: Comment moderation/posting may be intermittent this week.

Those of us who teach at large universities typically teach the 'lecture' part of the course, and the laboratory part is taught by graduate student teaching assistants. The success of the class as a whole involves both parts, so the integration of lecture and lab and the interaction of the professor and TA are important elements of the course.

When I discuss teaching issues with colleagues at peer institutions, one of the questions I ask is: "Do you visit the lab sections for your course?"

I am not talking about the large introductory courses that may have tens of lab sections taught in remote buildings at all hours of the day and may contain students from various sections of the course. When I teach a large introductory level course, I like to know what is going on in the labs in terms of topic/activities each week, but there is no way I can visit the labs.

The courses for which the question about visiting is most relevant are those that typically have 1-2 lab sections that are held in a location not too distant from faculty offices. There may be 1-2 teaching assistants, in many cases the instructor's own graduate students. Most of my courses have more than one lab section (and in some cases more than one TA), so I don't really have time to visit the labs, but it would at least be humanly possible for me to visit the labs. But do I visit the labs?

I have found that there are pros and cons to visiting the labs for my courses.


If I spend enough time in the lab, I can get a better sense for how the students (individually and as a group) are doing in the class. Who is struggling? Who would like more of a challenge? What concepts are not getting through via in-class lectures and activities?

Students have additional opportunities to talk to me and ask questions, and there is time to answer questions at length.

I can refer to lab activities in a more informed way in class. It is better to be able to say in class "As you saw in lab on Tuesday.." rather than "As you may have seen in lab on Tuesday.." or (worse) "As you were supposed to have seen in lab on Tuesday..".

Students will have additional evidence that I care about the course and my students.


The TA may feel undermined. Am I visiting the lab because I don't trust the TA's teaching abilities or knowledge? Perhaps I am a control freak.

The students may feel nervous if I am looking over their shoulder and popping in at unexpected times. They might feel more comfortable around the TA, but may be anxious if I see them being perplexed by a lab activity. Will I think they are stupid?

I don't have time to visit the labs.

Ideally, the pros will surpass the cons, I will have infinite time to stroll into the lab sections, I will have a comfortable working relationship with the teaching assistants, and the students will all be happy and motivated seekers of knowledge. If only.

I used to visit the labs for my courses, but I found that the cons of doing this were outweighing the pros. Some teaching assistants definitely felt undermined, and thought I was checking up on them or not trusting them to explain things correctly. Also, some students were reluctant to admit they were confused when I asked if anyone had questions. Perhaps they were only temporarily confused, and the moment I chose to visit the lab was just at that time. This caused stress. So, my visits became less frequent, and in some (most?) terms, I don't visit the labs at all. This fact shocks some of my friends who teach at small colleges and who teach both lecture and lab (or make no distinction between these two elements of their courses).

I am, however, very involved in construction of the lab activities, and I try to integrate class and lab each week so that lab is not a random disconnected activity that the students go off and do in another room in the building.

This works OK, and this is also what most of my colleagues do. Most of us don't visit the labs, primarily owing to lack of time. Those who do visit labs do so because (1) there is one lab section that immediately follows or precedes the lecture part of the class, in some cases in the same room, making it easier to be involved in the lab; or (2) the TA really is inadequate. I have never been in situation #1, and, in my experience, situation #2 is extremely rare.


Short Geologist said...

When I've been a TA, my situation is the one you're describing - 1 or 2 lab sections. It all depends on how well-organized your course is and how your department is run.

As a TA, I was in charge of lab sections for a course I hadn't taken (although I knew the general concepts). We would get the lab as late as 10pm the night before a 8:30am lab and often found that the lectures were lagging behind the labs, so we were literally teaching everything on the fly. We also had no training in how to teach/be a TA. So we needed all the help we could get!

As long as you communicate with your TAs and explain that you're just popping in to answer any questions that may come up, I don't see why anybody would feel undermined.

chall said...

As aformer TA who taught labs while my supervisor gave lectures I would say that we had the best thing going (both for us and the students) when he popped by every once in awhile. Just peeking in and taking one round through the lab and saying hi to all the students doing their experiments.

He always asked us, the TA, before - or rather said "I'll come by later on today and just check on the students, is that ok?!". It wasn't as much as a question as a heads up and then we could say "we've got a long run through prior lab today so give us 20 mins".

And if the TAs are scared/intimidate/intepret is as you don't trust them - well, that's a little unfair on you wouldn't you say? At least if you're not in there everyday and asking students' what they think about the TA etc...

Anonymous said...

I'm speaking from the perspective of a TA. My first semester of TAing was with a prof who was great to TA for; he had a good idea of what he wanted us to teach and was concerned that our sections were standardized, he welcomed our input, and he was concerned about our development as teachers. We teach lab sections, and there are 4 of us TAs, teaching multiple sections (so, it isn't much of a burden to come to part/all of one section taught by each TA).

This prof decided that he would come to one of our sections, just to sit in the back of the room and observe (and therefore to be able to give the TA constructive feedback). He came in, sat in the back, and didn't say anything (I told the students what was up, to try and put them at ease). Then, I spent a few minutes talking to the prof after and he gave me very helpful feedback. As a new TA, that was invaluable (certainly, that taught me so much more about teaching than hours of took the prof about 1 hour per TA).

As far as undermining the TAs authority (or at least having them feel that way)...I think that might come from the prof playing an active role when he/she visits. As appreciative as I am about my prof's visit, I would have felt the same way if he had spoken to students/asked them questions/if they had questions...that's my job! So, FSP I would suggest that you continue to visit your sections (especially for new seem like the type who would be able to give constructive suggestions to them). But, do it as an observer...stay in the back of the room and let your TA teach (and let them know when/why you're doing this).

Anonymous said...

As a student - I often wondered why it wasn't the other way around. Is there any discussion in the literature (Chronicle?) about having the professor run the lab sections and have the TA lecture? This would obviously assume a) a rather high quality TA is available, and b) it's a higher level course with only 1 or 2 lab sections.

The reason that this seems potentially useful is that I often encountered situations where the experiment at hand sparked a wonderful question in my mind. I then proceeded to ask the TA, who may have known the specific material covered in the course - but didn't know the subject matter well enough to answer the questions just outside that box.

While one could always ask the question of the prof latter (email, office hours, in the next class if allowed, etc) - the momentum was clearly lost. If a true subject expert (i.e. prof, or much more experianced ta/grad student) was available to cover the lab, those moments of discovery could be explored in much more detail. Further, if appropriate, the lab equipment could then be used to test the student's question and make it a could teaching moment for that student and all the others in the class.

For me - the lecture was just that, a lecture - and could have typically been given by a TA with a script (or a tape recorder, i.e. Real Genious).

As aside - are there any professors using video to allow the students to watch a pre-recordered lecture on their own schedule ... and then using the professor's class time for either lab and/or recitation time?

Isis the Scientist said...

I think in this sitution the cons almost certainly outweigh the pros. I like the idea of taking responsibility for the quality of the lab course, but at the same time TAs need to feel as though you have given them enough rope to either swing freely or hang themselves. I think if you have a good working relationship with the TAs, they can be effective enough moles and report back on the students' understaning of the concepts.

And my general experience has been that, if a student thinks their TA is a total loser, at least one of them will let you know.

cookingwithsolvents said...

I feel that the undermining and "scare" factors for TA's and students, respectively, should be minimized in situations where the students are more experienced, i.e. upper-level grad students with upper level undergrads. Of course, those are the situations in which things are likely to be going the smoothest, so. . .. hmm.

I only remember the professor stopping by one or two times TOTAL during my exemplary undergraduate science experience. I don't feel like I missed some vital piece of professor/student interaction and thus hadn't even considered "stopping by" in my independent career. Maybe I'll give it a go, providing I get a position!

Lorie said...

I wonder if you can just have a brief chat with your TAs about your reasons for visiting the labs, and perhaps give them some advance warning by email, so they feel less threatened and surprised?

Also, it might be worthwhile to talk about it in class: Ask students if they feel weird having you drop in, and explain that you feel as the prof, you need to drop by sometimes to see how things are going. It might help to relax some students who would otherwise become anxious when you observe them in the lab setting.

Anonymous said...

At least you are able to make sure the lesson plans for the class and the lab are in sync. I was the TA for a lab in graduate school that was taught seperatley from the class (they were considered two different courses, taught by 2 different professors, and did not have to be taken the same semester). It made it very difficult since some students had already had the class, and some were taking it at the same time, and the concepts were not introduced in the same order.

Ms.PhD said...

Yes, but. Why are they called Teaching Assistants when they're actually doing everything on their own? Aren't they? Maybe you should write a little more about how you assign what they do and supervise their roles in educating these students, who are paying tuition for a professor but getting taught by PhD candidates (aka grad students).

Where I went to school, there were separate professors who taught lecture only or lab "only", although the lab courses also had a short lecture component. I think that helped somewhat with the time management issues.

Regardless, aside from the Large Theatre Lectures, we were mostly taught by grad students. Luckily for me, almost all of my TAs were really good, but I also made a point to switch sections immediately if I could tell that they weren't.

The Large Theatre Lectures weren't much more interactive than watching tv. Visiting the lab is more than a little bit like putting in an appearance to sign autographs.

Professor in Training said...

As a grad student, I was the Big Chief TA for several years for the labs in a very large course overseeing 6-8 TAs and organizing equipment, room bookings, grading assignments etc each semester. Our professor was so out of touch with what was going on that he would continually try to add extra items onto already-crammed labs and didn't understand when I would tell him that we were running overtime on each and every class and that we just didn't have enough time to provide feedback to the students ... until he offered to teach his own lab class for a semester and had to deal with the student's frantically trying to get the work completed within the alloted time! He let me rewrite the lab syllabus after that experience. The other good thing was that he finally saw firsthand how useless and lazy some of the TAs were and got rid of the really rotten ones.

Krysta said...

I discovered your blog months ago, and I wanted to mention that I find it incredibly refreshing and commend you for sharing your stories. I'm starting to learn with time and age that academia is a bastion for "maleness." As a female graduate student in education (perhaps a bastion for "femaleness"?), I continue to be shocked and dismayed (and a little broken-hearted) at the level in which female graduate students are silenced and are seldom chosen for faculty projects. Just this morning, I had to attend a meeting with other federally funded scholarship students (3 female, 1 male) to break down our weekly hours owed to the department. When additional funding was brought up, the head of the department blatantly engaged in a one-way conversation with the only male student. Informing him of two scholarships that he
ought to apply towards, explained the process, and offered advice. It became evident rather quickly that the rest of us were not part of this equation. I should also add that this program focuses on "social justice" yet appoints a "golden boy" annually.
At times, I believe that academia is a lost cause and deserves not only the students they receive (the one's who simply parade like acolytes), but also its ongoing lack of influence or authority in mainstream life.

ScienceWoman said...

I teach my own labs and so far I've had all new preps, so I'll add an additional pro: Being able to see how the lab goes for the students (where they get stuck, where the directions are unclear, which equipment is finicky, etc.) so that I can modify as necessary for the next go around. Maybe once my labs are "perfect" this won't be much of an issue any more, but so far my it's been a huge learning experience for me.

Of course, the big con is time.

Ben Lillie said...

It runs afoul of the "not enough time" problem, but my Dad's solution to this was to run one of the lab sections himself. It avoids the problem of making TAs and students uncomfortable. TAs since the boss is't intruding on their space, and students since it quickly becomes normal for the professor to be there.

mentaer said...

why not leading one regular lab class on your own and have others lead only by the TA's? - seems to me a good balance of catching problems and being available for questions.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity - if the problem is that you may undermine the TA dealing with the lab, why not ask them in advance what time would be convenient for you to visit the lab with out interrupting their teaching? It could still be a surprise for the students, but asking shows respect for the TA and allows you a chance to explain in advance -- you know "I always wonder how students deal with concept X, what's the best time for me to come to your lab to ask them about it?"

Of course I could be full of it, but this is how I'd be tempted to play it.

Doctor Pion said...

It would be a good education for them to be observed, because they will be observed if they go after a teaching job. All of our adjuncts are observed (usually by faculty, and often more than once when they first start with us) and all new faculty are observed every year.

Indeed, even tenured faculty are observed in the classroom at least once very few years.

Anonymous said...

At CCs I've looked at, the Lecturer gets paid more (by hour) than the Lecturer-Lab and I don't understand. Does anyone know why?