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Center for Teaching and Learning

Conducting observations for TAs

Graduate School Memorandum #14 requires that all new TAs be observed in each of their first two quarters of teaching. The memo states that the “purpose of this observation is to confirm that TAs are teaching content competently, to provide guidance regarding content, presentation, and student involvement, and to assess TAs’ needs for further training or assistance.”

Although being a TA is challenging for almost all new graduate students, international and multilingual TAs may face additional challenges due to language, cultural, and pedagogical differences. The following dimensions of teaching can be particularly challenging for TAs who are teaching in a new context:Grad student reading at TA/RA Conference

  • Communication
  • Interaction
  • Organization
  • Expectations
  • Classroom management

Note that students may identify language as the primary issue with their TA, when, in fact, an observer might find that the underlying issue is one of the other aspects of teaching.

What are the benefits of observing TAs?

  • Reassuring the TA that departmental expectations are being met or providing the opportunity to discuss those expectations which are not being met
  • Letting students know that the department is committed to and concerned about the teaching effectiveness of TAs
  • Providing the TA with feedback on specific areas of teaching
  • Discussing specific strategies for improvement
  • Engaging in context-specific discussions about teaching in the discipline
  • Providing international TAs with the opportunity to learn more about the culture of teaching and learning at UW

A framework for observations

With thoughtful planning and follow-up, observations are an effective way to assist TAs in developing their skills as instructors. Observations of TAs are a chance for supervising faculty or staff to help TAs identify what’s working well and what’s not, and then, with TAs, set goals for improvement and offer specific strategies to reach those goals.

The following four steps are important aspects of the observation process:

1. Pre-observation meeting

It’s very important that the TA and observer meet before the observation. In this meeting, the discussion focuses on the TA’s perceptions of how the class has been going so far, the TA’s goals for the particular class session that will be observed, and any logistics to consider about the observation.  Most importantly, this is a chance for you, as the observer, to ask what the TA would like feedback on.

Questions to ask the TA at this meeting:

  • How has the class been going?  What do you think has been working well?  What concerns do you have?
  • What are your goals for class on the day of the observation?  What will be happening in class that day?
  • Which aspects of the class would you particularly like feedback on?  What do you want me to look for in the observation?
  • When does the class meet and where?  Where is a good place to sit?  Will you introduce me and how?
  • When will we meet afterwards?

2. Observation

During the class session you will want to record:

  • Observations (what the TA and students are saying and doing)
  • Impressions of — and/or questions about — what’s happening  

University classroom with students raising their hands(Typically the observer does not participate in the class unless asked to do so.) You may want to use this Class Observation Notes Template to guide your note-taking during the observation.

While observing, keep in mind the TAs’ concerns and questions. In addition, you might want to use the following questions to help guide your observation:

Communication

  • Is the TA speaking at a pace that the students can understand?
  • Is the TA’s voice loud enough? Do they emphasize important words?
  • Does the TA make frequent eye contact with the students (and not look at the board/notes too much)?
  • Is the TA using the board, etc. to help support their explanations?  Is the boardwork clearly organized?  Does it enhance the TA’s explanations? Is the TA using key words and appropriate abbreviations (rather than writing out full sentences)?
  • Is the TA pronouncing key words in a way that the students can understand? Are key words written on the board/overhead?

Interaction

  • Does the TA know and use students’ names?
  • Does the TA check in with students in a meaningful way to see if they’re following (and not just ask “Any questions?” and move on if no response)?
  • What does the TA do to encourage questions (verbal and non-verbal cues)? Does the TA provide positive feedback for questions/responses?
  • How does the TA respond to student questions? Do they repeat or rephrase the question (to check their own understanding of the question and to make sure everyone knows what the question is)?  What strategies does the TA use if the TA does not understand the student’s question? Does the TA check back with the student to see if the student is satisfied with the response?
  • What kinds of questions does the TA ask? Are the questions effective? Does the TA repeat and provide positive feedback for student responses to questions?

Organization

  • How does the TA communicate the plan for the class session? Does the TA write an agenda or outline on the board?
  • Does the TA use “signposts” (framing comments that signal transitions/structure)? For example, “The first reason is …”, “So, to summarize…”, etc. or “Now that we’ve finished X, we can move on to Y.”
  • Does the TA use class time efficiently?
  • How does the TA communicate links between the quiz/lab section activities and other aspects of the course (lecture, homework, tests, etc.)?  For example, “I’ve chosen these problems for us to go over together because they’re similar to the types of problems you’ll see on the midterm.”

Expectations

  • Does the structure of the class session match what students might typically expect in such a setting?
  • Does the TA have realistic expectations of what the students’ background knowledge might be, or are is the TA assuming the students know more than they do?
  • Does the TA clearly communicate to students what is expected of them (e.g., in small group activities)?

Classroom management

  • Is the TA getting everyone involved in the class session?
  • Can the TA take a student’s individual question and make it relevant to the whole class (and avoid getting involved in a dialogue with the one student)?
  • Does the TA take action to stop students from talking in class – or from other behaviors that might detract from the learning environment?
  • How does the TA facilitate group or pair work?  Does the TA go around and ask/answer questions?
  • How does the TA hand back tests/assignments? Does the TA provide feedback to the whole class on assignments and/or provide students with basic statistics (range, mean, etc.) for tests?

Download a PDF of these questions

3. Post-observation meeting

After the observation, both you and the TA will benefit from having some time to reflect on the class session (i.e. don’t debrief right away). Ideally you and the TA will meet within a day or two of the observation.

Below are strategies that can help make the post-observation meeting productive.

Before the meeting

The TA can use the time before the post-observation meeting as a chance to reflect (and maybe jot down) responses to the following questions:

  • Was it a typical class session?  Why?  Why not?
  • What went well?
  • What would I want to change if I were to teach this class again?

As the observer, you can use the time as an opportunity to review your observation notes — and begin prioritizing which observations (both strengths and possible areas for change) you might want to discuss with the TA.  In your planning, try to limit your observations to the two (or three) most important points you would like to provide feedback on.

In the meeting

Begin by asking the TA to reflect on the three questions above. Then bring in your observations by raising questions from your notes. For example, you might raise an observation point in the following way:

“I noticed that, when you asked the students if they had any questions, there was usually silence.  But when you asked the students what the next step in the problem was, many students responded. What do you think accounts for the differing levels of response?”

When an area for change is identified, it’s important that the discussion turn to specific strategies — and it’s most helpful to the TA if the focus is on easy-to-implement strategies that would make a big difference in the students’ learning experience.

Below are teaching strategies that UW students say are particularly helpful and are relatively easy for TAs to incorporate into their teaching:

  • Provide students with handouts
  • Repeat students’ questions and responses
  • Write the agenda for the class session on the board
  • Write key terms on the board
  • Ask students to work in small groups on a task and walk around to answer any questions the groups might have
  • Use clear transitions and emphasize/repeat important points
  • Track the discussion on the board or overhead
  • Send a weekly discussion board or email to the whole class that clarifies, explains, and/or supplements class material

Key points to keep in mind during the post-observation meeting:

  • Build on the TA’s reflections of how the class went.
  • Raise questions rather than evaluate.
  • Keep the conversation specific.
  • Limit the discussion to a few key points.
  • Brainstorm possible strategies for change. Bring in strategies you’ve seen work in other classes.
  • Focus on concrete strategies that are easier to implement.

4. Follow-up

After the post-observation meeting with the TA, you will want to follow up in some way on the observation and discussion.

Possibilities for follow-up include:

  • Email a week or two later to check in with the TA to see what the TA has changed as a result of the observation — and whether the TA thinks the change is making a difference
  • Ask the TA to observe other TAs teaching the same or similar course and look for applicable strategies — then meet to discuss that observation
  • Meet again to discuss progress, to set new goals for change, and to identify strategies to meet those goals
  • Observe again later during the quarter
  • Ask the TA to meet with a CTL consultant

 

Additional resources

Classroom observation” University of Washington CTL Teaching and Learning Bulletin

Conducting productive classroom observations of GSIs.” Graduate Student Instructor Teaching Resource Center, UC-Berkeley