Esther Atkinson, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology

2014 TA Teaching Excellence Award recipient

Winning the award was a very humbling experience. Receiving this kind of recognition for my work as a TA is the best indication I’m having a positive impact on their learning. I will always be grateful to those students, and faculty, who went to the trouble of lending their support to my nomination.

If I look at things more broadly, my nomination and those of all the other nominees tells me something about undergraduates. They appreciate good instructors and they care a great deal about the experiences they’re having throughout their education. They are busy managing coursework and perhaps part-time jobs. Yet, they took the time to put forward names of TAs that they felt were a positive influence on them in the classroom.

The fact that there were many names put forward also tells me there is no shortage of knowledgeable and talented TAs at the University of Toronto. I feel lucky to be a part of this community.

I have two important pieces of advice for students.

Be patient. Sometimes course material will be a challenge and you will struggle with the process. Understanding a subject takes time and periods of reflection. You may experience setbacks, but that’s all part of how we come to know a topic.

Ask for support. When these setbacks occur, look for help. Do your best to seek out assistance from faculty and your TA. Find out what you need to do to improve.  Don’t hesitate to look outside your course for answers. There are a number of services at the university to help students succeed, from writing centres to library research consultations. Take the initiative and take control of you education. It’s the best way to get the most out of your university experience.

The best advice I can give to new TAs is to remember what it was like to be an undergraduate.  The students in our tutorials are in a very different stage of the learning process than where we are and we need to be mindful of that. We need to adjust our expectations accordingly so when providing feedback, make sure it’s constructive; there’s nothing more harmful than overly critical responses to mistakes made on assignments. Constructive comments help students to develop intellectually.

Do your best to get to know your students by name. Each year, I have my 90+ students fill out an index card with their name and area of study. I use this as a way to get to know each student as an individual and build a profile of the class. The effort I make to build a rapport with them creates a comfortable environment where they feel at ease when interacting with their peers and me.

Be flexible. Not every tutorial or group of students will respond the same way to your lesson plan. Be prepared to modify what you do based on their response.

Get as much training as possible. Certainly, there is no better way to learn than by doing, but since there are TA training courses, take them. This will give you an arsenal of techniques to apply to your class and give you the flexibility necessary to adapt to just about any situation.

Get the library involved. The subject specialists at the University of Toronto Libraries have the knowledge to assist your students in doing research. I have had the opportunity to integrate a library instruction session into my tutorials for the last three years and it has been positively received by students.