Tips for New Graduate Teaching Assistants from Your Experienced Peers

head with light bulb IdeaEach fall, the Teaching Assistant Orientation is offered to new and returning teaching assistants to learn more about their role as a TA and the support services at Northern Illinois University. The Teaching Across the Disciplines panel of experienced teaching assistants is always one of the most popular sessions at the orientation. This year, we asked the panel members, who are experienced TAs, to share some best practices and practical tips of being a graduate teaching assistant.

Q: How do you balance your school work with your teaching assistantship?

Kelsey Williams, English, GTA for 8 semesters: “I know of two common approaches to this.The first is to handle your work as a student and your work as a teaching assistant separately. That could mean designating Friday as your day to get your own homework done, Saturday as your day to get your teaching duties taken care of, and Sunday as your day of rest because, hey, you’ve earned it. The benefit of this approach is that you can set your brain in “student mode” one day and “teacher mode” the next, rather than doing mental gymnastics by switching between the two. It can also allow you to cross whole items off your to-do list. This is my preferred strategy and it has served me well, even unto the third year of my Ph.D.

The second strategy is to do a little bit of student work, then switch to a little bit of TA work, then switch back to student work, and so on into infinity. The benefit of this approach is that you can slowly make progress on your to-do list without feeling overwhelmed or having to force yourself to focus on a single task for too long. You need to take care of yourself as a person as well. The best way to balance student work and TA work is to balance all of that equally with having a life outside of being a student and a TA.”

Q: How do you prepare for class?

Jeanine Clark Bremer, Literacy and Elementary Education, GTA for 6 semesters: “I’m old school – I bought into the notion to read the top five scholars on each topic you will cover, for every topic you will cover all semester long. In a perfect setting, where you know what you will be teaching well in advance, this works. In a minimally perfect situation, you have probably already read a lot of the scholars due to your graduate level work. Looking at this from the daily perspective of prepping for class, two things come to mind. First, read along with your students. You will be surprised at how many more mistakes you will catch that they are making during a discussion, if you have reread the material for the day it was assigned. Concurrently reading with them also helps you better ascertain who is reading ahead and who is falling behind. Second, it may sound silly, but take a few minutes and really try to think through possible questions you might receive on a day’s topic. You may not come up with everything, because their schema is different than your own, but mentally working through options will make you more agile when they throw questions at you that you were not expecting.”

Q: What is the one thing you learned about being a teaching assistant during your first semester that you didn’t know before?

Amanda Schlink, Family, Consumer, and Nutrition Sciences, GTA for 4 semesters: “The one thing that I learned about being a teaching assistant was how much the students can rely on you. In my first semester, I was the TA instructor for a food preparation lab, where the lab was a separate course from the lecture. Therefore, I was responsible for the instruction, including lecturing, preparation of ingredients, grading, exams and everything in between. Going into the first semester, I had never had a course like this during my undergrad and didn’t know that a TA could essentially teach a separate lab, where the grade is completely independent from the lecture course. However, I found that I gained respect from my students early on by acting as the authority figure in the lab, speaking from experience when discussing course topics and showing care about their academic success in my course. This reliance carried on throughout the semester and eventually led to trust that if something didn’t work out, everything was going to be okay.”

 

Tips for Grading Student Work

Amanda Schlink:

  • Be consistent from start to finish, especially with essays, projects or any assignments that do not have a concrete rubric.
  • Avoid grading late at night, as you are more likely to miss errors. I recommend giving all graded assignments a second look over to ensure the grades given are indeed correct.
  • Use the rubrics for assignments if possible. In addition, always be able to justify the grades that are given.
  • For any exams that require a Scantron, double check that the answer key is correct before the Scantrons are submitted for grading.

Tips for Handling Difficult Situations

Amanda Schlink:

  • Always stay professional, especially through email and conversations that occur in person.
  • If possible, discuss difficult situations in private, away from other students.
  • Be observant of your tone and body language, as students can sometimes misinterpret signals.
  • Always remain neutral and do not take sides.
  • Never be afraid to go to your supervisor or faculty supervisor for advice if a situation requires additional assistance.

Jeanine Clark Bremer:

  • Breathe – no matter what, you are in charge and the student will respond to your action/reaction.
  • Listen with an open mind. Really listen to what they are saying so you understand the many facets of the situation.
  • Ask questions in a manner that is not accusatory and is fact-seeking.
  • Be straightforward and honest. Be honest about the actions you have to take (if any).

Tips for Preparing for Class/Lab/Clinical

Amanda Schlink:

  • Always come prepared (unless circumstances arise that are out of your control)
  • Students notice when you are not prepared and will comment on it, even if you think they won’t.
  • Allow more time to prepare than what you think. As the semester progresses, you will likely become more efficient and therefore will spend less time preparing.

Thank you to the experienced teaching assistants that provided these valuable suggestions on how to develop in the role of teaching assistant at NIU.

Using Lynda.com Playlists to Supplement Course Materials

Lynda.comLynda.com, one of the most popular and successful video learning service offered, has been available to NIU faculty, students, and staff since Fall 2015. Since its release, users have relied on its extensive video library of engaging, top-quality courses taught by recognized industry experts for personal development. NIU faculty can now incorporate these high-quality materials to enhance and supplement their own course content.

Videos and courses from lynda.com can easily be added to Blackboard courses using Web Links, or embedded using html. If you have identified a series of videos you want students to watch, a playlist is even better. A playlist is a collection of web content arranged around a particular theme or subject area. Playlists are commonly used to collect and organize songs from musical artists or video content from YouTube. Similarly, you can create playlists of lynda.com videos by curating a collection of tutorials on a particular topic. For example, the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center created a playlist on Online Teaching.

When you find a video you want to include on a playlist, click the + Add to Playlist button. On smaller screens, this may display below the video title, or be shortened to a simple +.

add to playlist

lynda.com profile drop down menu You can then create a new playlist, or add the video to an existing playlist.

To view your playlists, click your name in the upper right, and select Playlists from the drop down menu. You can manage your playlists here, including reordering or removing videos, adding a description, and making the playlist public. This is also where you can Share your playlist by copying the direct link for the playlist.

In Blackboard, you can add your playlist to your course as a Web Link. Students will be prompted to log into lynda.com when they click the link. They use their z-id and password to log in.

Creating playlist can be a convenient yet powerful strategy to supplement course content, offer an alternative perspective to the instructor’s, and provide support to students to develop skills that may not be directly taught by the instructor. This might include teaching a technology for presenting a report more effectively, basic to advanced training of video editing for an assignment that offers the option for submitting the finished product as a video rather than in a word processing format, etc.

For more information on lynda.com, you are invited to view a recording of the online lynda.com workshop conducted on December 4, 2015. Faculty Development will also be offering a face-to-face lynda.com workshop during the fall semester.

Blackboard-related Reminders for the Beginning of the Semester

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closeup of woman's hands using a laptopAs many new faculty, teaching staff, and TAs are requesting course space on Blackboard this week and get ready to begin the semester teaching their courses using Blackboard, here are a few useful links as reminders for some of the “beginning of the semester” frequently asked questions:

1. Requesting a new course on Blackboard – After logging into http://webcourses.niu.edu click the “Services” tab at the top of the page and then “Blackboard Faculty Tools”. Click “My Courses” and then follow the links on the displayed window. Instructions and step-by-step tutorials can be found at: http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/manage/request.shtml. In order to request a Blackboard course, individuals must be the “instructor of record” for the course in the MyNIU system.

Course space requests take 1 working day to be processed by the automated process in DoIT. It takes an additional day for someone newly assigned as instructor of record in MyNIU to have permission to request the course in Blackboard.

2. Combining course sections – Those teaching dual level courses (e.g. 400 and 500 or cross-listed courses) or multiple sections may want to combine their sections into one master course. Information about doing that can also be found at http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/manage/multiplesections.shtml.

“Course combine requests” also take 1 working day to be processed. Individuals requesting master courses must be instructor of record in both sections to be combined.

3. Making courses “available” to students – After creating and posting documents on a Blackboard courses, faculty should make those courses “available” to students. Otherwise, students will not be able to see the courses. The instructions for making courses “available” to students can be found at http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/manage/availability.shtml.

4. Blackboard workshops – Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center regularly schedules workshops on using Blackboard for teaching purposes, and the monthly program schedules can be found at http://www.niu.edu/facdev.

For those who are not able to attend a workshop, there is also now a Self-Paced Introduction to Blackboard online workshop consisting of short video demonstrations, available at http://facdev.niu.edu/selfpacedbb1.

Answers to other Frequently Asked Blackboard-related questions can be found at http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/faq and Blackboard-related help information can be found at http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/atoz.

For login and password-related questions, please refer faculty to the DoIT service desk at 815-753-8100 or servicedesk@niu.edu and for other teaching-related Blackboard questions, faculty can submit the questions at https://ssl.niu.edu/blackboard/ask/index.asp.

Microsoft Office 365 Collaboration Tips for Faculty

o365 iconNorthern Illinois University subscribes to Microsoft for Education, a comprehensive service that provides email, calendars, Microsoft Office applications for both work and personal use, OneDrive for Business for cloud storage, SharePoint Servers for document management, and Skype for Business for instantaneous communication, plus much more. All faculty and staff have an Office 365 (O365) account; student email will migrate to Office 365 starting August 11, 2016.

 

The following list of tips and tricks will help you get the most out of the collaborative features of Microsoft Office 365.

Email

mIcrosoft outlook iconStudents will now send and receive email using Microsoft Outlook. This means it will be easier for students to contact you, because they can search using the Global Address Book. It also means it is easier for you to contact them from within Outlook, instead of looking up their email address in another system!

Another great benefit of students using O365 email is that Microsoft is HIPAA-compliant for students in health sciences study and practice.

Be careful with Clutter, however. Clutter helps you filter low-priority email messages out of your Inbox automatically by tracking what you do and do not read. If you delete messages without opening them, Clutter uses this behavior to determine that you do not want to see messages like that one. Unfortunately, this can catch messages you and your students need to see, such as Course Announcements from Blackboard or campus updates. You may want to turn Clutter off.

Tip: The Global Address Book will contain all faculty, staff, and students. There are 2 new address book lists: All Employees (contains faculty, staff, graduate assistants, and student employees) and All Students (contains all student Z-ID emails). If you email colleagues more often than students, you may want to change your default address book to All Employees, so that it is easier to find your intended recipient. Because students who work for the university (such as Graduate Assistants and student employees) have both student and employee email addresses, these lists will also help to differentiate between those addresses.

Calendar

As with email, students will be able to view your Outlook calendar like other faculty and staff can. This can be a great way for students to find a good time to set up a meeting with you—if you are using your Outlook calendar. It is a best practice to set expectations for communication early in your courses. Let students know if your Outlook calendar is accurate, and if they may send you meeting requests.

Tip: Check the permissions on your calendar to ensure they are set the way you want. By default, anyone at NIU can see whether you are free or busy at a specific time. You can change the default access to None, which prevents everyone (including your colleagues) from seeing your calendar information. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to differentiate between what faculty/staff and students see.

O365 and OneDrive

microsoft onedrive iconWith Office 365, you get access to the latest versions of Office, including Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and powerful new tools like Sway and Power BI. You and your students can install Office on 5 PCs or Macs, use the software directly on the web, or install the mobile apps on up to 5 mobile devices. This means every student has access to Microsoft Office at no additional cost – they do not need to purchase their own copy or use Google’s free tools. This reduces barriers for students to complete their assignments in your course, and removes issues of file compatibility from using different or out of date software.

OneDrive gives you 1TB of individual storage space in a secure environment that is FERPA- and HIPAA-compliant. You can share any file stored in OneDrive for easy collaboration among colleagues or with students.

Tip: You can use OneDrive for departmental collaboration, too, but an O365 Group or SharePoint site might be better choices, because the content is not removed when the employee who posted it leaves. You can use O365 Groups for classes and student organizations, too. Review What Does What? for more information.

Skype for Business

skype for business iconSkype for Business lets you quickly connect with NIU faculty, staff, and students. It is very similar to “regular” Skype, but with added features that help you work more efficiently. With Skype for Business, you can hold one-on-one or group conversations using instant messaging (IM), audio, or video. Unlike regular Skype, Skype for Business includes the ability to present a PowerPoint with others in your meeting, or to share your computer screen.

It’s easy to connect with others at NIU in Skype for Business. For example, you can easily add contacts from the NIU address book (faculty/staff for now, students after August 11). This makes it a great tool for holding office hours, or for impromptu questions from students. It is also a great replacement for an office phone, for NIU contacts at least. Your colleagues and students can call you using Skype for Business instead of dialing your phone number.

Tip: You are entirely in control of your availability in Skype for Business. You can set your availability manually, let it follow your Outlook Calendar, or you can sign out when you do not want to be contacted. With the free Skype for Business app installed on your iOS or Android device, you can even log in on your mobile device, so you can help your students when you are not in your office!

Training and Support

There is much more that you can do with Office 365, now that student email is migrating to O365 from Gmail. To learn more, consider attending one of the upcoming “Teaching with O365” workshops offered by the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. The Division of IT has compiled a list of useful courses by Lynda.com that cover the most common O365 tools. Finally, Microsoft has put together a wealth of resources in their Office Training Center.

Communicate with Your Students On-the-Go!

Tracy Miller using a selfie stickVideos can be a great way to deliver a message to students in your online course, and it’s never been easier. Many of us carry our video cameras with us everywhere we go, after all. So let’s start with pulling out your smart phone, and follow these four easy steps.

1. Pick a Location: Find a location that is convenient or important to your message. You will want a nice background, with minimal clutter but more interesting than a blank wall. Try different locations around campus or your home. Even better, record video at conferences or while completing field research, so that the location is relevant to your content.

2. Plan Your Message: Think about what you are going to say. Are you welcoming your students to a new week? Do you want to remind them of a due date? Did something important come up in the news? You can write a script, if that helps you feel more comfortable, but it is generally better to sound casual and conversational as opposed to reading a very formal written script. Students appreciate when you sound approachable!

3. Record Your Video: After you have thought about what your message is, just start recording. You can have a colleague record you, prop up your phone on a bookcase or other handy furniture, or use a “selfie stick” and record on your own.

4. Edit and Publish: After you’ve recorded, upload the video to a video hosting site like YouTube (where you can keep the video Unlisted, if you want, so that you don’t accidentally become a viral video star). You can do that directly from your phone using the YouTube app. The video can then be edited and enhanced if you wish, and you should edit the captions to improve upon the often-glitchy auto-captions YouTube provides automatically. Then you can add it to your Blackboard course by using Video Everywhere to search videos in your YouTube channel, by posting the Share link, or by using the Embed code.

Unfortunately, if you ever used Video Everywhere to record from a webcam, it is no longer an option in Blackboard Learn. Google eliminated the ability to record from a webcam on YouTube, so it is no longer available in Blackboard, either. However, using your mobile device to record is easy and unchains you from having to record from your desktop or laptop computer.

Some benefits of capturing these quick and easy videos:

Convenient: Recording short video clips from your mobile device be done anywhere, anytime. All the equipment you need is in the palm of your hand. This method is great for when you are at a professional event and you want to share the experience with your students.

Connective: Videos are useful in helping students feel like there is a human being guiding their learning process in an online course. By creating on-the-go videos you will allow your students to see into your professional world and that world doesn’t revolve around a desk.

Contagious: Videos work for you and your students. Students can use videos to respond to discussions, as part of an assignment submission, or as a presentation tool.

Tips for communicating with your students with a video message:

  1. Outline what you want to say, but keep it informal (It doesn’t have to be perfect)
  2. Keep it short and to the point!
  3. Take a few minutes to think about your location (lighting, background)
  4. Save your video as Unlisted within YouTube and embed it in your Blackboard course to keep the message between you and your students
  5. Use YouTube’s Manage subtitles and closed captions for accessibility and usability

Sitting at a computer is not the only online teaching and learning environment. Mobile technologies make connecting with your students simple, yet meaningful. It is important to communicate with your them frequently in an online course, and using videos can enhance your interaction. For more information about online learning technology, watch the recording of our workshop on Promoting Learning with Technology, below.

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