Teaching Economics to Undergraduates
Teaching Tips for Teaching Assistants
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Being a Teaching Assistant (TA) at a university is rewarding, but also tough, particularly when you’re just starting out and learning the ropes. Perhaps you might appreciate some guidance - roll on INOMICS top tips for econ TAs who are preparing for their first role. Oh, and congratulations by the way!
What kind of teacher do you want to be?
Early on as an economics TA, whether inadvertently or by design you will establish what kind of teacher you are. Will your teaching style resemble that of a coach, an instructor or a taskmaster? And will you aim for an informal, friendly relationship with students or will you establish yourself an authority figure with a degree of professional distance? All this hinges on the choices you make and the actions you take during your first few weeks.
Your classes are likely to consist of small groups of people of a similar age with similar interests, albeit a few years behind you in their education. If you are new to the university or city, and on the lookout for new friends, this might seem an obvious place to look. But depending on your character, that of the students, and your combined ability to separate work from fun, this may lead to awkwardness, or be considered inappropriate by others in your faculty.
Indeed, while being friendly with your students can help foster a level of trust and openness that may make you a very effective teacher, be aware of the need, sometimes, for distance. Ultimately as a TA you are in a position of authority, perhaps in terms of age and certainly in terms of subject knowledge and professional position. Your ability to criticise a student’s work or work-ethic will be compromised if you know you will be at the same dinner party in the evening.
Or not - but in preparing to start your TA role and in those first few weeks, be aware of the type of relationship you will have with students, the potential pitfalls of this, and try to work out to what extent you want to maintain a distance to your students.
A common motto not only for scouts, but for many people in many areas of life. But as an economics higher level teaching assistant it is especially important to be prepared.
Despite your undoubtedly high level of competence, you are not (yet) an experienced lecturer who can convey complex economic theories in their sleep. Indeed, it may even be the first time you have had to explain an Edgeworth Box or a Gini Coefficient since your second year student midterms. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to (re-) familiarise yourself with the concepts, and try to anticipate where students will struggle.
Remember though, that whilst your prior experience and learning may be very different from others, you can use your own learning experience as an economics student to help inform your own explanation, exercise, or game to help your students.
It is often helpful, before the class, to spend some time writing out an explicit plan for how you intend to approach the class. This plan may change during the teaching session, but the very process of planning gives you the opportunity to try to anticipate where students may experience stumbling blocks.
And when (not if, when) you come across a topic in class or are asked a question that you are not sure about, do not blag the answer. Just because you are wearing a teacher’s hat does not mean that you are the source of all wisdom, and you will actually appear much more competent by admitting that you do not know something.
Indeed, you can use what might have been an awkward moment as an opportunity to highlight reference tools or resources that help you, and by extension your students, fill the gap in your knowledge.
It is also a good idea to think beforehand about how to react to a silent class. Do you single people out? This is kind of mean if they genuinely don’t know, and they might resent you. Or do you simply continue to lecture? This implies that it is okay if they do not answer - look forward to more awkward silences, a passive learning environment, and no-one doing the work you set. Or do you give the answer while gently mocking them for not listening / being hungover? In this case it is important to get the tone right, and to get across that their being prepared and contributing in class is the most effective way for them to actually learn.
You will be neither the first nor the last teacher to experience students not responding to a perfectly reasonable question. Do not take it personally, but do have a plan how to deal with it without getting flustered.
Don’t trip over the tech
Tech issues are the bane of many a teacher and lecturer, and so it’s important to be able to think on your feet if you have any problems with presentations or related technology. If possible, visit the classroom before your first class to familiarise yourself with the multimedia and tech options available. And always have a backup plan.
Learning the names of the students in your class shows that you’re engaged and interested. It may take some time, but it is worth it. Students will feel valued when they feel you have noticed them. Tools like a photo roster or name badges for the first few classes might seem juvenile, but they can also act as an icebreaker and help you avoid the awkwardness of calling someone by the wrong name.
Teach. Don’t present.
Teaching economics at university is not the same as making a presentation on an economics topic. Yes, you might use some slides on the wall to illustrate a point. Yes, a good lesson has a structure with an introduction, middle and conclusion. But a tutorial that relies on a series of slides is not only boring, it also fails to convey the subject matter in a way that actually helps students to learn.
Even a classic lecture in front of a large audience should include moments for consideration and a connection to texts or exercises that students encounter before and after the class itself. As a TA in a seminar setting, you have a lot more opportunity to interact directly with students and include exercises, games and individual feedback that vastly improve the learning experience that can be gained from a thirty minute slideshow.
One presentation skill that applies to teachers in the classroom, however, is not to turn your back to the class. Whether to write on the board, demonstrate something on a computer, or refer to a graph, practice your standing position so that you can act as a bridge between the students and the intended point of focus. Stand at the side, and keep an open line of sight between your class, yourself and your board.
It can also be useful to periodically stop and check with students that they have understood and are paying attention, for example by asking a question or breaking up the lesson and changing the pace with a short activity or discussion round.
Ask for help when you need it!
If you feel that your teaching is uninspiring, tap into the vast experience within the economics department. Some departments have dedicated support staff. Or speak to the professor or course instructor for the course that you’re teaching, or ask other professors or TAs for advice. Perhaps you can even sit in on one of their seminars. Chances are that most lecturers once worked as economics TAs too, and many will be able to share their own relevant experiences.
Find your teaching groove
A few weeks in, you will have established your teaching style and role. You will be consistently well-prepared on the subject matter and have built confidence handling awkward moments in the classroom. You will have had some good lessons and some poor ones, and as an intelligent, self-reflecting individual you will be learning from your experiences. You will be in the process of establishing a support network among colleagues, and you will be well on the way to establishing yourself as a competent economics teaching assistant.
The next stage will be to bring your own interest and innovation. Try bringing your own research and topics of interest into your lessons, when relevant for the class. Not only are you more genuinely an expert on the subject matter, but your students will gain, perhaps for the first time, insight into a “real” economist (yes, you) and the work that you do.
Teaching economics to students as a TA can be insightful and rewarding as you watch your pupils progress. The experience will force you to be introspective about your own approaches to economics topics, both in the process of revising and preparing your lessons, and by interacting with the often highly intelligent young economists, for whom you, of all people, might turn out to be an inspiration.
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