Reflections on TAing Biology 200
Having survived my first year of grad school, I now faced a far more terrifying prospect: teaching undergrads. Although MCB requirements are flexible, I decided to follow the recommended route and TA Biol 200, the introductory molecular and cellular biology class for sophomores. While I was sure that I knew the material, being able to explain it with confidence to undergraduates who have never seen it before requires quite a different skill set. And leading lab sections was an altogether different, formidable, and often nerve-wracking task.
After the first TA meeting, I felt reassured that the class was well organized, with a professor and administrative coordinator who both knew how to run things smoothly. However, I also felt underprepared because we had had a total of three hours training prior to the first lab, which did not feel like it could possibly be enough.
My first lab came, and I quickly discovered why three hours was sufficient. While it certainly was a small amount, in reality no amount of training could have prepared me for every possible question, or every source of confusion. It is one thing to explain to students how to focus a microscope, but quite another to look at their detailed drawing of some unrecognizable object, and explain as gently as possible that they have spent a great deal of time making a detailed drawing of… dust. And you never quite appreciate anxiety until a student casually asks of a reagent, “So… how dangerous IS this stuff?” Thankfully, all the student had done was get a bit of residue on their hands, but it took a couple of minutes before I could breathe normally again.
After the first few bumpy surprises, teaching went more smoothly. I accepted that I wouldn’t always know the answers and would tell the students when I didn’t. I figured out ways to encourage both quiet and loud students, by calling on each in turn. After a seating chart change I found that different group dynamics made some of the quieter students talk more and bring forth some very good ideas. And I watched with delight whenever a student lit up with a new idea. A new challenge came later in the quarter in the form of a dissection lab. As soon as I held up the jars containing the organs for dissection, my students’ faces collectively fell. I knew they needed some stimulus to rouse their enthusiasm. Thankfully, one student quickly shouted out “YEAH!” and the tension visibly eased.
One of the things that surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed lecture. I’d learned this material at least twice before in other classes and had reviewed portions of it in the course of my research. Despite this, I found myself at the edge of my seat. Having learned the material in greater depth since having taken general survey cell biology, the introductory material was suddenly exciting to me. I marveled at the mode of action of ATP synthase, and, now that I was relaxed enough to focus on the big picture of respiration, saw much more clearly how it all fits together. Examples of various processes were now much more interesting to me. Having studied gene regulation in grad school classes, I was still astounded to learn about dystrophin – the longest gene in the human genome, but not the longest protein.
Possibly the hardest part – one that I certainly did not expect – was encouraging students who were not doing well to keep trying. At the beginning of the quarter, they had genuinely tried to figure things out, but in the face of their exam results they felt like giving up. This was an altogether new challenge: convincing the students to remain engaged and interested in the class, and to keep trying. The most effective method was surprisingly simple: letting them know that I believed they could succeed.
As a result of this experience, I have learned a number of important things. A great deal of good teaching is, quite simply, being prepared and caring. Much of the remainder is having the poise to work with whatever ideas or issues the students come up with. And while it’s easy to start to resent the time drain and feel depressed and annoyed while grading, when you work closely with a student to help them understand a subject, and in the end they really get it, all the work and frustration is worth it.
Tips for preparing to TA:
1) Talk to your PI about your TAing responsibilities, and make sure they understand before you start how many hours you are going to be away from lab. Posting a schedule at your desk of when you’ll be in also helps.
2) Before you start, give yourself a lot of time to think about your project. (If you can give lab meeting at the beginning of the quarter, that’s perfect.) This way, you can get your ideas in order and decide on a few things to do in lab, so that you can efficiently use the little time you have to actually accomplish something.
3) Accept that you are not going to get very much done on your project this quarter.
4) Embrace TAing! A lot of professors will welcome your input into exams, as well as suggestions for different approaches to the material, or even additional lecture topics. In some cases, you may even be able to prepare one or more lectures on your own. While thinking of these things obviously takes more time away from lab, it’s also the best way for you to get the most out of your TA experience.