Student Engagement: Where to Start As a Teaching Assistant

By Elizabeth Herder

When I started in graduate school, I was expected to teach three laboratory sections of Fundamentals of Microbiology. I was anxious to perform well in this position. I, like so many others of my peer group, had heard phrases like “active learning” and “student engagement” but without having a clear understanding of what these actually meant. But, how did that really matter? After all, I would be teaching laboratory sections! If students were going to be actively engaging with any of their courses, they would be doing so with labs. Performing lab skills had to equate with active learning and student engagement, or so I thought.

photo of author
Elizabeth Herder is a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology with a concentration in Microbiology and enrolled in the GCCI program. She earned an undergraduate degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in Microbiology and Pre-Health with minors in English and Chemistry. Elizabeth studies how different environment stressors, like antibiotic pollution, influence the avian microbiome, or the community of bacteria living in and on the bird. Elizabeth founded and is president of the Graduate Organization “Women in Science”, which aims to support female scientists.

This fantasy shattered quickly as I started hearing myself repeating the phrases I so often heard from the more experienced TAs. Complaints about spending 20 minutes lecturing on the procedure only to be inundated with questions afterward that they wouldn’t have if they had listened to the lecture. Frustrations from lab groups who needed to be guided step-by-step through procedures outlined in the manual. Annoyances as I often watched students’ eyes start drooping before reaching the middle of the presentation. Why couldn’t students pay attention and why weren’t they invested in the lab? 

Now in my third year, I have developed some techniques that encourage student involvement.

I now realize that student engagement can take many forms and is a constant progression. Student engagement is considered vital for the success of the professor, the student, and even the institution as it aids in many areas from academic experience to student retention and more (Bryson and Hand 2007; Jang 2008). Student engagement has been defined as many different things, but it encompasses activities that encourage learning by doing something other than listening to lectures (Groccia, 2018).

It’s about getting students involved in the learning process, rather than distributing facts to a captive audience. How can educators begin to revamp their courses with engagement at the forefront? Below is a list of a few ways to start if you are just beginning to think about student engagement:

Utilize students’ peers as co-instructors

As someone who was involved for six semesters in a course using student mentors during my undergraduate career, I know the strengths a strategy like this can have. First, as a student, I had peers to reach out to that helped facilitate my learning without the intimidation I felt when going to the lead instructors. As I transitioned to the peer mentor position, I realized that the creativity with which the students came to the courses allowed for outstanding projects and my facilitation helped guide them to the result stage. 

While my laboratory sections don’t offer official positions for undergraduates, I still try to engage students in this process. If a student comes to me with a question about procedure or the meaning of results, I encourage them to first discuss with their lab partners. After that, I will go back to discuss with them and make sure they are on the right path. Usually, one of the lab partners understands the procedure or result and can help clear the confusion. When I am able to design my own courses, however, I plan to further this tactic by engaging undergraduate peer instructors in my courses. 

Incorporate Service or Community Building Activities

While I have not had the opportunity to partake in such a course, I have seen the change in students engaging in service-learning courses. My undergraduate university developed many service-learning opportunities for students. I watched as friends took courses that broadened their interests as well as their knowledge. Some are currently working in industries benefiting the same communities that they visited and helped as undergraduate students in the service-learning courses. Service learning can improve “cultural awareness, social responsibility, and student cognitive learning outcomes” (Warren 2012).  Though this may be considered a “high-risk, high-reward” pedagogy, the outcome has the opportunity to create civic-minded graduates who engage more with the course and the information it is attempting to relay (Knight-McKenna et al. 2018). 

Encourage Interactions!

As a new TA, I was advised by more senior TAs to do methods that limited my interactions with students. One was to pick the most inopportune time to hold office hours. Another was to simply post a sign on the door to the office in which I held my office hours with my lab phone number for students to call if they came to office hours allowing me to continue lab work. These limit your interactions with students, which can impact how well they engage with you in your course. There are so many reasons to interact with your students; interactions help with their academic progress and their cognitive development (Pascarella 1980, Thompson 2001, Cuseo 2018). As a TA, I, again, only have so much authority with this. But, I am able to encourage attendance at office hours and make email response a priority. I also have a policy to never discuss questions about graded assignments during laboratory time. I encourage them to email me or come to office hours. This both keeps the student’s focus on lab and enables me to have contact with them outside of lab. Later in my career, I hope to invite students to participate in activities related to the subject outside of class, like small conferences or fieldwork trips. This is another area that professors can try to start small— maybe just making an effort to know students’ names and using them! 

Start Small by Posing Questions

As a lab TA, I have little control over what we are doing each day and the way we are presenting the information. But I have done some things that have improved the student engagement in my labs. The way that encourages most students to come prepared to the lab and to remain focused has been to ask questions from the day’s procedures that the students would have already read about in the lab manual and ask them during the presentation. The students can have the manuals out, which encourages them to underline or make note of important information and can help them answer the questions. I also make sure they understand the learning objectives for the assignments so they can make sure they are addressing them in their assignments. 

While these are two small things, I’ve noticed my students performing better and come to lab more excited to learn. Other strategies include role-playing, discussion, think-pair share, case studies, reflective journals, field trips, simulations, conducting experiments, and many more (Ismail and Groccia 2018). Rather than overhauling your entire course, there are probably ways that you can incorporate a few of these into your class already. 

The ideas in this post were influenced by the New Directions for Teaching and Learning issue “Student Engagement: A Multidimensional Perspective”.


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