Preparing to teach

This section introduces you to:

  • Preparation and planning
  • Your first class
  • Student diversity and inclusive teaching

Gathering information about the courses you are teaching on

It is important that new GTAs consult with the course convener for the course from an early stage. Even if you have taught on the course for a year or more, do keep in close contact, and make sure you are properly briefed. The course convener should provide guidance on course aims and objectives, the reading list, student coursework and assessment arrangements, and may possibly suggest teaching approaches. Some may specify the approach they wish their GTAs to take in class teaching tightly, whilst others are happy for the GTA to design their classes with greater flexibility. Find out how much choice you have.

You will certainly want to read the information that is provided to students about the courses that you will support, including any course guides produced by the course convener and any departmental handbooks. Make sure you are familiar with the course structure, aims and learning outcomes, syllabus and particularly the assessment requirements of the course (eg.hand-in dates for coursework). It is very helpful to look at the past exam papers for your course too, although double-check that the course and exam paper have not fundamentally changed from one year to the next. Familiarise yourself with the Moodle, the School virtual learning environment (VLE). There is an online support site for the course (see Technologies for teaching). These contain course  guidance and activities, including detailed lecture documents. In some cases, the full materials from the previous year will be available and can provide useful background and briefing for your work.

You may also benefit considerably from talking to class teachers who taught in the department and on your course last year. They will be knowledgeable about teaching your course, having developed lessons plans, given feedback and formally reflected on effective teaching styles (sometimes as part of the PGCertHE). Learning from and building on their experience will enable you to improve your own teaching and save you a great deal of time. They may also be able to give you information about the teacher’s preferences or highlight the course topics that students seem to struggle with, note frequently asked questions or suggest interesting examples that they have used in their teaching.

The course convener for your course should arrange a briefing session for you. At this meeting, it is worth checking what is expected from classes. Ask specifically about your role vis-à-vis:

•  content (eg. What are the “core” topics? Are any “optional”? Where is the focus and emphasis of the course? How are theory and application of theory balanced? To what extent will students be expected to recall, apply, critique theories/models/formulae? And do you have any role in deciding any of this?)

•  preparing students to do academic writing (eg. Are there any departmental style guides, emphasis on particular forms of argument, marking criteria, etc.?)

•  preparing students for exams or other assessment (eg. Will you be running revision classes towards the end of the year? How much emphasis is put on exams? Is this year’s paper likely to be similar to previous years? Are there examples of past essays that you and students can see?

•  developing students’ academic skills (eg. critique, analysis, evaluation, synthesis – what’s the emphasis?)

•  improving other student skills (eg. oral communication, team work, problem solving ability, presentations)

•  guiding students on proper citation and referencing conventions, and on how plagiarism is defined in the discipline

•  the underlying logic of the course (eg. How is it structured? Does the order of topics matter? Is there a “theory” part, then “applications” later, or are they interwoven?)

Quite often the person who has designed the course sees the underlying logic as obvious or taken for granted – yet it might not be clear either to you or the students. Getting a clear understanding of the course structure can also be important in helping you decide how to approach the teaching of particular classes. In Section 3 a variety of teaching approaches are discussed and it is helpful to “align” your choice of teaching method with the learning aims and outcomes of the course, the detailed learning outcomes for a given class and the way in which the students will be assessed. For example, if all students need to be able to work with a particular set of theoretical ideas that cut across several aspects of the course, then the initial work on understanding that theory needs to be worked on by all students (rather than, for example, allocating it to one student for a class presentation and hoping that others might do a bit of the associated core reading). Alternatively, there may be some aspects of the course (eg.particular examples, reference to specific countries or sectors, specific applications, etc.) which are illustrative, but where it is up to individual students what direction to take, what focus to give and how much effort to expend.

Finally, check on the office hours (see Outside the Classroom) of the course convener(s) for the course(s) on which you teach, should students raise questions that you would prefer to direct to them.

Preparation before a class

The rooms available for class teaching at the School are very variable in terms of size, shape and the layout of the furniture. As part of your preparation, try to visit and familiarise yourself with the room(s) that you have been allocated for your teaching before your classes start. Check the audio-visual equipment that is provided as standard in that room and order any additional equipment that you may need from the AV support team. The section on Teaching room equipment in Inside the Classroom  contains more information about teaching rooms.

If you wish to provide your students with handout materials or other consumables, contact your departmental manager or course administrator who will be able to help you with the stationery and materials you will need. These should be freely available to you, although there may be some restrictions for very large courses. These restrictions are usually in place as a means of ensuring reasonable equity between students attending different classes, and avoiding students getting very different messages about course content and approach from several different teachers.

Be aware that there may be copyright issues if you are photocopying or scanning published material or content that is not copyright of LSE or Creative Commons licensed. You are advised to contact your departmental manager for further guidance. The section Inside the Classroom discusses what you can expect to find (and occur) in your classroom.

 

Preparing for your first class

There are some important issues to consider when preparing to teach for the first time. When you have made yourself familiar with the syllabus and learning aims and outcomes of the course you will teach on, you will need to plan the actual classes.

Thinking about content

You may wish to attend the lectures for the course to help you orientate your class teaching and synchronise your approach with that of the lecturer. Indeed some courses require GTAs to attend lectures. As mentioned earlier, lecturers often put their lecture materials on Moodle. Looking at past exam papers can also help you determine the themes and issues that should take a greater priority in your teaching. Some class teachers describe allocating the content of their classes into two planning columns, “must have” and “nice to have”.

Reading lists at the School are often very extensive but some will indicate “core” texts as opposed to “further reading”. However, many students will ask for further guidance in prioritising their reading. You may wish to guide them in doing so, and/or suggest other reading. In making your additional suggestions do consult with the course convenor for the course, and do check that anything you recommend is part of the library stock, or available online, by contacting the librarian responsible for your department.

Beginnings

The first class is always an exciting time. Both you and the students may feel nervous and shy in the new group. Work hard to make everyone feel welcome and quickly at ease in the class. Establish rapport with the students and develop a positive working environment for all. There are many approaches that GTAs use to do this and we encourage you to talk to your peers, particularly those with some teaching experience, to share ideas.

You may find it useful to have a clear agenda for your first session, to be sure that you remember things such as:

  • introducing yourself
  • getting students familiar with each other
  • giving an overview of the course, or at least how classes work within the course – in terms of both the content you will cover and the kinds of skills they may be developing
  • working with the class to agree “ground rules” and ways you will work together (eg, discussing expectations around weekly workload/reading, punctuality, meeting assessment deadlines, student contribution to discussions, etc. – if these matters are not discussed early on, it may be difficult to sort out problems that arise later) – for more on this see Managing expectations in Inside the Classroom.
  • ensuring there is some time in the first session for course-related, subject specialist work
  • setting the group up for the coming week (readings, roles, your office hours, their next lecture, etc.)
  • mentioning Moodle – if your students have difficulty accessing it or have any problems using it, ask them to contact the IT Service helpdesk

Getting to know your students

It is very helpful to get to know your students quickly and by name. However, particularly for those GTAs teaching more than one class, this can be easier said than done. LSE students (and staff) come from over 150 different countries and may have names which are difficult for you to pronounce and remember because they are unfamiliar.

Here are some strategies for learning names quickly that you may find helpful.

  • Print out a class list, which can include student photos, from your LSE for You account. Annotate this list to include the names that students like to be called by (which might be different from the one on the register!)
  • Provide plastic badges or sticky name badges for students and try and give the badges to the right students at the beginning of each class. GTAs who use this method say that they know all the names after the first three classes
  • Discreetly note seating arrangements when taking the register. This enables you to use people’s names even if you have not yet learned which face goes with which name
  • To help with pronunciation, spell names phonetically on the class list and ask students to correct you if you make mistakes.

As well as learning names it can be helpful to collect some other key information about your students. For example, where are they from? What other courses are they studying? What’s their interest/motivation to do the course? Which students live in the same neighbourhood (useful if you want students to work together outside of class)? Who has good IT skills (to encourage them to share skills/teach each other)?

Students who have disclosed that they have a disability may have an Inclusion Plan  arranged with them by the Disability and Wellbeing Service . Students may prefer to keep their disability confidential from their fellow students, and indeed can choose to keep it confidential from you. Whether or not students have disclosed a disability, it is important that you teach in ways that are inclusive of all students, including those with disabilities. Some that you may not “see” include dyslexia, hearing impairment and chronic fatigue.

It is also useful to ask your students to tell you who their academic mentor is, especially if they are studying your course outside of their home department.

Considering student diversity in your teaching

The School goes beyond the statutory requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and takes a “beyond compliance” approach by integrating equality and diversity into its core values through the adoption of the LSE Ethics Code. The School expects all its staff and students to proactively consider and embed equity, diversity and inclusion in everyday behaviour and practices with respect for the knowledge and experience of others. Here are some suggestions on how to create a more welcoming and inclusive classroom environment:

  • Include a range of national and cultural examples and experiences without resorting to stereotypes
  • Ensure that the teaching methods and materials you use are accessible to students with a variety of specific learning differences
  • Monitor classroom dynamics to ensure that students whose background may be unfamiliar to you and/or others in the class do not become isolated
  • Vary the structure during the course to appeal to different modes of learning
  • Don’t call on students to act as “spokespersons” for their group, eg, “So how do Muslims feel about ...?”
  • Recognise and acknowledge the history and emotions your students may bring to class
  • Respond constructively to non-academic experiences that may affect classroom atmosphere and performance
  • Consider the ways in which your use of language might impact upon different individuals
  • Reflect, recognise and acknowledge your perceptions, biases and background and how they may play out in your teaching

Adapted from “General principles in teaching ‘minority students’”, in A Handbook for Teaching Assistants , University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB).

Teaching students with disabilities

Note that the Equality Act 2010 places a duty on the School to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities to pre-empt any substantial disadvantage in employment, study or the provision of services. For those students who have disclosed a disability you should receive in advance of the first class an Inclusion Plan  outlining the reasonable adjustments. You may wish to seek further or specific advice from the Disability and Wellbeing Service, but we list here some practical measures that apply to teaching disabled students.

  • Providing outlines of lectures or class handouts on Moodle in good time will help dyslexic students and those who may have difficulty taking notes because of a physical or sensory impairment
  • Always making use of the existing radio mic systems will ensure students with a range of hearing impairments will be accommodated
  • Reading through PowerPoint slides as you discuss the points will help students with a visual impairment follow more easily. If you make your PowerPoint slides available online, students can go over them at their own pace. You can use the notes field in PowerPoint to add more detailed information and comment.
  • If you save the PowerPoint as a PDF with the “notes pages” option selected, students will be able to see your slides and notes. IT Services provides advice on using PowerPoint
  • Making space beforehand for a student using a wheelchair
  • Allowing audio recording of classes
  • Using preferred methods of communication, depending on the student, eg, email, which can be read by a screen reader, to supplement handwritten notes or oral feedback.

Teaching in a global classroom

With a highly international student and staff body, it is no surprise to hear a multitude of accents, “Englishes” and foreign languages on campus. This can sometimes be overwhelming for students (both native British students and international students). As a GTA, you have to help your students navigate the richness and messiness that comes from having this linguistic diversity while managing and modelling your multilingual or multicultural skills. Some GTAs are concerned that their accent makes effective communication challenging; however, your students, peers and supervisors value the content of what is being shared over how it sounds. By adopting classic public-speaking techniques – speak clearly and at an even pace, make eye contact, use body language and gestures to reinforce your message and connect with your audience (questions, discussions, etc.) – you will be better understood by your students and other audiences. In a class where the subject matter and terminology is new and the accent or language is new, writing down key terms and names when you or another student mentions them in discussion, keeps all students on the same page. In this way, you are also modelling positive multicultural skills for your students.

At the school, students and staff can use the services of the LSE Language Centre to hone their linguistic skills. For staff, especially GTAs, there are three courses run under English for Academic Purposes programme. The LSE Eden Centre also offers voice coaching masterclasses and one-to-one sessions with experienced voice coaches that have proved to be highly popular with GTAs.

General Course students

Given the international reputation of the LSE, each year, 300+ General Course students come to LSE. The General Course offers a one-year programme of study that is fully integrated into undergraduate life at LSE. Applicants to the programme have a strong academic record (at least a 3.3 GPA – grade point average, or equivalent and/or in the top 10-15 per cent from their year; a 3.5 GPA if they are concentrating on Economics courses) and will have completed at least two years of university level study by the time they join us. Most General Course students are from North American institutions, but there are a small but significant number from European universities, in addition, to an increasing number of students coming directly from Chinese universities. This meant that, in 2014/15, General Course students were drawn from 45 countries and 133 universities. They make up about eight per cent of LSE’s undergraduate population and about 25 per cent of the intake of “new” undergraduates to the School.

Their previous personal experiences range from those who have spent all of their lives in their home country and its educational system, to those for whom the LSE year is but one more step in a multi-national educational experience. There are General Course students attached to every department and they take a very broad range of courses. The School’s policy is that General Course students should be fully integrated into the School and its departments, and treated, as far as possible, as are other second- or third-year undergraduates. The majority of General Course students will return to North America for their final year of study. A small but significant number are in their final year, and will graduate, from their home university, at the year’s end.

Where General Course students join first-year classes, they will be as new to the LSE as their classmates but, unlike their classmates, they may already have clear ideas about what it is to be a student, and how to go about university-level study. Where they join second and third year classes, they clearly will have had somewhat different “preparation” for the courses they are studying, compared with students on standard three year programmes. Either way, it is worth noting that they are newcomers who may experience problems in adjusting to life in Britain and the UK higher education system, but more particularly getting to know LSE’s “ways of doing things”. They may well need help in making sense of LSE administrative practices. Most commonly, they feel academically rather than culturally disorientated. In particular, they may need (and will welcome) additional guidance and feedback on essay writing as well as advice on exam preparation and revision.

The one important difference concerning General Course students that class teachers need to be aware of is the requirement for somewhat different “class reports”. For more information on this, see Class grades for General Course students in the Feedback and Assessment section of the portal.

If you have any questions regarding General Course students in your classes do not hesitate to contact the General Course team on gc@lse.ac.uk.

Neurodiversity


One matter on which you may wish to seek further specialist advice is where you know, through a student IP, or have an idea, through your own concerns, that a student may be dyslexic or neurodiverse. Some students have been identified as dyslexic or neurodiverse from an early age and have developed study strategies which may have been successful so far, but which may not be so effective at university. Others, faced with the greater academic challenge, or perhaps coming from a different culture, are belatedly referred and assessed. This can lead to ambivalence and some loss of confidence, which will be compounded if faced with a “dyslexia does not exist” attitude. It does and students who have made the grade and secured a place at LSE have already experienced additional barriers. It is important to celebrate neurodiversity as part of the diversity of the LSE community. Neurodiversity is associated with strengths such as originality and strategic thinking.

LSE also has many dyspraxic students who can be overlooked as they may have strong spelling skills. Dyspraxic students characteristically have difficulties with organisation, prioritising and structuring ideas and information in written work.

If you feel that a student may be neurodiverse, talk to them. Reassure them with an initial positive statement about some aspect of their work, but go on to indicate that there are certain elements in their writing/organisation/reading that might be worth investigating. Suggest that they talk to somebody in the Neurodiversity team (based in the Disability and Wellbeing Service), who can provide one-to-one consultations, a screening interview or ideas for support. It might also be worth encouraging students to take advantage of the learning development opportunities offered by LSE LIFE, via a series of events, its Learning Development Moodle site and one-to-one sessions.

Further information about supporting neurodiverse students can be found in the Staff Guides on the Disability and Wellbeing Service web pages. Students can be referred to the self-help study strategies in Dyslexia and Neurodiversity in Moodle.

Managing your time and workload

The standard contractual hours for a GTA appointment, as of July 2017, is built up as shown in Table 1 below:

Contact hours   Actual teaching contract time in hours (ie, weeks x groups x length of seminar) 
Preparation 2 hours per different course taught (ie, weeks x courses x 2)
Lecture attendance and meeting Actual hours (ie, weeks x courses)
Office hours 1 office hour per 3 groups (ie, weeks x groups 3)
Formative marking (qualitative subjects) 4 items per student per course; 3 items marked per hour (ie, 4 x groups x 15/3)
Reports and Registers 0.5 hours per student per full unit per year (ie, groups x 15 x 0.5)

This may vary slightly across departments – for example marking regimes are highly variable between courses – so local arrangements may apply.

Preparing for classes can be very time-consuming, particularly in your first year of teaching. Expect to spend an hour or two at least in preparing for each class (as allocated for in your contract). However, don’t feel you need to read everything on the reading list or attend every lecture (unless this is required). Remember that you are not expected to learn the subject for the students, but to facilitate their learning.

Students may expect additional help outside class time and office hours allocated to the course. It is up to you to decide how flexible to be on this, but don’t feel under pressure to see students beyond the allocated office hours (unless there are pressing reasons). Decide from the start what your “email availability” will be and be sure to discuss this with your students in your first session. Are you happy for students to email you with queries? How quickly might they be able to expect response to emails? Can you post a reply to a discussion area in Moodle if the query is of general relevance? Is email an alternative to office hours or an additional contact mechanism? Be warned that emails from students can mount up significantly, and watch out for students who use it as a way of getting you to do their work for them. More information on supporting students outside of the class can be found here.

Where relevant, direct students back to course and programme handbooks to find information for themselves. Finally, make sure that students use their official LSE email addresses when contacting you; other addresses may end up in your junk folder.

GTA Contract: Ts and Cs

Recruitment and selection of GTAs is the responsibility of academic departments within LSE. Departments take somewhat different approaches to recruitment and appointment and to the details of the contracts they offer, according to their specific requirements.

Once appointed, you should receive a formal contract of appointment from the School’s Human Resources Division. Every individual appointed to work in the School is expected to provide necessary evidence of eligibility to work and to sign and return their contract before starting work (including training).

If you are planning to work on a Tier 4 student visa, please bear in mind that it is a condition of your visa that you do not work more than 20 hours per week during term time and it is your responsibility to ensure that you do not breach this condition.

Before starting work, you should ensure that you have received a contract, signed and returned it, and taken evidence of your eligibility to work in the UK, such as original passport and/or visa to the Human Resources Division. If you have any queries about your eligibility to work in the UK or what documents you need to provide, please contact the Human Resources (HR) division.

Most GTA contracts are in place before the start of the new academic year (or appropriate term, should you be teaching a half-unit course). However, due to the high workload faced by HR and academic departments at the start of the academic year, there may be some delay. If you have not received a contract or are concerned about your contract, contact the departmental manager in the department in which you are teaching in the first instance.

As mentioned before, a document outlining terms and conditions of employment for GTAs and guest teachers can be found on the LSE HR website. For more information on eligibility for work, visit the Right to Work process on the LSE HR website

Further Reading

Reflections on teaching in higher education

  • Moore, S, Walsh, G and Risquez, A (2007), Teaching at College and University (Open Up Study Skills), Maidenhead: Open University, pp168. LB2331 M82
  • Fry, H, Ketteridge, S and Marshall, S (eds) (2009), A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice, London: Routledge, pp544. LB2331 H23