The TA in Discussion


  1. Student’s Names

Learn the students’ names as quickly as possible.  Calling the roll for a few days is a good way to do this.

  1. Speaking and Writing

Speak clearly and loudly.  Be sure to write legibly on the board.  Make sure your voice can be heard and your writing can be read in the back of the room.

  1. Don’t Lecture to the Students

In a discussion section, the students work on worksheets as a team.  Walk around the class and listen to each group as they try to solve the problem.  If the group is on the wrong track, ask a question to try to put them on the right track instead of telling them outright that they are on the wrong track.

  1. Questions

When you ask the students whether they have any questions, do so in a way in which the students feel that you really welcome questions.  “What if” questions are usually the most effective.

  1. The Learning Process

Although you probably have never taken a course in the psychology of learning, you have a great deal of experience in the subject.  You have been a student for over 15 years.  Think about your experiences as a student.  Remember some of the techniques you used in learning a particular concept.  What helped you could help someone else.  See if you can figure out why some teachers are ineffective while others are very effective.  Your experience as a successful student should be excellent preparation for your teaching career.

Remember that most learning takes place outside the classroom when the students are on their own.  As their TA, your main task is to stimulate and guide the student.  Most students learn more from someone pointing out their mistakes and why they made them than from someone reciting a bunch of facts.  It is therefore more accurate to say that you are helping the student learn than to say that you are teaching the student.

  1. Flexibility

Chemistry is complicated and, therefore, can be difficult for beginning students to understand.  Chemical systems are typically influenced by a large number of factors.  Because of this, a simple procedure for solving a particular type of problem can usually not be given.  Students must learn not to be locked into a particular method.  Above all, stress the chemical principle more than the method.

You can help the students learn flexibility by allowing them to watch you think out loud when you come across a problem you have not seen before.  It is a good idea to show them that the solution is not obvious the moment you finish reading the problem.  Assure them that problem solving, even for accomplished scientists, can be a series of false starts.

A special comment about dimensional analysis, or the factor label method, seems appropriate.  Dimensional analysis is seen by some people as a sort of panacea for introductory chemistry students – a magic method for guaranteeing success on stoichiometry and other types of problems.  Although there is no question that dimensional analysis is a powerful and valuable tool  (it is the only way to change from g/ml to lbs./cu. ft for example), incorrect use of the method can lead to problems.  Buffer problems, for example, cannot be solved by dimensional analysis.  Total reliance on dimensional analysis short circuits the thinking process.  The student may get the correct answer but is not forced to think about the principles involved.

You should therefore be careful that you do not reflect an attitude that getting the correct answer is the student’s main goal.  With this in mind, teaching may be more difficult at times, but it is the only honest way to teach chemistry and challenge your students to think like a chemist.


Following these suggestions should help you become a successful teacher.  However, there is no substitute for on-the-job training.  If you are conscientious and alert, you will learn a great deal during your first semester of teaching.   You will be visited (by Dr. Selampinar and other faculty) early in the semester, while you run your discussion sections.  These visits are not meant to make you nervous or interrupt the lessons.  Rather, they are meant to give you constructive criticism and feedback on your performance.