Orientations to Teaching: How to make inductions to teaching relevant and engaging.

For nearly three weeks I have served as the facilitator of the Starting to Teach compulsory program for the Teaching Assistants at the University of Bristol. The program was designed for postgraduate students who were new to teaching and were the instructors for classes such as tutorials, seminars, practicals and labs. When planning and designing the sessions with my colleague Jane Pritchard we agreed that as a facilitator of the sessions I needed to serve as a role model and lead engaging sessions that involved the participants with each other, through different types of learning and teaching activities and by exposure to relevant supporting teaching material.

Through the development and facilitation of these sessions I learned a lot about how to set expectations at the beginning of the session, how to scaffold participants to gradually become more involved, and how to differentiate tasks based on the participants’ responsibilities as TAs across disciplines. In this post I would like to share some facilitation strategies when running compulsory sessions for lab demonstrators and small group teaching, the types of activities that help involve participants and develop basic, core understanding of key ideas and strategies for planning and implementing teaching, assessing student learning and evaluating teaching.

Climate Check: As participants enter and get settled in their seats go ahead and perform a climate check. For example, it was becoming obvious that in sessions in which there was a buzz from the time people got in the class that the participants would be more ready from the start of the workshop to do collaborative work because they were already feeling quite comfortable with each other. On the other hand, in the case of very silent groups you will have to start by building up the expectation for participation, sharing of ideas, and collaborative work. Also, watch for facial expressions when you are introducing expectations and group activities. You may realise that some participants are somewhat negatively predisposed to collaborative work and you will have to support them to realise and accept that their learning through them is equally rigorous as if you were doing a presentation of the materials.

Activity Spectrum: In day long teaching inductions besides the breaks and the caffeine ensure that you provide a range of activities in terms of collaboration and complexity. Start with ice-breakers and pair activities to warm up people to collaborative work as well as brainstorming activities (e.g., pros/cons lists, concept maps, compare & contrast) to warm up their minds particularly in early morning sessions. Include activities that are personal during which participants can produce something by themselves tailored to their own needs, discipline and teaching context. Action planning activities represent quite personalized tasks that commit participants to take specific actions once they leave the workshop.

Differentiate tasks: The greatest challenge in designing and facilitating teaching orientation sessions is to ensure that participants are able to transfer the core skills, knowledge, and strategies for teaching in their disciplines. Given that it is not possible to create so many different sessions to satisfy everybody, as a facilitator you need to use techniques to differentiate based on the subjects and needs of the attendees. A way to do that is by incorporating tasks that are personal (participants complete them individually) but also design tasks based on the teaching and assessment responsibilities of the participants. For example, share examples of learning and teaching activities that are applicable to teaching in various disciplines and address the different assessment duties that participants may have such as scoring essays, case studies, lab reports, problem sets, student presentations and performances.

Frame for Thinking: When introducing participants to teaching it would help their decision making and planning if you were able to provide a mental tool-a framework-for thinking about their teaching. You have a range of options here and choose based on what is going to be more meaningful for your participants. Choices for frameworks range from backward design, integrated design, 5E, and 7E for STEM learning and teaching. Frameworks for designing a session help participants to plan a class and make the various decisions about their teaching including the learning outcomes, how to check for prior knowledge, how they will involve the learners, what materials they will need, how to assess for student learning, and how to provide feedback.

Connect and Recap: For long all day sessions it is important to find ways to provide some continuity throughout the session. For example, you can introduce golden threads such as professionalism, team work, inclusivity, reflective practice, etc. As a facilitator you can bring up and discuss during several points in the workshop how ideas relate to these threads that run through the workshop. Also, you can recap the main activities that participants engaged during the workshop highlighting what they have achieved in a day’s session and what are the main actions they will need to take the next couple of weeks before they start to teach in terms of coordinating with people, making initial contacts, and preparing class materials.

Introductory sessions to teaching often don’t meet the expectations of the participants because they tend to be too generic or just provide some hints and tips about teaching. When designing and facilitating teaching orientations it is essential to actively involve your participants through different types of tasks- individual, pair and collaborative- tailor some of the activities to their duties and to an extent to their subject matters, provide them with a framework to make decisions about their teaching, and ensure that there is continuity throughout the session by summarizing, recapping and connecting back to important big ideas and threads. Finally, have participants create outputs that they can actually use when preparing and carrying out their teaching and most importantly during the orientations provide a platform where they will initiate their teaching network: a few other teaching assistants they will keep in touch with to talk about their teaching.

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