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I'm a Graduate Teaching Assistant in a Mathematics at a large state university. In the fall semester, I will be expected to be a TA for Calculus I, which will be taken by first year students. The course coordinator has set aside 5% as the 'recitation grade.' The coordinator has allowed the teaching assistants to use these 5% points at their own discretion.

What are some effective ways teaching assistants can use to implement the 5% grading policy in the recitations.

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In my own opinion recitations are best for two things:

  1. Addressing any gaps in understanding your students have

  2. Showing them problems that are similar to ones on the exam so they can practice

For that reason I think you should purposely show them hard problems which test many aspects of their understanding of a topic at once. Even do long multi-part questions if you must.

Next you need to address the issue of whether they will skip your recitation. It's worth only 5% on their grade which is significant, but your less mature students won't recognize that and might blow it off. For that reason I think you should consider making the 5% go towards either attendance or pop quizzes. And if you do pop quizzes, you should make them hard, but then grade them generously, maybe even throw in a curve towards the end of the semester.

The hard questions should be similar to the hardest questions the instructor is likely to put on an exam. Students have a tendency to focus on easy problems they know they can solve when they study (wrongly thinking the hard ones won't be on an exam), so you should try to get those problems in front of them so it's clear that those are fair problems for an exam.

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Students probably need two things from you. The first is the ability to ask questions that they have from the lecture and couldn't ask there. The second is practice. If you have a bunch of practice problem sheets available for each session, you can provide the practice quite easily. These are graded and returned the following session. The problems could be at any level of detail and the answers don't actually need to be correct to be valuable. It is the practice that you want.

I would divide the class in to two parts. Practice and questions. Have the practice first since the practice problems might generate their own questions. Spend about 1/3 of the period on answering questions. The fraction is adjustable as you learn more about them and the course proceeds.

In essence, what you are doing here is grading on attendance. If you show up you work on a few problems and you get a few points toward the grade. Use it just as a goad for participation. If some students don't need the small amount of grade they might not come, but make it valuable for those who do. And make it easy to get those few points if they do show up. You will then be likely to see the students who most need your help.

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In my experience, recitation grades are a good way of rewarding students who show up and show willing to put in the work, even if they're struggling with the material. They are the discretion that teachers are supposed to have in interpreting performance.

Many of your students are already probably stressed, so it's good to make recitation a safer space for the "dumb questions" that they need to ask but may feel shy about. Don't add quizzes (and stress) for the sake of justifying the 5%. Instead, let the 5% be extremely easy to earn by just being there---basically, "Did you generally show up and try to engage with the material?"

How formal you need to be in your policy depends on your university policy. When I was a TA, we used it informally in the end of semester grading meeting. First we would compute grades as though the recitation grade was not part of the formula. Then, for students just below the boundary of a higher letter-grade the professor would ask the TA, "How hard did this student work?" If the TA said they were showing up consistently and putting in the effort, that was "a good recitation grade" and the student got rounded up. If the TA said the student didn't bother showing up or was otherwise problematic, that was "a bad recitation grade" and the student didn't get the bonus and stayed at the lower grade. I liked this system very much because nobody was ever hurt by the recitation grade, but if they needed it, they could be given a small bonus for working hard.

If the university has a computerized computation where you have to give a precise formula, you can't be so informal. You can accomplish a similar effect, however, with something like: "5% if you attend at least 2/3 of recitations, minus 1% per skipped recitation below that."

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