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I'm senior year undergraduate, and I have to say I love to teach. I have assumed the role of a TA for multiple courses uptil now, including courses in economics, physics and mathematics. I have had the fortune of leading tutorial sessions for almost all the courses I have TA-ed thus far.

I have the following concern:

I feel as if that students are reluctant to express their concerns to me. I try and keep things as formal as possible. This is not to say that I peg the students down to their chairs (after all, they're my peers!); rather, I try and conduct everything as formally as possible. Prior to every session, I send timely, formally phrased emails reminding the class of the schedule of the sessions; I'll typeset the tutorials on LaTeX and distribute copies in the session. I feel as if the students are at times intimidated of the lengths I'll go to make the experience of attending the sessions both worhwhile and learning intensive. Hence, I feel as if they're at times reluctant to express their concerns (about the pace of the sessions, about my ability to explain a particular concept etc.), even though I repeatedly ask them to let me know if the pace is too fast for them etc.

What can I do to encourage/facilitate more communication between an undergraduate TA and a class of undergraduate students? I'd like the students to be ideally express their concerns to me as if I'm a mentor or a helper, rather than a TA who'll probably downgrade them on the next assignment in case they bad mouth me to my face, for instance (I don't know if this is a valid concern among students in general, but let's consider this hypothetical for one).

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Tl;dr: Keep it specific, personal and short.

One way to get feedback, that I found useful is the following:

e.g. as you said, they might think, that you are going too fast.

First, find a very specific set of questions on three levels, like "Who would like to see more examples?, Who sees enough examples?, Who would be happy with less examples?"

And then at the end of the lesson you say: "Before we finish I quickly need some feedback. Please raise your hand, if you think I show too few, enough or too many examples?" Then you ask the above questions and count the number of hands.

If you are still concerned, that their answers might be influenced by the presence of their peers ("I don't want to look dumb/like I need more examples"), make an "anonymous survey", where they all rest their head on their table, close their eyes and then you ask the questions. They'll look at you confused, the first time you ask them to do it, but they get used to it quickly.

Another example: If you feel like the way you explained a concept was unhelpful, you may ask "Who made a step forward with that explanation?" or "Who just got confused?".

Another option

Ask a student in person directly after class / or before class about the last lesson, if your class is preparation to solve an exercise sheet. Ask them when their peers are around them, e.g. while packing their things. Again, I suggest asking a very specific question, like "I showed you this example, was that any good?", this might also give you an opportunity to ask a follow-up question and with this I made the experience, that often the peers offer their opinion. You may do the same about your LaTeX notes, something along the line of "Is that any good to you?".

I'm aware that this kind of feedback does not give you an overview of the general opinion, but at least it gives you something to think about and improve.

For a more general feedback, at the end of the semester I handed my students a small slip of paper (so that they don't feel the need to write a ton of things) with two categories: "That's what I liked best:" and "That could be improved:".

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You have too romantic idea about how it should work, I think. We have anonymous surveys (possibly give some scores for the exam for participation) and keep feedback sessions where couple of students go to (free) coffee/lunch with a professor. I do not know about your processes to help more.

  • Too romantic an idea? Do you think I shouldn't bother about the students' feedback? Or should I not expect them to actively respond on such questions either in the session(s) or during office hours? – Junaid Aftab Feb 2 '17 at 9:02
  • Possibly both. In our process it is not really for a TA to handle the feedback, because the professors manage the big picture, like how the lectures and TA's helping sessions work together. And people in general do not give feedback without an incentive, especially in front of an audience. – user3644640 Feb 2 '17 at 9:08
  • I'm naturally asked to ask the following question then: how about stressing over email(s) that the students should feel free to let me know of their feedback in case they don't wish to make it heard out loud in class? More so, if they're worried about anonymity, they should go on and talk to the instructor (who'll then refer their advice to me). – Junaid Aftab Feb 2 '17 at 11:14
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    The problem is that you do not have a system. You need incentives for students to give feedback. Students do not care about how you would grow faster as a teacher if you received feedback. They do not want to give the feedback even-though you would like to receive it, because it costs their time. – user3644640 Feb 2 '17 at 11:29
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    You cannot really change small things fast enough to tailor for them, and if you make big mistakes they will let you know. Like when I was showing them some Excel, they did tell me that I need to zoom for them to see on some big screens. But only after the course feedback system I got the general feedback about my performance. During the course we could follow how well each of the groups did in assignments. – user3644640 Feb 2 '17 at 11:51
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Here are some things you can try:

  • create a simple blog with a post for each session or each topic. Allow moderated anonymous comments where students can post questions or feedback.

  • create a simple webform questionnaire and email it to your students.

  • distribute a simple paper questionnaire during class.

  • ask a friend or colleague to sit in and observe, to give you feedback, and to share his or her impressions of the students' level of engagement.

  • after demonstrating how to solve a certain kind of problem, ask your students to work similar problems on the blackboard. For this to work, you need lots of blackboard space, so everyone can go to the board at the same time.

  • form small groups and assign a problem to each group. Have them push their desks around so they can collaborate more comfortably. If you want to read more about this -- I think it's called cooperative learning.

  • ask them to email you to let you know which problems and which topics they want help with.

  • get to know your students better. You can start by asking them to write down three things that help define them as an individual, as well as their academic interests. Review these from time to time throughout the semester. If anyone asks, reassure him or her that this assignment is optional. (Take 5 minutes from class one day for this activity.)

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