Potential challenges common to a laboratory Teaching Assistantship assignment and some possible solutions:

Harmon D. Maher, Jr.
Professor, Dept. of Geography and Geology
University of Nebraska
554-4807, harmon_maher@mail.unomaha.edu

A lab is a traditional form of active and experiential learning, which has some traits that set it apart from other forms of education and give it a distinctive character as a T.A. assignment. The lab T.A. often works closer with students for longer periods of time, and often has greater pedagogic responsibility. Safety, equipment, and other considerations also can distinguish the lab setting. Accordingly, it can be worthwhile to consider what specific challenges may arise in this setting, and what may be methods of dealing with these challenges.

The challenges/solutions listed below are not in any specific order. They are simply thoughts that derive from workshops with new T.A.s, from discussions with colleagues and students, and from my experiences as a lab T.A. and professor. Not all of the solutions suggested here may be appropriate for individual cases - you are of course responsible for thinking through which approaches you will or should take. This document will present possibilities. I encourage people to send me feedback so that I can improve this document. Finally, please do not find the number of concerns disheartening - I have generally found labs an extremely rewarding experience, but perhaps some of the below can make it even more so.


Academic honesty

Statement of concern: While honesty is an issue throughout academia, labs provide a different context. They are often conducted in a less controlled environment and involve group work, and there is more opportunity for students to cheat or to be confused about what is not acceptable. Copying others work is probably the biggest concern. Many studies show that cheating is not rare!

Possible solutions:


Lab safety

Statement of concern: Safety is a primary concern for some labs, since they deal with hazardous substances or equipment. An accident is bad news all around. Some students do not have an innate understanding of what is safe and what isn't, which puts the brunt of the responsibility on the T.A..

Possible solutions:


Student time management during the lab

Statement of concern: Labs can require completion in a set amount of time. Some students may still be struggling to finish well after the scheduled time, and you want to go home to study for the big test tomorrow. For some labs it is not possible for the students to finish the lab at some later time (due to equipment availability).

Possible solutions:


Performance, math and/or science anxiety

Statement of concern: Some students may be interested and very much want to succeed in the lab, but are greatly hindered by math or science anxiety, or by 'performance' anxiety. This is a real barrier for some students, and should be taken seriously. They may be quite well prepared, but still uneasy about using their knowledge and skills.

Possible solutions:


Academically unprepared students

Statement of concern: Labs may be based on the assumption that all students will have certain knowledge and skills, which they may not. In Geography and Geology stories of students who are not familiar with the mathematical concept of slope, nor with the idea of latitude and longitude, nor with the concept of scale, and who are not familiar with the Periodic Chart are just some examples of assumed knowledge. There may be a lack of appropriate prerequisites for the source, or poor lab design, but in intro labs it can also be basic science illiteracy.

Possible solutions:


Lack of guidance for the T.A

Statement of concern: I have seen every approach from rigidly designed labs where the T.A. has little discretion and is mainly following extensive instructions to the T.A. being given full responsibility for lab design (from breathing-down-your-neck to see you at the end of the semester guidance). For an experienced T.A. being left to one's own devices can be quite a blessing, but for novices it can be a source of real frustration and abdication of the advisor's responsibilities.

Possible solutions:


Implementing less than optimally conceived labs

Statement of concern: For many reasons such as imperfect conception, inappropriate audience, poor translation into a new context, labs will have flaws. Yet it is your job to effectively implement these flawed labs.

Possible solutions:


Antipathy to lab material

Statement of concern: If a lab course is a college requirement, not all students will be motivated by natural interest. Sometimes the antipathy has religious or philosophic roots. The negative comments or behavior of these students can affect other students.

Possible solutions:


Student - T. A. relationships

Statement of concern: One good thing about labs is that the joint experience and effort often allows the students to develop a sense of disciplinary community, to connect with their academic peers. T.A.s are often drawn into this. You must remember your role as teacher, evaluator, and the power/authority structure involved. How do you handle friendships, romantic or sexual overtures in such a setting?

Possible solutions:


Student frustrations with group efforts

Statement of concern: Due to the expense of materials, and limited facilities, it is common that students work collaboratively in labs. This is generally a good practice, for much intellectual endeavor is a collaborative enterprise. When the work is collaborative there is potential for a student to carry the group, or a student to do little and parasitize.

Possible solutions:


Students requesting exceptions (late labs, etc.)

Statement of concern: Because of the character of students at this urban institute (work, family and school obligations) this is more of a problem than at other universities. Labs, where continued involvement and performance are necessary, run into schedule and life conflicts more often.

Possible solutions:


Lab T.A. assignments that are too time-consuming

Statement of concern: You are hear to further your education and training, to gain experience in teaching, and to further the University's teaching mission. Your assignment is 20 hours a week, but it is possible that this turns out to be insufficient for completion of your assigned duties (although this is not common in my experience). Some averaging may occur; e.g. 25 hours this week, 10 next, etc..

Possible solutions:


Labs that do not correlate with lecture material at the time

Statement of concern: Some students will expect a correspondence between the two as the semester progresses, and will express frustration if there is not.

Possible solutions:



Equipment failure

Statement of concern: If the equipment fails then the lab can come to a complete stop. What then? It may also cause delays when acquiring new functioning equipment. Some students may not be able to stay late to finish the lab.

Possible solutions:


Grading of subjective material

Statement of concern:

Often T.A.s for intro courses grade only multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank type student efforts. However, lab reports, or sketches, or write-ups involve more complex judgments during grading. Students may demand justification for the grade received. This can be compounded by the fact the student may be more willing to challenge a T.A. as an authority figure, than a professor.

Possible solutions:


Responding to criticism of the professor or other T.A.s from a student

Statement of concern: Since you work more closely with students and represent a sort of 'intermediate' authority figure, students may be more likely to express frustration with the course, or with the instructor. You may or may not sympathize with the student, but may be uncertain how to respond.

Possible solutions: