Leading Discussions, Recitations and Lab Sessions

As the leader of a discussion, recitation, or laboratory session, you are responsible for clarifying and supplementing the material and concepts that constitute a large course, generally taught by a faculty member.  Consider the following guidance:

  • Attend the professor’s lectures.  Many faculty members will require your attendance, but even if attendance is optional you are well served by reviewing the same material to which your students are exposed.
  • Make sure you understand the material.  This hardly means that you will be prepared to answer any conceivable question, but even course content in which you are an expert should get a brief review.  There is no shortage of stories in which advanced teachers slip up on “familiar” material.  It is perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll check on it and get back to you.”
  • Communicate with others.  Many GTAs are required to attend meetings with the course professor or lab coordinator and other GTAs.  Even if your professor does not hold regular meetings, be sure you understand his or her objectives for each section of the course, and be sure that the objectives for your discussion or recitation sessions are consistent with the professor’s.  Determine early on what the professor expects students to gain from your session.
  • Build relationships with fellow teachers.  Your peers and colleagues can be excellent resources for lesson planning, trouble shooting, and sharing grading strategies.
  • Remember that you are in a position of authority.  While a dictatorial pedagogy will very likely not serve you or your students well, students should neither be encouraged to treat you as a peer, nor should they regard you as an obstacle to the professor.  
  • Learn your students’ names early on by asking the course professor to supply you with the photo roster of students, available to the teacher of record via the University of Maryland Electronic Grading (UMEG) system.
  • Access available resources for lab safety: the laboratory  science  departments  supply  laboratory  safety information  to  lab  teaching assistants; for  general  information  on laboratory safety, visit the Department of Environmental Safety, Sustainability & Risk.
  • Remember that a good experience as a discussion, recitation, or lab leader can be especially rewarding.  You will almost certainly have significant contact with students and will be in a position to contribute meaningfully to their education.  Many of your students will appreciate your dedication, just as you appreciate your own professors'.
  • Attend another GTA’s section.  Observation can be a good strategy for improving your own teaching.