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Preparing to Teach

Getting to know your students | Getting the big picture of the course | Planning a class session


Whether you are designing your own tutorial or working from materials provided by the course coordinator, planning and preparation before you step into the classroom is essential.

A sensible start of the preparation would be to get a good understanding of the audience (i.e. students) and context (e.g. course learning outcomes, syllabus, etc) of your teaching, with which you will then be in a better position to plan and structure a specific session, including establishing the learning outcomes, and designing the learning activities.

This session will walk you through the preparation process.

Getting to know your students

Even before you meet students for the first time, you can begin to assemble some background knowledge about them. For example, you may want to know the students’ background, or their prior knowledge relevant to the course. The more you know about what to expect, the better your preparation and planning would be, and the easier it would be for you to interact with them in your teaching later on.

Talk to the faculty with whom you will be teaching or your course coordinator, who should be able to provide you some answers to these questions, from their past experiences with the course. If possible, visit a lecture or tutorial the term before you teach, or talk to a TA who taught the same course before.

Given the idiosyncrasies of each cohort of students, it would be worthwhile for you to collect more reliable and first-hand information from your students in the first tutorial/demonstration, by asking them to complete a brief learner survey which can include questions asking about their capacities, expectations and needs.

Getting the big picture of the course

Good teaching not only comes about from having well planned individual sessions, but also from a sense of the big picture. Meet with the professor or instructor with whom you will be teaching prior to the beginning of the semester to get their perspective on the course. You are also advised to go through the teaching syllabus carefully to get a clearer view of the big picture and visualize in your mind how the different sessions tie together. Imagine the course as a story, you need to see the story line and understand the logical links between parts of the story so as to retell the whole story to your students.

Planning a class session

HKU adopts an outcomes-based approach to student learning. OBASL is a student-centered approach, which focuses on what we intend our students to learn or be able to do at the end of teaching, or in other words, on the learning outcomes.

A learning outcome is a statement of what students are supposed to be able to do, written from the students’ perspective. It would be useful to start the statement with something like “By the end of this session, you will be able to …”. Learning outcomes of a session provide an overall framework for how you organize the content and activities of that session. In other words, the contents you choose to cover and the activities you supply for students to apply what they learn should aim at helping them to achieve the learning outcomes.

Following the OBASL approach, it would be a good idea for you to plan a session backward by deciding on the learning outcomes first. Remember that you need to relate the learning outcomes of your tutorial with the lecture session and ensure that your students see the connection.

Having specific learning outcomes is not as simple and straightforward as it may sound. Most often, new TAs tend to define the learning outcomes using terms such as ‘understand’ and ‘know’. There is nothing wrong with these terms themselves but they are vague in the sense that it is difficult to tell what level of “understanding” or “knowing” they refer to. According to Bloom, students’ understanding develops from simple to complex levels, with knowledge at the very basic level and evaluation at the highest. 

It would be worthwhile, therefore, to clarify: do I want my students to be able to define a term, to explain a concept/theory, to analyze a problem/case/situation, or to provide solutions to existing problems? Thinking about these questions would help you to be more specific in defining the learning outcomes. Another way that helps you define the learning outcomes is to think about what data you will collect from students to determine whether they achieve the learning outcomes.

Simply put, express the learning outcomes, wherever possible, in action words, e.g., ‘explain’, ‘identify’, ‘apply’, ‘analyze’, etc.

Once you establish the learning outcomes, consider what kind of learning activities you will have students participate in. For some tutors, your course coordinator will give you guidance, some may even have a structured program of activities they wish you to work through; for others you will have to work this out for each tutorial.

Learning activities can range from problems set for individual work, mini presentation, to group discussion, or experiments, etc. The key in designing and structuring learning activities is to think about how well these activities can support your students in achieving the learning outcomes. For instance, if one of the learning outcomes is to identify the links among the concepts/ideas of a session, students should be given opportunities to demonstrate the links they perceive, for example by drawing a concept map.

When you spell out the learning outcomes and design appropriate learning activities, think also about the resources, facilities and learning materials you will need for this particular session.