TA Handbook


The initial version of this handbook was prepared in September 1991 by a committee of the Department of Astronomy: Bill Clarke, Maurice Clement (chair), Mike Fieldus, John Percy, and Ian Short. Until 2002 it was maintained and updated each year by Maurice Clement, who deserves many thanks for producing such a valuable resource. The handbook is a synthesis of the following sources plus some additions which are pertinent to our own department:

TIPS FOR TEACHING: A Handbook for Teaching Assistants at the University of Toronto, by Janette M. Baker supported by funding from the Office of the Provost, University of Toronto. This handbook is now available online at http://www.utoronto.ca/ota/guides.html
Handbook for Teaching Assistants, Erindale College, University of Toronto.
The Teaching Assistant’s Handbook, Department of Physics, University of Toronto.
The Faculty of Arts and Science Academic Handbook and Undergraduate Calendar, University of Toronto.

You may also find it helpful to check the check the web site for the Teaching Assistants’ Training Programme at http://www.utoronto.ca/tatp

Last updated: November 1, 2012




What is a teaching assistant supposed to do? Are you a marker/grader, tutor, campus observer, junior professor, or administrative assistant? Usually, the job involves one or more of these roles. The exact combination depends on you and your supervisor, the needs of the particular position, and the group of students with which you are interacting.

As a TA in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, your employment is regulated by a collective agreement between your union (the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902) and the Governing Council of the University. This contract sets out the framework by which people are hired, the rates of pay and benefits, and a procedure for handling problems and grievances. It also sets up the format by which the duties and responsibilities of a TA are defined. But very little is said about the substance of those duties. You and your supervisor together must define what your role will be.

Within three weeks of having been offered a position, you should be given a “Description of Duties and Allocation of Hours” form. You don’t have to accept the offer of employment until you’ve been given this outline. You should then have an initial meeting with your supervisor to review the job description and to make any modifications that are necessary. This is the time to clarify your role. Record all your duties and be sure that sufficient time is allocated for each. They will involve some mixture of the following:

  • meeting with your supervisor and other TA’s for coordination and guidance
  • attending any required TA training sessions or workshops
  • marking assignments, problem sets, tests, and exams
  • preparing and conducting tutorials
  • grading essays and term papers
  • invigilating tests and exams
  • holding office hours or otherwise meeting your students outside of tutorials or labs
  • preparing written or audio-visual materials
  • attending lectures
  • demonstrating telescopes and other equipment
  • setting up or preparing laboratory or observational exercises
  • preparing for and giving lectures in the absence of the course instructor
  • administering observing schedules
  • maintaining equipment and monitoring darkroom supplies
  • conducting field trips to the David Dunlap Observatory
  • assisting at departmental open houses
  • operating audio-visual equipment at graduate student seminars (AST2000) or departmental colloquia

It is the responsibility of the supervisor to specify in appropriate detail the manner in which the assigned duties are to be performed and to ensure that the total hours of work as set out in the job description are not exceeded. Once this is done, you and the course supervisor both sign the completed form. By signing, you are not agreeing that the job description is the best way to run the course, only that you understand it and will do your best to carry it out. This job description will then form the basis of your duties through the term or the year.

The allocation of duties and hours on the job may be changed at any time by mutual agreement between you and your course supervisor. The supervisor may make small changes which do not increase the total hours or significantly alter the nature of the job, but you must be consulted and agree before larger changes are made.

Keep in touch with your supervisor regularly. Keep track of the hours you spend on the various duties. If you find you have to spend too much time on certain tasks, record your hours carefully and speak to your supervisor right away. Often, your duties can be adjusted.

Be sure to let your supervisor know of foreseen absences. You are entitled to observe religious holidays if you give your supervisor two weeks written notice. If you are ill, or must miss duties for any other reason, notify the supervisor as soon as possible. There are provisions for maternity leave and leave for union business. You should arrange for a substitute if you are to be away.

An employment file containing all of your employment related papers must be maintained separate from your academic files. Everything in the file must have been shown to you and signed by you to acknowledge this. All evaluations of your work must be kept in this file, be discussed with you by your supervisor, and you may attach any comments of your own. You may request an evaluation twice per appointment. The file may be released to any department you apply to work at but may not be released physically or orally outside the university without your written consent. You may request to review your employment file.

In general, if you have any problems with your students or any work related difficulties, consult your supervisor. If you have any problem which you can not resolve with your supervisor, or you do not wish to approach your supervisor alone, you should talk first to the Associate Chair. If this is unsatisfactory, you should then contact the departmental union steward or call the CUPE office. You must grieve within 60 working days after the problem occurred; otherwise, the situation becomes more complicated.



Courses are offered to suit persons of diverse backgrounds and depths of interest. Three beginning courses (AST101H, 201H, 210H) require no special skill or knowledge of mathematics or other sciences. They develop an understanding of the universe in a qualitative way and in terms of natural laws familiar to most people. The other courses offered in each of the four years of undergraduate study are designed for students of increasing scientific sophistication.

In some astronomy courses, the objective is to provide for personal involvement by the student. One way of achieving this is through the use of telescopes, cameras, and other equipment on the St. George campus roof-top observatory by day as well as by night. There is also a small observatory on the Scarborough campus for the same purpose. Visits to the David Dunlap Observatory are sometimes arranged and can be very effective learning experiences. Motion pictures, slides, and lecture demonstrations are used extensively by many instructors. In 100 and 200-series courses, small tutorial groups provide additional opportunities for participation by astronomy students. Students enrolled in Astronomy programs (minor, major, and specialist) gain some practical experience in observational methods and data reduction in the third year laboratory course AST325H.

Who Are the Astronomy Students?

Many of the undergraduate students in our courses are taking programs in other departments and even other faculties such as medicine, engineering, and pharmacy. Many are non-science students studying astronomy as an option or as a science elective which might be required as part of a degree program in the Humanities or Social Sciences. In this sense, the astronomy department is providing service teaching to other departments and this explains why some of our large courses in first and second year are scheduled around the noon lunch period or in the evening. We are trying to avoid conflicts with courses in other departments and faculties and make astronomy classes as accessible as possible to a large number of students. In any case, the fact that most of the students that you will be dealing with are non-science people is important to keep in mind when trying to understand their abilities, attitudes, and behavior.

You will find that only a minority of astronomy undergraduates are what might be called “hard core” science students; i.e., ones that are interested in astronomy for its own sake and who might be considering a career in the field as a possible option. Alternatively, they could be in specialist programs in other science departments such as physics or chemistry. Or they might be in our own astronomy major or minor programs or in the astronomy/physics specialist program taking a mixture of astronomy, physics, and mathematics courses.

A few of the students you encounter may have physical disabilities; others may have learning disabilities of one form or another. The University is committed to providing all students with a fair and equal opportunity to participate fully in its life. In some instances, this involves adjustments in physical facilities or special equipment. In other cases, it requires special consideration in matters like extra time for term tests and examinations. The university has a special office and a Coordinator to deal with the problems of disabled students. It can provide personal support and liaison with academic and administrative departments and with off-campus agencies. The office is in the Koffler Student Services Center on St. George Street.



In an ideal situation, the course instructor involves the teaching assistants as much as possible in the course from planning to implementation. At the very least, the TA must understand what is going on and this applies equally to campus observers too even though they are not usually involved with any particular course. As early in the term as possible, you should discuss and clarify the following topics with your supervisor. For campus observers, only g) is relevant.

a) Course structure – Tutors and markers should receive a general course outline of the subjects that will be covered in the lectures and the level at which they will be treated. Find out what the recommended text is and what departures from it the lecturer intends to make. If you are to be a tutor, be sure that you know when and where your tutorials are to be held and that you have a class list for each tutorial group. It is also a good idea to know when and where the regular lectures are to be held.

b) Teaching assistant’s role – Again if you are to be a tutor, you and your supervisor must agree on what type of tutorial you will be conducting. Does the instructor expect to concentrate on the theory and leave worked examples up to you? In this case, your tutorials will be primarily problem solving sessions. Does the instructor plan to use problem sets to cover some of the “finer” points of the material? If so, you might expect to prepare occasional lectures or discussions concerning the finer points. Will tutorial time be spent taking up the assignments or will there be a system for posting the solutions, thus freeing tutorial time for other things? Both tutors and markers should find out if the instructor expects them to attend classes.

c) Problem sets – Establish how often problem sets will be assigned, how they will be distributed and collected and when they are due. Because you are contracted to mark for only a limited number of hours in a term, you may not have to mark all the problem sets but only a selected subset. Or you may not have to mark all the questions on a particular assignment but only some of them.

d) Marking – The course instructor is obliged to try and establish course-wide consistency in the marking. That is, he or she must define a common standard. Find out how the instructor intends to mark the relative importance of the following parts of a problem solution: perceiving the proper physical relationships, algebraic manipulation, obtaining the correct numerical answer, using proper units, etc. In essays and term papers, how important is grammar and correct English as opposed to ideas and critical analysis? Have the instructor estimate how well an average student should do on a particular assignment so that you can judge how generous to be in your marking. Another point to establish is what is required for credit in tutorials. Does attendance and participation count, or only the problem sets or exercises?

e) Tests and exams – You may be expected to do grading or invigilating of tests and exams. It is wise to establish how these duties are to be handled even if they are not resolved until closer to the test date.

f) Regular meetings – In order to coordinate tutorials with the lectures, it is necessary for the instructor and the TA’s to communicate regularly. This also provides the opportunity of providing some feedback to the instructor on any difficulties that the students might be having.

g) Campus Observer Duties – The faculty supervisor is Stefan Mochnacki; he is responsible for training the “observers” and assigning duties at the beginning of the academic year. The chief campus observer usually has the task of training course TA’s in how to operate the 8” and 16” telescopes on the roof of the McLennan building so that they in turn can demonstrate the telescopes to students. But ultimately, the campus observers are in charge of the operation of these instruments which are used by the undergraduates for course projects. In addition, campus observers have other duties such as telescope scheduling, dark room and equipment maintenance, operating projection facilities at G2000 and astronomy colloquia, and also assisting with the public open houses presented by the Department from time to time.

This year, we will offer for the first time, the capability of operating the 16″ and 12″ telescopes remotely through a highly sophisticated web interface. Training for interested faculty and students will be provided as the facilities come on line.



Advisor Role

As a teaching assistant in a large university, you may be one of the few people with whom a first year student has direct, personal contact. New students are in particular need of guidance during the first six weeks or so while they are acclimatizing to a new environment. But, at any time, students may consult you when they are having difficulties in their academic work or in personal areas. You will be able to help them with the work in your course and probably with other courses in astronomy. There will be areas, however, in which you do not have the skills needed to help students even though you will want to lend a “sympathetic ear” to their problems. When this happens, you should refer them to one of the many experienced counsellors at the university.

College registrars are knowledgeable about academic rules such as those concerning the dropping and adding of courses to a particular program of study. There are also counsellors available to help with psychological problems. The university provides a study skills counsellor, an international student advisor, an ombudsperson, counsellors specialized in helping students who have physical or learning disabilities, etc. See Resources for Teaching Assistants and Students for further information. These services are also available to help you.

Your Expectations

Teaching assistants, including yourself, are drawn from among those who have excelled in university studies. You have already demonstrated a serious commitment to academic work. The students you are teaching are unlikely to have your experience of what is required to be successful. In any case, relatively few students can be expected to qualify for graduate school.

It would be surprising if you didn’t sometimes feel impatience with your students and doubt their commitment to serious study. At such times, remember that when you were an undergraduate, your TA’s and professors may have felt the same about you and your contemporaries.

A major part of your teaching effort involves setting reasonable standards and helping the students to acquire the self discipline needed to meet them. If you badger students and treat their efforts with disdain, it is unlikely that they will learn much from you.

Treat Your Students With Respect

Don’t embarrass or belittle them if they ask what you consider to be a “dumb question”. They have the right to ask you to explain something they don’t understand and to receive the information. Treat all students equally. Be careful that you don’t show favoritism to some and ignore others. Monitor your own behavior to ensure that you do not portray prejudice towards either males or females, members of any ethnic or racial group, or individuals who may have sexual preferences that differ from your own.

In tutorials, watch to ensure that you give everyone an equal opportunity to participate. This means that you do not always call on the students who put up their hands first. Watch to see if a shy student is indicating by body language that he/she is willing to answer (e.g., leaning forward, tentatively raising a hand, trying to make eye contact with you). Don’t interrupt students or allow them to interrupt each other.

How Friendly Should I Be?

Much of your success (or lack of it) with undergraduates will depend on how they perceive your attitude to them. This is particularly important because you will not be much older than many of the students you teach, so that students are likely to be a good deal more sensitive to your general approach to them than would be the case for someone of a different generation, like most faculty members.

Canadian students will probably be most comfortable if you call them by their first names, and they address you in the same manner. Whatever form of address you use, it must be consistent for all the students you deal with. By all means be friendly with your students, but remember always that you have to maintain a degree of detachment. While they will learn best if you work along with them, don’t forget that you are going to have to grade their tests and assignments. This calls for a degree of dispassionate assessment which is hard to combine with a close personal relationship. Therefore, you should try to avoid social and emotional interactions with your students. If you find that you do develop a personal relationship with a student or you are a relative or personal friend of someone who registers in your tutorial, arrange to have that student transfer to another section. If that is not possible, tell the course instructor about your dilemma and he/she will arrange to have the student’s assignments and tests marked by someone else.

In this connection, you should be aware that becoming romantically or sexually involved with one of your students could leave you open to allegations of sexual harassment. Your relationship with students should be a professional one and apparently innocent behavior (such as touching someone’s arm) or personal comments or questions (about looks, personal life, sex life, etc.) may be inappropriate. The University finds sexist (and racist) behavior unacceptable whether or not it constitutes harassment in a legal sense. In fact, the University has a Sexual Harassment Policy and an officer to deal with any complaints or charges. If you find yourself in difficulty, you should not hesitate to discuss the problem with your supervisor.



You Are Similar To Other TA’s

Most new teaching assistants worry about their adequacy as teachers, whether or not students will like them, and if they know enough to be in charge of a class or to instruct them in whatever capacity. Sometimes, international TA’s do not realize that the majority of their fears and worries about their teaching assistantship are related to the position of being a teaching assistant, rather than to their unfamiliarity with the Canadian educational culture. Therefore, emphasize to yourself how you are like other graduate students and teaching assistants, rather than solely considering yourself an international student and TA. Interact and share your concerns with other new teaching assistants and gain from the knowledge of more experienced ones.

Difficulties With English

If you feel insecure about your English or feel that your students might have difficulty understanding you, ask your course director or the undergraduate coordinator in your department about university services that are available to help you improve. The International Student Centre can help in this regard. Interact with English-speaking people as much as possible. Find an English-speaking roommate; make friends with those who speak English to each other. While you will want to spend some time with those from your own culture, do not isolate yourself within your own ethnic community. Speak English whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Go to movies that are in English; watch television. Tell your students that you want to improve your verbal English skills and that you will ask them to repeat things slowly or rephrase what they have said if you don’t understand them. Ask them to let you know if they cannot understand you. Don’t pretend to understand if you do not.

Students Are Informal

Canadian students are informal in the way they dress (jeans and shorts are common in class for example), in the way they speak, and in the way they act. They will probably address you by your first name. They may arrive late or leave early. If this bothers you greatly, talk to them about it and find out if there is a reason. They may eat their lunch or have a soft drink during your tutorial or class. They are not being disrespectful to you personally; it’s just the way they act.

What Students Expect Of TA’s

Your students will expect you to explain everything about the course to them – what the assignments are, your marking standards, your policy with regard to assignments submitted after the due date, whether attendance will be taken in every class, etc. They will expect you to respect them as individuals and to treat them in many ways as equals. Be friendly and help them to learn.

Non-verbal Language

You may find that non-verbal behavior (body language) is different from what you are used to. Watch other people in the class and on the street. Look at the distance two people maintain between them when they are talking. Note their movements, their gestures, whether or not and how they touch each other physically. Non-verbal behavior differs with culture.

How To Deal With Prejudice

Some students may not have had the opportunity to interact with people from other cultures, so they may act in ways that are inappropriate. This may be due to ignorance and insensitivity on their part. Do not take their behavior as something personal against you or your culture. On the other hand, do not ignore behavior on the part of students that is inappropriate or even offensive to you; discuss the issue with them in a tactful and diplomatic way. You might want to do this during the class (if you can do so without embarrassing the individual) or privately afterwards. If this does not resolve the situation, discuss it with your supervisor. The University will simply not tolerate discriminatory behaviour on the part of any members of the university community.



The material in this section is taken from a variety of sources. While some of it may not be helpful or even appropriate in every situation, the ideas should suggest a variety of ways in which you can improve your ability to function effectively in teaching situations of various kinds. It will be of particular relevance to those actually conducting tutorials or interactive sessions, and it should be of general interest to all TA’s.


The First Tutorial/Lab

The first session you have with your students might be mostly one of introduction. First, you should introduce yourself and write your name and office room and phone numbers on the blackboard. You could briefly describe your astronomical research interests. Next, find out about your students. At the very least you should get a list of their names. Better is to let students introduce themselves to the class and describe the programs they are enrolled in and the School or Faculty if it’s not Arts and Science.

After personal introductions, you should explain the purpose of the tutorials/labs and your plans for the format of future sessions. Solicit suggestions from the students on what form they would like the tutorials/labs to take. Indicate to them their responsibilities in preparing for the tutorials: readings, questions to discuss, etc. The next topic to deal with is assignments and marks. Explain what you expect from them in their problem sets and exercises: how much detail, how much theory, defining symbols used, pen or pencil, neat or spontaneous, etc. You should carefully explain the marking scheme. After all this, you should still have some time left and you can open it up for questions.


Conducting A Tutorial

Astronomy tutorials can have many different purposes: to answer student questions, to discuss assignments and tests, or to enlarge on material covered only briefly in regular classes. If many students seem to have trouble with one particular topic, then a mini-lecture may be a good idea. More common is a class discussion arising out of a student question. Or you may wish to provoke a discussion by asking open-ended and qualitative questions. There are many areas in astronomy which are suitable for this; for example, those relating to the origin and evolution of the universe, galaxies, stars, and planets.

Frequently, however, tutorials are problem-solving sessions. The problems may be ones that you or the course instructor have selected or they may be ones suggested by the students themselves. In any case, you should be familiar enough with the problems to see clearly the steps involved. The fastest way to do problems in a tutorial is for you to work them on the blackboard. But far more valuable for the students is a Socratic approach. Most of the time, students do have some idea of how to do a problem; it’s just that they’re unsure of themselves. So ask them how to solve it! You will have to be patient; give them time to think, give them some hints, and don’t expect to do nearly as many problems in an hour. You should be at the blackboard, writing down the solution as it progresses. Try to squelch formula-spurting by asking them to answer the questions you might ask yourself if you were solving the problem: what are we asked to find? What relevant information do we have? Do we have enough information to solve the problem? Is a diagram useful? Are any approximations necessary? Have we solved similar problems? Can we solve a simpler problem and then introduce the complications later? Are conservation laws helpful? Is the answer reasonable? This method is definitely more demanding on you as a teacher, and the students would probably prefer to be spoon-fed, but stick with it and the approach will get easier with time as the students learn more.

A major difficulty that you will encounter in trying to teach astronomy (especially to non-science people) is that many students have trouble thinking in the abstract or thinking in physical terms. Such students are prone to memorizing formulae without understanding them. Often they will accept an absurd result when they make a numerical error and not rely on their common sense. Also, they will plug in the numerical values at each stage of a multi-step problem, often making numerical mistakes and never even noticing the simplifications that would be obvious had they worked with symbols instead of numbers. Explain to your students the advantages of working problems through to the final answer using symbols and only then plugging in the numbers.

Leading Discussions

You should speak a bit more loudly than seems necessary for normal audibility. This helps to maintain the students’ attention, but it doesn’t mean that you should have to compete with noisy students; ask them to quiet down or leave. Speak to the students – not to the board – and talk slowly and clearly. When writing on the blackboard, try to be organized; neatness counts! Draw diagrams to illustrate what you are talking about. Don’t just gaze blankly over their heads; watch the students to see if they understand.

Try to maintain a relaxed posture. Sit down if you feel like it. Try to avoid pacing back and forth; it makes people nervous. On the other hand, some (even animated) motion is useful from time to time to keep attention focussed on you and what you are saying.

After you ask a question, wait and give the students time to think and respond before you paraphrase or give a hint. Similarly, when you are asked a question, take time to think; pauses will always seem much longer to you than to your audience! Refer questions to other members of the class for answer. Be gentle in your criticism of student responses and more students will feel freer to participate. Don’t put-down students who ask “stupid questions”. It didn’t seem stupid to them or they wouldn’t have asked, and much of the class may share the misunderstanding.

Admit Your Mistakes

It is inevitable that sometime in your teaching career you will blunder in class and get something completely wrong (or at least say something which isn’t entirely accurate). It is of utmost importance that you admit your error to your students as soon as possible. As important as admitting your mistakes is admitting that you don’t know the answer to a question. Tell your students that you don’t know or you’re not sure but that you’ll find out by next week. Then make sure that you do!

Be Prepared

If you are shy or nervous about speaking in front of a group of people, the best thing you can do is to make sure that you are prepared for the tutorial. Know the theory cold, work all the problems in advance, and have a definite plan for the session. Many people find that a series of slow, deep breaths helps to calm them down. So try this just before your tutorial and pause periodically during the tutorial to take time to breathe deeply. Remember that tutorials can be as much a learning experience for the tutor as for the students and approaching tutorials with the right attitude is important if both parties are to enjoy and benefit from them.

Discussion Strategies

1. Brainstorming

The purpose of brainstorming is to generate a variety of ideas on a topic, to find out what students know about the topic, or to encourage creative thinking.

The basic rule is that anyone can contribute an idea, but that no value judgments or comments are made about anyone’s idea during the idea generation stage. The leader can ask for input from volunteers or go around the circle with each person in turn being invited to contribute an idea. It is important to emphasize that a person has the right to “pass” (not contribute an idea) when it is his/her turn.

The leader records the ideas on the blackboard or on an overhead transparency. After all the ideas are recorded, the group decides which ones are linked and can be joined together, which ones are duplicates, etc. At this stage, the ideas can be ranked in order of importance, put in chronological order, listed in preferred order for discussion, etc.

Finally, the ideas are discussed.

2. Dyads and Triads

Students, in groups of two or three, discuss an assigned question or problem. All the groups can discuss the same problem or different questions can be given to each group. The point here is that students who might be reluctant to speak out in a larger group feel less inhibited in groups of two or three.

Groups are given a stated amount of time (5-15 minutes) to complete the task. The time allowed depends on the complexity of the question. Then, each group reports back to the rest of the class.

Each group selects a member as its recorder/reporter. A group can record its ideas on paper or just give a verbal report. Sometimes a shy student feels more comfortable if the arguments have been recorded first so that he/she can simply read them to the class and then answer any questions.

3. Have a Debate

Pose a question or proposition during the session preceding the debate and then have students choose the position they want to support. Phrase the debate question in such a way that not all students will select the same viewpoint. Set up the room so the two sides face each other. Students may change sides during the debate if their viewpoint changes; that is, they can physically show that their viewpoint has changed by going to sit on the other side of the room.

Problems Encountered in Discussions

1. Students Come to Class Unprepared

It is frustrating to try and start a discussion and then discover that the majority of the students have not done the assigned reading. You may need to encourage students to do the reading in one of the following ways:

  • Provide them with questions that will guide them through the assigned readings for the next class. Tell the students that next time you will assume that everyone has done the reading and will feel free to ask anyone to provide an answer to any of the questions you have given out. Be sure that the questions are non-trivial ones; i.e., that they cannot be answered with just a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.
  • Begin the class by asking everyone in turn to make one comment or raise one question about the assigned reading. List the comments and questions on the blackboard and use them as the basis for the discussion. Do not always start with the student sitting beside you; start in a different section of the room each time you use this technique.
  • Start a class with a “mini-quiz” – five true/false or multiple choice questions. Have the students mark their neighbor’s answers, then collect the quizzes and record the marks as part of the grade for participation in the course.
  • Give the students 10 minutes at the beginning of the session to review the assigned readings; then ask one or two students to give the one or two key points of the reading.

2. The Silent Student

There are always one or two students in a class who do not participate to any significant extent. What should you do about them? Since the purpose of the discussion group is to develop oral skills, you should encourage, but not force them to speak. Here are some strategies to try:

  • Don’t always call on the student whose hand comes up first. Wait and see if other students volunteer to answer, including the ones who do not normally participate.
  • Watch to see if your silent students are giving you non-verbal clues that indicate that they are willing to be called upon. Some non-verbal cues are: making eye contact with you, facial expressions that indicate that they know the answer, a tentative gesture of raising their hand.
  • Provide opportunities for everyone in the class to participate. For the next class, assign some reading material along with questions. Then, at the beginning of the next class, go around and ask each person to make a response. Get the students to discuss the comments made.
  • Use a variety of group sizes during the session. It is not necessary to keep the students together during an entire tutorial. Try groups of different sizes (e.g., dyads, triads). It is difficult for a shy student to remain silent in a very small group. Presenting your ideas to a few people helps develop confidence that your arguments are worthwhile ones. Provide opportunities for different members of each group to report back to the whole class on the small group’s discussion. This will give the shy students practice in speaking publicly.

3. The Dominant Student

The opposite of the silent student is the dominant one, the person who wants to answer every question and dominate the discussion. How do you restrict their contribution?

  • Sometimes impose the rule that a person cannot speak more than once in a session until everyone else in the group has had an opportunity to contribute.
  • Ask the dominant student to lead the discussion, reminding him/her that the role of the discussion leader is to facilitate discussion; that is, to get the others to participate.
  • Speak to the person privately. Emphasize that you greatly appreciate the contribution to the class but others are being intimidated and the shyer ones are not getting a chance to speak.
  • Ask for the class’s help in encouraging everyone to participate.

4. The Discussion Gets Off Topic

Be prepared to intervene if the discussion goes off in an irrelevant direction. Bring the group back to the topic by saying something like, “That is an interesting point, but it is not directly related to what we are discussing. If some of you want to discuss that point further, see me after class and we can arrange time during my scheduled office hour”. Or you can interject a comment that acknowledges the point. Then follow the comment immediately with a question that re-directs the discussion.

5. Discussion Stops

Ask a controversial question or suggest a new way of looking at the topic. If the topic has been exhausted and there are only five or ten minutes left, adjourn the class early. If a significant amount of time is left, go on to a new topic. If you are not prepared to introduce a new topic, discuss how the topic relates to the rest of the course (what has gone on before or how it relates to the next session) or have a review of the course material to date.

6. Disruptive Behavior

You may occasionally encounter a student who goes beyond the bounds of what is generally regarded as acceptable behavior in classes, tutorials, or labs. If the disruption is such that you cannot continue, you might call a pause and try to restore order by talking privately with the student or you might ask the student to stop, saying “Please see me after class”. If the situation is not resolved with this approach, you may have to cancel the rest of the class or tutorial.

When a student persists in disrupting the normal flow of activities in your class or tutorial, you should take action as soon as you are reasonably satisfied that you have a recurrent problem. You should document the incident(s) right away, noting day, time, place, what was said, and any significant behavior that the student exhibited. Then discuss the situation with the course instructor.

In extreme situations which may be potentially dangerous (for example, a student is acting violently or carrying a weapon), you may have to call the Campus Police immediately (St. George campus: 978-2222; Erindale campus: 905-828-5200; Scarborough campus: 287-7398).



Lecturing is the most popular method of teaching in the university. Its use goes back hundreds of years to the days before the printing press was invented, when speech was the most efficient way to transmit information. While it is still an effective teaching method in many situations, it is sometimes over used.

Lecturing is a relatively passive way of learning because many students copy down as much as possible of what the lecturer says without processing or critically analyzing the information in any way. Lecture when you want to

  • provide information that is not readily available to your students (e.g., recent research findings not covered in their textbooks or in assigned readings);
  • organize information in a particular way;
  • create interest in a topic.

Lecturing is NOT the most effective method if you want

  • your students to apply the knowledge;
  • to affect a change in values or attitudes;
  • to develop critical thinking skills.

Most teaching assistants in the Astronomy Department will not normally be in charge of a course or section and, therefore, will not have to present regular lectures. However, if the course instructor is absent for a limited time (away on an observing run, for example) then the most experienced TA may be asked to fill in and give the odd lecture. Or, in a tutorial, it may be appropriate to give a mini-lecture to enlarge on some topic not covered in detail in class or on some subject that the students as a group are having difficulty in understanding.

Here are a few basic tips to keep in mind if you find yourself in this situation. They are also useful to apply when you have to give a G2000 talk, a colloquium, or a paper at a conference.

a) Preparing Your Lecture

  1. Think about your audience:
    • How interested are they likely to be in the topic?
    • What preconceptions might they have about the topic?
    • How can I link this new information to what they already know?
  2. You, the lecturer:
    • What do you already know about the topic?
    • What areas do you need more information about and what is the most efficient way to get this information?
    • Is your knowledge of the subject matter up to date?
  3. The subject matter:
    • Can the subject matter be covered in one lecture or should it be divided and presented in a series of lectures?
    • What information is essential and must be presented and what information would be nice to present but is not absolutely necessary?
  4. How can I create and maintain interest throughout the lecture?
    • Vary the pace by using more than one medium; that is, alternate from straight lecturing to showing slides, from using the blackboard to using overhead transparencies (refer to Appendix B for some hints on using different media effectively).
    • Use a little humor, show a clip from a film or video, make a demonstration, or do an experiment.
    • Avoid speaking in a monotone; try being a bit animated.
  5. How can I involve my students/audience actively in the lecture?
    • Invite and ask questions.
    • Use buzz groups; i.e., have students in pairs discuss something for a few minutes with a partner, then ask two or three people to tell the rest of the class the results of their discussion.
    • Conduct an opinion poll (ask students to show how many agree with a statement by raising their hands).
    • Start the session by presenting five questions on the overhead projector or blackboard and ask the students to write down their answers. Then tell the students that the answers to the questions will be revealed during the lecture (this guides their listening). You can take up the answers at the end of the session or start the next session by reviewing the ‘test’.

b) Organizing the Lecture

It is a good idea to put an outline of the lecture on the blackboard or overhead projector at the beginning of the session. This provides the students with a guide as to what the session will cover and the organization of the subject matter. It also helps students organize their notes.

A lecturer should state what she/he is going to say in the lecture, say it, then repeat what has been said. This means that a good lecture has three parts: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. The introduction should create interest, set the scene, and indicate how the subject matter fits into the structure of the course as a whole. The introduction should also link the last session to this one. The body of the lecture expands on the topic, goes into details, and provides examples. The conclusion summarizes the main points and sometimes gives a hint as to what will follow in the next session.

c) How Much Is Enough?

During a one hour lecture only one or two main ideas can be covered. Do not cram too much into your talk. Provide time for questions, for examples, and to check on whether the students are following you. The average speaker of English talks at a rate of approximately 125 words per minute. Thus, if you write out your lecture on a word processor, you can use the spell checker feature to count the number of words you have written. Remember, however, that you will not be talking at a steady pace throughout the lecture; you will be pausing to ask and answer questions. A complex slide can take five minutes to discuss.

d) Deliver, Don’t Read, Your Lecture

It is boring for your audience if you just read your lecture. If you are going to do this, you might as well have it duplicated and distributed to the students and save them the trouble of coming to class. Talk to your audience, don’t read. In this connection, you should also try to avoid the all too common error of writing your whole presentation on overheads and then reading that instead of your notes. This isn’t effective either.

If you write out your lecture word for word when you are preparing it, reduce it to point form and put the points either on overhead transparencies or on index cards. If you put the main points on overhead transparencies, they will serve both as cues for you as you lecture and guidelines for note taking for your students. If you put your notes on index cards, on sheets of paper, or on overhead transparencies, be sure to number them (so that if they are dropped, you can easily put them back in order). If you are using slides or overheads, you can code your notes (put a ‘S’ or an ‘OH’ in colored ink at the appropriate place) to remind you to show the slide or overhead.

Speak slowly and clearly. Vary the tone and pitch of your voice. Show your enthusiasm for the subject by your voice, your body language, and your gestures. Look at your audience. If you are nervous, look for three or four friendly faces in different parts of the room and speak to them as you lecture.

Watch for cues from your audience – puzzled looks, restlessness (an indicator of boredom), students near the back leaning forward (they probably cannot hear you). The attention level of a lecture is high at the beginning, then drops, then increases just before the scheduled end of the session. Vary the pace and methods you use throughout the lecture to try and maintain a high level of attentiveness.

Be aware that you should be giving your students clues as to what is important by your gestures, your body language, the tone of your voice, and special emphasis on certain points. Write names, unfamiliar words and phrases, and important dates on the blackboard or on an overhead transparency.

Keep your eye on the clock or on your watch so that you can properly pace yourself. Be sure to leave time to summarize and bring the lecture to an end.



General Comments

Marking is an important part of your duties because students’ marks are the main quantitative measure of their understanding and progress. Teaching assistants should use assignment results as an indication of what course material, problem-solving skills or lab methods need a general review in tutorials. Students, especially those in first year, use assignment marks to gauge their efforts in a new learning environment. Furthermore, tests and marks motivate students to learn.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that marking is usually the least-liked of the teaching assistant’s duties because it is repetitious and time-consuming. Also, there is an element in all of us that rebels at judging other people’s performance. In addition, marking assignments brings the teacher face to face with the sobering realization that most students learn little and very slowly in spite of our best efforts. The amount of time spent on marking becomes particularly important when you are paid for only a few minutes to mark each assignment. It is clearly necessary to be both a fast and fair marker.


A Guide To Grading

You might find it useful to keep handy the following interpretation of grades; it is taken from the Undergraduate Calendar of the Faculty of Arts and Science:

A: Exceptional performance; strong evidence of original thinking; good organization, capacity to analyze and synthesize; superior grasp of subject matter with sound critical evaluations; evidence of an extensive knowledge base. [A: 80-84%; A: 85-89%; A+: 90-100%]

B: Good performance; evidence of a grasp of subject matter, some evidence of critical capacity and analytic ability; reasonable understanding of relevant issues; evidence of familiarity with the literature. [B: 70-72%; B: 73-76%; B+: 77-79%]

C: Intellectually adequate performance; student who is profiting from his/her university experience; exhibits an understanding of the subject matter and an ability to develop solutions to simple problems in the material. [C: 60-62%; C: 63-66%; C+: 67-69%]

D: Minimally acceptable performance; some evidence of familiarity with the subject matter; presence of some critical and analytic skills. [D: 50-52%; D: 53-56%; D+: 57-59%]

E: Inadequate performance; evidence of familiarity with only some of the subject matter; presence of some critical and analytic skills. [E: 35-49%]

F: Inadequate performance; little evidence of even superficial understanding of the subject matter; weakness in critical and analytic skills; limited or irrelevant use of the literature. [F: 0-34%]

In the final analysis, the grade assigned depends on your judgement of the value of the assignment. That judgement is based on your expertise and experience.


Marking Problem Sets

Nearly all the techniques which are useful in speeding up marking entail doing something extra at the start. Therefore, many teaching assistants think that they are a waste of time and never try them. The key, of course, is that doing the “something extra” streamlines the marking procedures so that, in the end, marking a stack of problem sets takes less time. So don’t be put off; try one or two of the following suggestions.

Grade one problem at a time. Markers sometimes feel that they are further ahead if they completely finish each assignment they start because they need not return to it again. This reasoning is fallacious and, in fact, wastes time since you cannot remember the solutions to a whole assignment at once.

Even if solutions are provided, do the problem you are grading yourself immediately before starting to mark it. You will then be able to remember the pertinent details and spend less time referring to the written answer. It will also be much easier to spot the mistakes students are making.

Decide on a marking scheme by dividing the problem into sections and awarding marks for specific steps. Write down the scheme on the paper where you did the problem yourself. If there is a common mistake, make a marginal note of the incorrect answer and the mark it earns. It is important that students provide the correct sequence of steps leading to a solution and not just the solution itself which is easy to copy from another student. Good evidence that this has happened is when you find the correct answer to a problem but the steps leading to it are in error.

You should be giving comments as well as marks so that students will learn how to do the problem next time. However, if a large percentage of the solutions to a particular problem are poorly done, save yourself writing extensive comments many times by taking up the problem at the next tutorial.


Marking Essays

You have just received your first batch of essays. What do you do first? You want to be fair to the students while at the same time maintain academic standards.

First of all, you need to find out what the standards are for your course. These are normally set by the course instructor who may have two or three essays duplicated and distributed to all the TA’s. Everyone can then mark the same essays, discuss the marks given, the reasons for giving the marks, and the comments made on the paper. This interchange helps to define a standard and ensures that everyone adheres to it. After the practice marking is done, the TA’s begin to mark their students’ essays. Frequently, every fifth or tenth essay is marked by two people, in order to check that the common standard is being maintained.

It is also a good idea to periodically look back at the first few papers you marked to see if you are still marking by the same standards. Markers frequently mark harder at the beginning of a marking period. Therefore, you might have to adjust marks of either the papers you marked first or the ones you marked later if your standards have changed.

At the end, the marks are grouped to see whether the grades fall within a normal curve. This is another method to check whether you have been consistent in your marking standards. You will find (with some exceptions) that a few students will get very high grades, a few very low, but that most of the students will be in between these two extremes (a C+ level). Keep in mind, however, that “marking on a curve” or adjusting marks to ensure that a specific percentage of the class gets an ‘A’ or a ‘D’ with the majority falling within the ‘C’ range is no longer an official policy in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Content and/or Style?

One question that is frequently asked by TA’s is do you mark for content only or for content and style which includes correct English. You will have to ask your supervisor about this and, of course, all the TA’s will have to apply the same standard. Generally, one marks both content and style. If something is not expressed clearly or if there are grammatical mistakes or spelling errors, these interfere with the reader’s ability to concentrate on what is being said. It is a courtesy to the reader to write correctly and clearly.

Marking for content and style need not be unduly time-consuming. You can mark grammatical and spelling errors on one or two pages only (the same type of errors generally are repeated throughout the paper, so it is not necessary to mark the same error again and again). Ask the students to go through the rest of the paper looking for and correcting other errors of the same type. If a student makes a major grammatical error, you might want to make a note of it and warn the student that you will penalize this type of error severely if it occurs again on the next assignment.


A purpose in marking a paper is to help students learn from the experience of doing the assignment. Therefore, you should always make comments on papers in order to reinforce what they have done well and to show them how they can improve. You might start with a positive comment. There is always something good you can say about a paper. Make constructive comments – ones which clearly indicate to the student how the paper can be improved.

You can write your comments throughout the paper. The advantage of this is that the comments appear at the spot to which they pertain. You may want to make a photocopy of the paper so that you have a record of what you have said. Some markers like to avoid the use of a red pen or pencil for comments. It is very disheartening for a student to get a paper back covered with red ink. Red immediately projects a negative impression to the student, even though the comments might be positive.

Another approach is to record your comments on your local computer or workstation and print a copy to attach to the back of the paper before it is handed back. It is easier for a student to read typed comment than it is to try and read your handwriting. Comments can be saved on a computer diskette for a year, so that if a student appeals a grade, a copy of the comments is readily available.


Marking Tests And Exams

As for problem sets, the easiest way to mark tests or exams is to prepare a model answer for each question. This is often provided by the course instructor and should be done before the test is written by the students as a check to ensure that the question is answerable and in the time allowed. Students, of course, will require more time to answer each question than you or the instructor would because they are not as familiar with the material.

You may find it useful to refer back to A Guide to Grading, for the definitions of the different letter grades before sitting down to mark a set of exam papers.



It would be surprising if from time to time you didn’t hear from a student who contests your assessment of his/her paper or assignment. Writing involves a very personal expression and people are often very defensive about what they have put down on paper. Requests that you reread an assignment, check a problem set for marks, or review an essay should not be regarded as a challenge to your competence or authority even if they aren’t made tactfully. Since your supervisor is ultimately responsible for the grades assigned in the course, disagreements between you and the student which you are unable to resolve should be referred to that authority. You should discuss with your supervisor precisely how such matters are to be handled.


Collecting And Returning Assignments And Tests

If possible, papers should be collected from and returned to students directly by you or your supervisor. If that is impossible, make arrangements for the collection and return of papers with the Department. Make sure that students are aware of the arrangements.

It is not wise to leave papers outside an office door or in some unattended location for pick up. Similarly, you should avoid returning assignments through people who claim to be friends of the students. Papers and the marks on them are the private concern of the individuals concerned.

Students are responsible for delivering papers or assignments to you. If they push them under doors or leave them in mail boxes, they alone bear the risk that the papers will be stolen or mislaid. Encourage students to keep copies of their assignments so that if the original is mislaid a copy can be easily supplied.

Course instructors are responsible for retaining all unclaimed term work for six months beyond the end of the course. Turn unclaimed papers over to them when you submit your grades.



Keep very careful records of any marks you give and a note of those students who fail to submit assignments. It is important to keep track of people who do not hand in assignments in order to avoid the difficult situation of students who insist that they have submitted an assignment when, in fact, they have not. If you have a list of such students and a count of the number of assignments submitted and the number of marks entered, you’re on much firmer ground in dealing with this problem.

It is best to keep at least two copies of marks in different locations. Also, you should not discard the marks of students who appear to have dropped the course. Such people often make surprise reappearances close to the end of the academic session.


Special Consideration

Students will sometimes approach you with requests for special consideration because of illness or personal difficulties. You should discuss with your supervisor how these are to be handled. It is important that such requests be dealt with in a uniform manner for all students in the course.

If a student asks for an extension of time for an assignment, or for a make-up test for health reasons, you are entitled to ask for evidence in the form of a medical certificate. On occasion, you will receive a letter from a Registrar concerning several courses a student is enrolled in. The Registrar will have already checked for a medical certificate.

Students are not entitled to special consideration simply to suit their own convenience. They should not make appointments or travel and holiday plans which conflict with the requirements of their courses.

Two Common Questions:

1. “I have a lot of term work due this month; will it be all right if I take an extra week to finish this assignment? ”

Handling a variety of demands and planning the use of limited time is what we are trying to teach undergraduates. All of them regularly face this situation. Giving special consideration in this case to a particular individual is unfair to the other students who plan the use of their time effectively.

2. “I was sick when I wrote the test (or paper or assignment); will you take that into account in marking my work? ”

A moment’s thought about this will enable you to see that such consideration is impossible. How can one judge how the flu, migraine, or broken arm might have affected a particular grade? Is a migraine worth 5%, 10%, or 20%? How can anyone judge?

If a student is ill and produces a medical certificate, special consideration can be given in the form of an extension of a deadline or the arrangement of a make-up test. It may not be given either in an adjustment of marks or in excusing a student from work required to complete the course. If a student wishes to obtain credit for a course, he or she must complete all of the assigned work.

If a student is too ill to complete course requirements, he/she should drop the course. If the illness occurs after the date for withdrawing from a course without academic penalty, students can petition for late withdrawal.



A petition is a request for exemption from a particular rule of the Faculty of Arts and Science. Students can petition when events beyond their control are an obstacle to the successful completion of their academic responsibilities. Students wishing to petition should be directed to their college Registrar.

Issues which arise within a course that involve the pedagogical relationship of the instructor and the student (such as essays, term work, term tests, grading practices, or the conduct of the instructor or TA’s) fall within the authority of the department. They should be resolved by the instructor or his Departmental Chair. They are not petitionable matters.



Forms Of Cheating

There are at least seven types of dishonesty that you may encounter as a teaching assistant.

  1. Plagiarism This involves using words (verbatim copying) or ideas which are not one’s own as if they were. For example, a student might insert a quotation in an essay but not enclose it in quotation marks or footnote it. Or a student may present an interpretation of a theory as if it were his own without giving proper credit where it is due.
  2. Common Assignments Students will often help one another by exchanging notes, working on problems together, and talking over tricky assignments. Such cooperation is not cheating in itself but may lead to it. When students submit assignments, they are seeking individual credit for their work. Ideally, they should submit their own work and their work alone.When you encounter two assignments (or portions thereof) that are virtually identical, you will have to get advice from the instructor on how to deal with the situation. If the assignments are worth a substantial portion of the final mark and are regarded as a direct evaluation of the students’ knowledge of course material, then copying may deserve a penalty. It is your responsibility as a TA to understand and enforce the instructor’s policy with regard to academic discipline.

    You should be sure to inform your students at the beginning of the year what constitutes cheating and what the penalties will be. Of course, the definition of cheating and the associated penalties are not established by you but by the Faculty of Arts and Science or by the course instructor. Finally, it goes without saying that any penalties must be applied consistently to everyone in the course and uniformly over the whole term in which the course is offered.

  3. “Borrowed” Papers A more blatant and unacceptable form of copying is when students use assignments from previous years (borrowed perhaps from friends or relatives who took the course a year or two earlier). The student may have the paper retyped or just change the name on it and hand it in as if he/she had written it. A variation of this is stealing assignments left in unsupervised mailboxes or outside office doors. One important reason for enforcing deadlines is to avoid having papers that have already been returned reappear as “new”, but late, papers.
  4. Impersonation Students may actually hire someone to write a test on their behalf.
  5. Purchased Essays There are services that will sell essays and papers which students can hand in as their own work. These services have a supply of papers already written on common university course topics or they will actually custom write a paper from scratch.
  6. Papers Written for Another Course It is considered dishonest to hand in a paper that has been written for another course unless both instructors know about it and have agreed to the practice. A student should not get credit twice for the same piece of work.But some students may not realize that using the same paper for two different courses is unacceptable. They may even complain to you that they received an ‘A’ for the paper from another instructor, yet you gave them only a ‘B+’!
  7. Re-grading An assignment may be handed in for re-grading because of a claim that a question has been missed or incorrectly marked. But, it may have been “improved” by additions or deletions between its return and resubmission.


What Can You Do?


Make sure that students know what is and what is not acceptable. They should understand, for example, what plagiarism is and why submitting work in common is unacceptable in general.

Don’t use exactly the same tests, essay topics, or problem sets every year.

At tests and examinations, check the photo ID of any student who is unfamiliar. You have the authority to require students to identify themselves. You also have the right to split up groups of students who always sit together at tests.

Let the students know that there is an Academic Code (set out in the calendar that they all have), that you are aware that cheating occurs and will be watching out for it, and that students found cheating will be subject to punishment.

Make clear that ignorance of the Academic Code is not a defence for those accused of cheating. Every student is given a copy of the calendar and is responsible for reading it, including the parts on the Code.


When you are grading assignments, keep your eyes open for the following situations:

  • material (phrases, sentences, ideas, explanations) that appears too sophisticated either in language or expression for the general level of the assignment;
  • superior performance from someone whose previous work was of poor quality;
  • problem sets submitted by students which are identical or very nearly so;
  • answers which seem to be somewhat off topic but in other respects are very competently done (they may be responses to somewhat different questions asked last year).

Third – ACTION

If you suspect that an academic offence has been committed, be sure to keep the evidence and present it immediately to the course instructor. Whatever the offence, make detailed notes.

If the supervisor decides that there is evidence of cheating, it is his responsibility to contact the student immediately. It would be sensible for you to be present at the interview. If the instructor is satisfied that there is clear evidence of an offence following the interview with the student, he will then take the appropriate action.


What You Must NOT Do

  • Don’t ignore evidence of cheating. To do so, simply means that you are abdicating the responsibility which you assumed when accepting the TA position. Since other students in the class are very likely to be aware that cheating is taking place, you will forfeit their trust and respect.
  • Don’t decide to “save everyone trouble” by dealing with it yourself by lowering the mark or giving a private warning. You do not have the authority to decide guilt or innocence or to impose sanctions. Penalizing a student because you are suspicious is simply not fair.The case of cheating you overlook or think you have resolved “humanely without a lot of fuss” may not be an isolated example, even if the student tells you “I have never done anything like this before”.
  • Don’t call the student aside and accuse him/her of cheating because you are suspicious. You require evidence of cheating to take action. Instead, you should present your suspicions to your supervisor who is responsible for dealing with any offences under the Academic Code.





Students learn best if they are motivated, and they are motivated to learn if

  • they need to know the material;
  • they perceive the material to be relevant;
  • they find the material interesting;
  • they can relate the material to their life experience;
  • they experience success in their learning;
  • they are afraid of failing.


Students can receive feedback from the instructor directly (the instructor responds verbally to answers during the class or makes written comments on assignments), from other students in class (verbal, non-verbal, in discussion groups) or by comparing their responses to a model (sample answers to old exam questions). Students can also be encouraged to provide feedback on their performance by critiquing their own work (e.g., by inviting them to include with their project a paragraph stating the strengths and weaknesses of the project).

Preferred Learning Styles

A person’s learning style is the way he/she perceives and processes new information, approaches a new learning experience, and solves problems. Some individuals learn best when they are presented first with a concept and then have the opportunity to break it down into component parts. Others learn best when they work from parts of a concept to the whole idea. Some prefer learning the theory first, then applying it; others prefer to be given the application and then learn the theory. Some students learn best by discussing or by reading; others by physically interacting with the learning material (building models, doing experiments). When you get a new piece of equipment (a microwave oven, a CD player), do you carefully read the directions before you take out and assemble or use the equipment or do you only consult the directions if you can’t figure out how the equipment operates. Your learning styles determine which of these things you do. While we all learn using many different methods, we generally do better with our preferred learning style.

The Learning Cycle

David Kolb, a psychologist, developed a cyclical model of experimental learning. According to his model, a learner moves through a cycle of concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Different learners will start at different points in the cycle and may prefer the activities in a specific part of the cycle. Learning occurs most effectively when the learners move through the complete cycle.

For example, a person could start with concrete experience. People who start here put more emphasis on feeling than on the scientific approach to problem-solving. They may use intuition as part of their problem-solving strategy. They relate well to others and operate best in an unstructured environment.

Those who start at the reflective observation part of the cycle, first observe and then neutrally describe the situation. They are more interested in understanding the ‘why’ of a situation than in the practical application of it. They rely on their own thoughts and feelings when forming opinions. They do not follow others blindly, but make up their own minds.

Those who begin at the abstract conceptualization point are logical and analytical. They take a scientific approach to problem-solving. They work well with symbols and abstract concepts.

The last group starts with active experimentation. They are most concerned with practical applications. They are the doers rather than the observers in life. They are good at getting the task done.

For more information on this model of learning, you might like to refer to Kolb’s book, Experimental Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall 1984).

Learning Styles

A learner’s combined preference regarding the abstract to concrete and the active to reflective dimensions indicate the person’s preferred learning style. Kolb’s model categorizes people into one of four learning style types:

  • Accommodators rely on active experimentation and reflective experience. They learn best through hands-on experience. They seek new challenges and solve problems intuitively in a trial and error manner. Sales and marketing people frequently are accommodators.
  • Divergers are a combination of concrete experience and reflective observation. They are doers rather than just observers in a learning situation. They examine concrete experiences from different points of view. They frequently enter the fine arts and the service industries.
  • Convergers are a combination of abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. They are more objected-oriented than people-oriented. They tend to look for specific, concrete answers and for practical applications of ideas. Convergers make good engineers.
  • Assimilators are a combination of abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. They are good at organizing information and putting it into a logical format. They also are less people-oriented and more object-oriented. They are the basic research academic type.

All students are a combination of these four types although each is predominantly one of them. Therefore, while knowing a student’s preferred learning style can give you some clues as to what occupations he or she might be best at, you should not use this information in isolation to decide on whether or not they are in the best field for them. There are many other factors that influence a person’s success or failure in an occupation or career.

The Learning Cycle and Teaching

In designing a course, a program of study, or simply a tutorial, you can help your students develop skills from other learning style categories by providing exercises related to each part of the learning cycle. For example:

  • laboratory or field work, simulations and games, films, and reading assignments can all provide concrete experiences;
  • journals and diaries, discussions, and higher order questions encourage reflective observation;
  • lectures, essays, model building, and projects help develop abstract conceptualization skills;
  • cases studies, laboratory exercises, projects, and problem sets involve active experimentation.



Students learn and retain more information when they use more than one of their senses. Research at Harvard and Columbia Universities indicates a 14-38% improvement in retention when audiovisual aids are used.

The use of a mixture of media in a class or tutorial is one way of maintaining students’ attention. Media, however, should only be used if they contribute in a positive way to learning. Films or videotapes shouldn’t be used just because you haven’t had time to prepare a lecture.

Types of media include: films, videotapes, slides, filmstrips, computer graphics, opaque projection, overhead transparencies, pictures, posters, flip charts, models, maps, audiotapes, chalkboards and whiteboards, laser disks, etc. The most common ones used in the Astronomy department are:

1. Blackboards

Blackboards (which are actually green in most classrooms) are the most common type of teaching aid.

  • Students normally copy down anything you put on the board. Generally, board work is a signal to the students that something is important.
  • Plan in advance what you are going to put on the board.
  • Begin with an outline of the session. This provides a guide for you and the students as to what the session will cover and it helps the students to organize their notes. It also prevents questions at inappropriate times because if a student sees from the outline that a topic will be covered later on in the session, he/she will not ask the question early in the lecture.
  • Start at the left side and go across to the right. Once all the boards have been filled, go back to where you started and start from that point again.
  • Organize your board work. Underline headings, number the points, etc. Write large and legibly. Be neat. Walk to the back of the room and see if you can read what you have written.
  • Some rooms are equipped with lights that shine directly on the board. If these are available, be sure that they are turned on.
  • Don’t erase and then write in corrections. Cross out instead and then write in the correction above the original work. It is confusing to students if you erase and write in a correction. Students may even miss your correction if they are writing in their notebooks at the time you make the change.
  • Give students time to copy down what you put on the board.
  • Don’t “talk” to the board. Wait to speak until you are facing the class again.

Disadvantages of chalkboards include:

  • It is generally difficult to prepare them before the class starts if another class is in the room immediately before your class.
  • You are not facing the students when you are writing on the board.
  • Chalk can be messy – it gets on your hands and clothes.
  • Some people are allergic to chalk dust.
  • You don’t have a permanent record of what you write on the board.


  • If the chalk squeaks, break the piece in half.
  • Don’t use dark colored chalk (e.g., maroon, dark blue). Dark colors do not show up on the board very well. However do use light colored chalk to emphasize points, create visual interest, etc.
  • Less dust seems to be created if you erase horizontally (left to right or vice versa) than when you erase vertically (up and down).

2. Overhead projectors

  • You can face your audience when you use an overhead projector and, generally, you don’t have to darken the room.
  • Be sure to focus the projector and center the image on the screen.
  • Use a pencil (or swizzle stick) to point to material on the transparency. Don’t point at the screen with your hand or finger. If you prefer, you can use a stick to point directly at the screen but your back will be to the audience.
  • Some overhead projectors are equipped with a roll of acetate so that you can write on the overhead the same way you write on a blackboard. If you want to go back to a point, you just roll to it.
  • You can get transparencies and make your overheads in advance and also re-use them in subsequent courses (just file them with your lecture notes). The disadvantage of this practice is that you can easily cover too much material in a given session. You should consciously resist the temptation to do so!
  • Overhead marking pens come in non-permanent (you erase with a sponge or wet cloth) and permanent ink (if you want to erase you have to use an alcohol swab or cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol). The non-permanent ones, unfortunately, smudge readily with the touch of a finger.
  • You can prepare overheads by typing out the material. Then transfer it to an overhead by putting the acetate through a photocopier. If you do this, you must use the type of acetate manufactured for photocopy use, otherwise the acetate melts and you have to get a service person to come and clean out the gooey mess.
  • You can prepare overheads using a laser printer; however, you must again use overhead sheets that are manufactured for use with that particular type of printer.
  • If you type material for use on an overhead, be sure you use a large enough font (size of print). A quick way to check whether the type is large enough is to place the printed material on the floor. If you can easily read it when you are standing, the print will probably be large enough for use in a classroom. If you are not sure, try out the overhead on the projector before the class by going to the back of the room to observe it.
  • Don’t put too much material on an overhead – generally not more than 8 lines of print or type. If you expect students to take down notes from the overhead, be sure to allow sufficient time before moving on to the next one.
  • You can get photographs blown up and put onto overhead transparencies at some commercial printers. Pictures, however, will not be of as good a quality as those on 35 mm slides.
  • If you use graphs, tables or charts from books or journals, you will have to enlarge them so that they can be read easily from the overhead transparency. It is very effective to annotate such viewgraphs with colored pens.
  • Once in a very great while, the lamp in the projector will burn out as soon as you turn on the projector. Don’t panic. Look for a slot on one of the sides of the projector. There will be a knob in the slot. Slide the knob along the slot. This will put the spare light bulb into place. If you use this extra bulb, be sure to get it replaced after class. For physics department projectors, contact one of the demonstrators in MP101. For astronomy machines, you may have to do it yourself or contact the campus observer in charge of projection facilities for astronomy colloquia.

3. Videotapes and films

You can use films and videotapes to introduce or illustrate concepts.

  • You do not have to use the entire film or videotape if only a part of it is relevant or if time is limited. Before the class starts, forward the film or tape to the beginning of the episode you want the class to see. Then, all you have to do at the appropriate time is turn on the machine.
  • Guide your students’ viewing by giving them one or two questions before the film. Students may not realize that they view a film or videotape differently when they are looking at it for academic purposes than they would if they were viewing it for entertainment purposes only.
  • You can have videotapes made for your own use. For example, if you want to have the same guest visit your class every year, it might be worthwhile for you to arrange with Media Services to have a tape made of you interviewing the guest. This means that every class can benefit from the guest speaker. Of course, if the guest is present only on videotape, the students can’t ask him/her questions.
  • Remember that you cannot simply tape something from a television program (e.g., an excerpt from a science show) and show it to your class. Television programs are copyrighted, so clearance must be obtained before showing them in class. Many of the videotapes that can be borrowed from public libraries are cleared for home viewing only. This means that you cannot show them in the classroom without first obtaining copyright clearance.
  • The Media Library has catalogues of films and videotapes available for use in the classroom. Some of these will be in the library’s collection. If the library does not own the film or videotape, the film librarian may be able to borrow or rent a copy. If the film is borrowed, your department might have to pay delivery charges.
  • The Astronomy Department has a few films for showing to classes.

4. Slides

Slides can be used in most courses. In astronomy, they are particularly effective and the Department has a good collection covering all areas of the subject.

  • Slides are easy to transport and slide projectors are readily available and easy to operate.
  • Slides can be made by computer technology or from photographs, charts, tables and graphs in books (two caveats: be sure you obtain copyright clearance and be sure that the detail is not too fine to project satisfactorily). Also, you can take your own photographs for slides.
  • Be sure that each slide has only one main idea.
  • Check to see whether your students will be able to see the slide clearly by projecting it in your classroom before the session and viewing the slide from the back of the room.
  • Take the slides to the class in a carousel container, but check first that all the slides are inserted properly in the carousel so that they will project right side up (the slides should be inserted upside down and with the emulsion (dull side) facing the screen).
  • Try to leave some lights on in the room so that students can see to take notes.
  • Remember that a complex slide may take up to five minutes to discuss – so don’t plan on showing a great number of them in one session.
  • Use slides to illustrate, not to fill time.
  • Tired students may fall asleep if you turn off the lights and show slides for a long period of time.



Academic and Personal Counselling

The Registrar’s Office at each student’s College is the focal point for information and advice of all kinds, and should be consulted as soon as any problems of an academic or personal nature are encountered. The College Registrars are:

Erindale College

M. Overton 905-828-5399
Innis College D. Boere 416-978-2513
New College S. J. Walker 416-978-2460
Scarborough College D. MacMillan 416-287-7001
St. Michael’s College R. Muia 416-926-7117
Trinity College B. W. Bowden 416-978-2687
University College G. A. Loney 416-978-3171
Victoria College S. C. McDonald 416-585-4508
Woodsworth College D. Chevrier 416-978-5787

Other important phone numbers are listed below.

Most of the Colleges offer academic support services such as Writing Laboratories to provide students with assistance in preparing assignments, essays, and reports; Mathematics Aid Centers; tutorial services, etc. For further information, consult the appropriate College Registrar. Students with problems relating to the conduct of courses (lectures, tutorials, evaluation, work-load, etc.) that they cannot resolve with the instructors concerned, can obtain advice and assistance either from the Undergraduate Secretary of the particular department or from their College Registrar.

Students registered in Divisions other than Arts and Science who have problems with Arts and Science courses should go for advice either to the departmental Undergraduate Secretary or to the student adviser in the Dean’s office of their own Faculty or School.

Career Centre

The Career Centre, located in the Koffler Student Services Centre, provides career counselling and employment services to students and recent graduates (978-8000). Counsellors are available to assist students in the investigation of careers, clarification of goals, and the development of employment-related skills through workshops and individual appointments. The Career Resource Library is a valuable resource in the formulation of career plans and in the search for employment. It includes calendars for universities and colleges in Canada, the U.S., and overseas, as well as a wealth of information on occupations, career planning and related subjects. During the academic year, the Centre sponsors a series of Career talks at which people from the professions and other fields discuss their career areas. Permanent employment is available to graduating students through the On-Campus Recruitment Program which runs from September until March. Summer and part-time jobs are also posted at the Centre. Seminars on all aspects of the job search are held regularly.

Counselling and Learning Skills Service

The Counselling and Learning Skills Service offers help in the following areas to students and other members of the University:

  • personal counselling for emotional concerns in a non-medical setting;
  • couples counselling;
  • assistance with certain aspects of learning and study (such as reading, lectures, and examinations) in group and individual sessions.

CALSS is in the Koffler Student Services Centre, 214 College Street, Room 111, 9-5 Monday to Friday (phone: 978-7970).

Health Services

Clinical, psychiatric and athletic injury services are available at the Medical Clinic, Koffler Student Services Centre, 214 College Street (978-8030), the Psychiatric Division (978-8070), and the Athletic Injury Surgery in the Warren Stevens Building (978-4678).

Students from outside Canada are not longer covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) and must apply for coverage arranged by Ontario universities specifically for foreign students (UHIP). Out-of-province students should apply to OHIP if they are not covered by their own provincial plan. In both cases, application forms can be obtained at the Medical Clinic on College Street.

Housing Service

College residence applications for first year students are sent by the Office of Admissions with the Supplementary Application Form. The University Housing Service on the St. George Campus maintains a list of U. of T. residences and off-campus residences (independent of the University) which give priority to students. Since supply is limited, students should apply months in advance. The University Housing Service also acts as the admissions office for the Married Student Apartment complex. Students should apply one year in advance.

Services include a registry of listings of temporary and long-term accommodation in shared houses located up to 30 minutes travel time from the campus. It is advisable to rent long-term housing from August 1st or October 1st and avoid the popular September 1st occupancy date.

More information can be obtained from the University of Toronto Housing Service, Koffler Student Services Centre, 214 College Street (978-8045).

Services for Disabled Persons

A Coordinator is available to provide personal support and liaison with academic and administrative departments and with agencies off-campus, and to organize volunteers to assist in various ways. The University has made major improvements in recent years in the accessibility of buildings, programs and services.

There are devices to aid print-handicapped students on all three campuses and personal amplification systems for hard-of-hearing students are available for loan from the Coordinator.

The office is in the Koffler Student Services Centre, 978-8060 (also TDD), but on request the Coordinator can arrange to meet with members of the University at the Erindale and Scarborough campuses.

Sexual Harassment

The University does not tolerate any form of sexual harassment. In fact, the U. of T. has a policy or a code of behavior with regard to this matter. The Sexual Harassment Education, Counselling and Complaint Office implements the formal complaint procedure. It also provides counselling to those who are alleged to have sexually harassed someone.

The services of the Sexual Harassment Office are available to all members of the University. All complaints and requests for information are kept completely confidential. For more information, contact the SHECC Office at 455 Spadina Avenue, Room 302 (978-3908).

International Students Centre

At the International Student Centre (ISC), all students can take part in social and cultural programs with an international focus, or just take a break from the pressures of studies. “Interchange”, ISC’s work or study abroad resource centre, provides information and counselling on overseas programs. ISC also offers special services to foreign students, pre-arrival information (sent with the admission offer), reception service, and orientation events, English language programs, a Newsletter, and advice on non-academic concerns. Contact: ISC, 33 St. George Street (978-2564).

Student Unions and Associations

Students who wish to consult other students about their choice of courses may seek help from:

  • the Arts and Science Students’ Union, Room 1068, Sidney Smith Hall (978-4903);
  • the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students, Room 1089, Sidney Smith Hall (978-3993);
  • student course unions in most departments (some publish course evaluations);
  • college student associations;
  • student representatives on departmental councils and committees.

Graduate student TA’s may at some time want to contact the Canadian Union of Public Employees (Local 3902), 229 College Street, Suite 304 (593-7057 or 978-7632). Lawrence Mudryk is currently the union steward for the graduate astronomy students.

University and Departmental Libraries

Last, but not least, libraries are one of the biggest resources available to students, both undergraduate and graduate. The astronomy library on the 13th floor, however, is basically a research library open only to staff, graduate students, and senior undergraduates. Therefore, astronomy TA’s should think twice before referring their students to our library. In special cases, students can be given passes for access if the materials required by them are not available at the Sigmund Samuel or Science and Medicine libraries. See the astronomy library staff for details.



Astronomy Department:

Inquiry 946-5243
Administrative Assistant 946-5243
Chair 978-3150
Associate Chair, Undergraduate 946-7288
Associate Chair, Graduate 946-7289
Career Centre 978-8000
College Registrars (see above)
Counselling and Learning Skills 978-7970
Disabled Persons Services 978-8060
Environmental Health and Safety 978-4467
Faculty of Arts and Science 978-3384
FIRE (emergency) 416 978-2222
Health Services:
Medical Division 978-8030
Psychiatric Division 978-8070
Housing Service 978-8045
International Student Centre 978-2564
Astronomy 978-4268
General Services 978-8450
Robarts 978-2294
Science and Medicine 978-2280
Physics 978-5188
Media Centre 978-6049
Ombudsperson 978-4874
POLICE (emergency):
Erindale (905) 828-5200
Scarborough 287-7333
St. George 978-2222
Sexual Harassment Office 978-3908
Teaching Assistant Union (CUPE) 593-7057
Women’s Centre 978-8201