8 Common Questions and Challenges

As a TA, chances are you will face some of the common challenges that arise in a tutorial or be asked some of the most frequent questions that arise in a lab. Here, we cover some of the most common questions and challenges below and tips on how to address them should they arise.

Common Discussion Challenges

Students are not Participating in the Discussion

There are many reasons why students do not participate in discussions and strategies to address each of them.

The Question was Unclear: If the question you ask is unclear, students will have difficulty responding. If you feel you have written a clear question, ask your students if they simply need more time to think about their response, or if they would like you to rephrase the question.

Students are Unprepared: You may wish to review the expectations for the course in a discussion with students. You can check at the beginning of the class to find out how many students have read the assigned reading by asking for a show of hands (if you are prepared to guarantee that you will not penalize students if they have not read the material). In a tutorial, if most students have not completed what you expected them to have read, you may want to read a selection as a class or ask the students as a group to create an alternate lesson plan that will make constructive use of their time. You may also ask them to read the assigned texts in class and submit a short summary or response at the end of the tutorial. In a lab, there may be penalties for coming unprepared or students may not be able to participate in the lab. 

Students Feel Intimidated or Anxious in Large Groups: Many students who are not comfortable speaking in front of large groups may feel more comfortable speaking in a small group. You can break your class into smaller groups and have a short discussion, then rejoin as a large group and have one student from each of the smaller groups report their findings. This gives students who were reluctant to speak the opportunity to express their ideas in a more comfortable setting, but still allows all students to benefit from the generated ideas.

Students are Distracted: If students are using technological devices in the class and these seem to be causing distractions, remind students of your technology policy (which you have hopefully shared with them in the first class). If there is something else in the environment causing a distraction — a flickering light, something unusual occurring outside a window, noises in the hallway — try to address the distraction, if possible. If it is not possible to remove or mitigate the distraction, acknowledge its presence and ask that students try their best to remain focused for the remainder of the class time.

If it is only one or two individuals who seem distracted or otherwise disengaged, particularly if this becomes a pattern, speak to them privately before or after class and ask them if there is a reason for their distraction (while respecting their privacy). If there is something in the class or their personal life causing their distraction, ask how you might support the student(s) so that they are able to better engage in your class. If they are unable or unwilling to state that there is a problem, gently remind them of the purpose of the tutorial or lab — to help their learning — and their responsibility in supporting their own learning, and make it clear that you are interested in helping them succeed.

One Student Dominates the Discussion

The first way to approach this situation is to directly call on other students: the others are likely interested in hearing from someone else, too. One way to amplify other voices is to ask, “Can I hear from someone new?” You might also try rephrasing what the dominating student has said and asking other students to comment on it, offer another example, take the opposite position, or explain why they agree.

Instead or in addition, you can talk to the dominating student after class. Let them know that you appreciate their contributions, but that you would like to hear what the other students think about the topic, or that you need to assess what the other students know, so it is important that they have opportunities to speak as well.

Students are Not Prepared

Remind students of the expectations for the tutorial or lab and the penalties that not coming prepared has for their own learning and also, possibly, their grade. If necessary, speak to the course instructor about introducing an in-class assignment that will check if the students have read the material, particularly if this is a regular occurrence.

In order to still have a productive tutorial, you can work with the students to find an alternative or provide some time to review a smaller section of the reading. See the suggestions above for when students are unprepared to participate in discussions. In a lab, unprepared students may not be able to participate.

A Student Asks a Question You Can’t Answer

If a question arises during the tutorial or lab and you do not know the answer, you can respond, “Great question! I don’t have the answer right now, but I will find out and email you by Monday,” or “What an interesting question! Does anyone else know the answer?” It is perfectly acceptable not to immediately know an answer, but it is important that an answer is found and discussed. You can also ask students to see if they can find out the answer and share with the group the next time you meet or you can look up the answer together in class (and help students improve their research skills in the process).

The Topic is controversial or sensitive

Sometimes, you will be able to anticipate a controversial or sensitive topic arising based on the course content or material, while other times they may arise unexpectedly. When this happens, remind students that part of the learning process involves engaging with new ideas and perspectives in a respectful manner, and model respectful engagement for your students by talking about the ideas raised and not the people who raised them. Acknowledge that some topics may be difficult for some students, and let them know it is all right if they need to step out of the room. If the discussion becomes heated, tense, or uncomfortable – for the students or for you – acknowledge this and bring the discussion to a close, directing students to a new topic or task.

Of course, there are certain topics, ideas, and language that have no place in the classroom. You do not have to tolerate hateful or discriminatory comments, and you may ask students making such comments to stop and, if necessary, to leave your classroom. If this situation arises, make the course instructor aware of what has happened and work with them on what steps to take next.

Common Lab Questions

Most of the questions students ask in a lab are some variation on “Is this right?” Below are some strategies for answering these types of questions in ways that foster student learning and help them improve their skills, reasoning, and understanding.

Lab Equipment: How Do You Make it Work? Is This Right?

Check that the student has consulted the lab manual for directions or a diagram. Ask the student to clarify what part of the equipment or equipment set-up does not work or with what specifically they are concerned. In some cases, if timing is not a concern, it can be beneficial for students to disassemble and reassemble any apparatus that may be causing them difficulties. Building circuits, for example, can become complex and confusing, and starting fresh can give students a clearer picture of what went wrong.

Lab Procedure: What Should I Do? Is This Right?

Ensure that the student has read the lab manual. Invite the student to confer with their lab partner and, if they still have difficulty, encourage them to consult their lab manual and to predict appropriate responses. If you had suggested outcomes or highlighted important procedures in your pre-lab talk, remind the student of what you said earlier.

In response to “Am I doing this right?” you may assure students that they are performing the lab procedure correctly. You can even ask students to demonstrate why they think it is correct. This can help them feel more confident with the lab and ensure that they attain reasonable findings.

Lab Results: Why Did It Do That? Is This Right?

Ask the student whether the results they have are what they expected and, if not, to suggest at what point during the lab their results may have been compromised. Encourage your student to consider each part of the lab and its contribution to the final result. Remind them of the theory behind their lab work. Chances are that the lab is connected to something that they have already learned. Linking lab work to lecture or tutorial material is a great way to reinforce what they have learned and clarify issues they may have with their results.

Try to avoid directly answering the question “Is this result right?” Instead, encourage your students to consider why and how something in the lab has happened or should happen and to assess whether their results align with their predictions. Invite them to collaborate with colleagues and to refer to their lab manuals.

Lab Data and Calculations: Is it Okay to Be Off? Is This Right?

Some variation in data is to be expected, but calculations based on that data should be accurate. Ask your students where they are having difficulty with the calculations. To check whether the calculations are right, invite your student to consult with their lab partner or to perform the calculation again.

Calculations performed using data collected in the lab almost always require error calculations in order for the answer to be considered complete. If the answer is accurate within error, then the student’s answer is correct. If it is not within error of the expected result, there are two possible reasons why this is the case. First, the calculations may be correct while the error calculations are not. Alternatively, the calculated value could be incorrect while the error calculation is fine. Always emphasize the importance of reasonable values.

As with results, try to avoid directly answering the question “Is this calculation right?” Encourage your students to confer with their lab partner or their lab manual and to think through the steps they have taken, repeating them as necessary.


McMaster Teaching Assistant Guide Copyright © 2019 by MacPherson Institute. All Rights Reserved.

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