The teaching team

A teaching team consists of one or more course leaders, learning assistants and PhD-candidates who work together to support students to achieve the learning outcomes of a specific course.

Many course leaders use weekly meetings to coordinate progression during the semester. Course leaders also use the regular meetings to make sure the all members of the teaching team understand their role in the course, and to align the content of the lectures, the lab work, the seminars and relevant assignments.

Aims of the teaching team:

  • Create a community to share experiences and get support.
  • Stimulate pedagogical reflection and share best practice.
  • Link course content, pedagogical practices and insight into student learning.

Structure of a meeting (60-90 minutes):

  1. Share a small thing that worked well during this weeks seminar.
  2. Share one thing that did not go as planned, but that you would like to learn from.
  3. Discuss the course content for next weeks seminar.
  4. Introduce a relevant pedagogical topic (see list below).
  5. Discuss the planned activities and pedagogical strategies for next week.
  6. Share one thing that you would like to test next week.

Pedagogical topics to develop the teaching team

Use the regular meetings to introduce a relevant pedagogical concept and discuss student learning. Each topic on the list below includes a description and one or more examples, and many of them have corresponding methods for active learning and relevant reading material.

Some topics are already introduced in the Learning Assistant Program (see Training new learning assistants), but members of the teaching team can benefit from reflecting on the central pedagogical themes in light of their increased experience.

Active learning

Several large studies document the effect of methods for active learning on student performance in STEM fields. Still, students may insist that they learn more from listening to engaging lectures. 

A recent study from Harvard documents a discrepancy between active learning and the feeling of learning. The students report that they learn more from engaging lectures than they do from active learning sessions, but the test scores show the opposite effect.

In interviews, students describe that since active learning let's them observe their own learning process, they become aware of what they don't know. This insight can make them insecure about their overall learning, compared to when they only attend lectures.   

Discussion for the teaching team: 

  • how can you help students overcome a resistance towards learning activities?
  • how can you motivate students to appreciate the increased cognitive effort of active learning?


Group discussions

Many seminars require students to work in groups to discuss and solve problems together. To be successful, the assignments for the students need to be engaging and of high quality, and the learning assistants must know how to facilitate and support good discussions. 

Discussion for the teaching team:

  • What are the characteristics of a good discussion in the discipline?
  • How does group size influence participation and effectiveness of group discussion?
  • How can you invite all students to participate in discussions?
  • How can short writing activities contribute to fruitful group discussions?


Ask the right questions

It is important to think carefully about how to stimulate and support engaging conversations among students. Here are two useful strategies:

Using open questions

Consider the effects of the following questions on creating an engaging group discussion:

  • Closed: What are the key components of the bacterial cell wall?
  • Open: What can we learn from the composition of a bacterial cell wall?

The closed question invites a specific answer, and is useful to check memory and retention. The open question asks the students to make connections between different parts of their knowledge, and students are likely to contribute with different perspectives to the topic.

Sometimes a closed question is appropriate and necessary, whereas other times an open question is more suited to the needs of the group. If you add "please explain your reasoning" to your question, you can invite students to discuss their thinking process and engage in relevant problem solving.

Respond with questions or paraphrasing

When a student asks for help, it is tempting for learning assistants to provide an answer that demonstrates mastery of the subject. Instead, consider responding with an invitation to think aloud and reason, or respond with a question that helps bring out student ideas.

  • Examples of questions: "What do you think?", "How would you start to answer the question?", "What made you ask this question?", "Good question. Let's ask the entire group for help."
  • Examples of paraphrasing: "What you are saying is that...", "Can you elaborate a bit more on how...?", "Do I understand you correctly that you think...?", "Who can expand on what student X just said?"


Focus on the big picture

Students often ask for help with small problems. In many cases, the real problem, and the most useful help from the learning assistant, is to focus on the overall structure, ideas and clarity of the text or solution.

In helping a student revise their work or solve a problem, it may be useful to spend most of the time on the higher order concerns (ideas, structure, clarity) and not focus too much on the lower order concerns (grammar, syntax and word choice). If you tackle higher order concerns first, the student will often fix the smaller details as part of the revision process.

An experienced learning assistant supports students to think carefully about the overall structure and organisation of the text or solution, and does not focus too much on the details. As a learning assistant, think about how you can help other students zoom out from the small details, and help them see the big picture.

Questions to try out: 

  • What is the problem you are trying to answer?
  • What resources and strategies do you think might be relevant in this case?
  • How have you organised your answer?
  • What do you want to say with this paragraph/section?
  • Why are you telling the reader this now?

Discussion for teaching team: 

  • What are the most common conceptual mistakes that you can look out for in student questions or responses?
  • What are the most common higher order concerns that students need help with in the course?
  • What details are critical for the students understand and use correctly?
  • How can a focus on the big picture contribute to long term development and learning?


Writing to learn and to think

Many courses include writing assignments, and students receive both direct and indirect advice on their writing. In STEM fields, many students express hesitation and concern about their writing skills. It is useful to think carefully about how to support the students with their written assignments.

In product-oriented writing instruction, a focus on the finished product stimulates students to produce qualitatively good texts, but it can also result in competition and perfectionism among students. It can be difficult to promote a good learning environment and use peer feedback if the students primarily correct each other on grammar and factual errors.

A contrasting perspective comes from process-oriented writing instruction, where students receive support and tools to master the writing process while they reflect on their own thinking and writing. Process-oriented writing supervision emphasizes long-term development of the students as writers, a process that takes longer than a single semester.  

Many of the methods for active learning include writing and thinking, for example micro-writing and peer feedback, support process-oriented instruction. The collection of methods to teach writing skills provide a comprehensive toolbox for students to master their own writing process.

You can also consider also how you use process-oriented instruction to grade and provide feedback on student writing. Students who receive formative assessments will most often use the responses to develop their writing and deepen their learning over time. 

Discussion for the teaching team: 

  • How do you support students to develop and practice writing skills in the course?
  • How can writing stimulate students to learn the relevant content and skills?


Numerical thinking and programming

A number of courses at the MN Faculty include programming. Students need to learn how to write code and also understand how they can use programming as a problem solving tool. 

Since learning to code is a practical skill, students need hands-on experiences on their own, with the right support from learning assistants. 

Discussion for the teaching team: 

  • Do you want the students to memorise syntax or understand the underlying thinking?
  • How can students use troubleshooting in pairs or groups to master the relevant skills?
  • How can writing and group discussions supplement coding assignments?  


Learning in the lab and from field work

Students in for example biology and geology must develop a complex set of skills and knowledge related to lab and field work, including time management, collaboration and hands-on work. Since many of these skills are implicit, they can be hard to grasp for new students. Consider how preparations, on-site reflections and written assignments can support students to identify and appreciate their new and subject-related skills. 

The course leader should support learning assistants to facilitate lab and field work in a way that is meaningful to the students. The practical work should also support students achieving the learning outcomes in the course.

Discussion for the teaching team:

  • How can lab assistants support group discussions and reflection by the lab bench? 
  • How can field assistants support discovery-based learning for students? 
  • How can learning assistants facilitate discussions that combine observation and theory?     


Building a community

Teaching in higher education is an exciting and complex challenge, and many teachers find support and encouragement from local communities.  

The concept of a community of practice can be useful to understand the potential of meeting other colleagues to share experiences and reflections about teaching. 

A community of practice has three main characteristics: 

  1. Joint interested in the domain, the knowledge and the learning process.
  2. Mutual engagement and motivation for participation. 
  3. Shared repertoire of ideas, examples and experiences.

For example, a typical research group can be viewed as a community of practice. In research groups, members actively engage in conversation with each other to learn and develop their ideas over time, and the community benefits from a shared interest in the scientific domain, mutual respect and inclusion, and they produce ideas and scientific articles together.

Many of the practices that are normal in research groups, such as journal clubs and conversations at the coffee machine, are also relevant for creating a community to support faculty and students to develop as teachers.  

At the MN Faculty, some Departments have active and formal communities of practice, for example UnderVerk at IBV (Norwegian). Other Departments have informal communities where colleagues support each other and learn together. Get in touch with KURT or the Head of teaching at your Department to find your local community.



Published Oct. 6, 2020 12:01 PM - Last modified Feb. 26, 2021 2:12 PM