Students try to assemble a Lego creation after instructions were relayed from another room.

By Doug Ward

Here’s some sage advice to start the semester: Don’t be a jerk.

That comes from a student who will be an undergraduate teaching assistant for the first time this spring. Actually, he used a much more colorful term than “jerk,” but you get the idea. He was responding to a question from Ward Lyles, an assistant professor of urban planning, about things that undergrad TAs could do to set the tone in classes they worked in. More about that shortly.

Lyles’s workshop on fostering an inclusive classroom climate was one of half a dozen sessions offered for 94 undergraduate assistants in STEM fields this week.  Other sessions focused on such things as grading; team-building and communication; sexual harassment reporting; and expectations of undergraduate teaching assistants.

Molly McVey, workshop organizer, checks in students at a training session for undergraduate teaching assistants.

The workshop was organized by Molly McVey, a teaching specialist in the School of Engineering. McVey organized the first such workshop a year ago after the number of teaching fellows (the name for undergraduate assistants in engineering) increased from four to 25. The school had no formal training program, so McVey created one.

Other fields, including math, have their own sessions for undergraduate assistants. The program McVey started is unique, though, in that it brings together student assistants and instructors from a variety of disciplines. In addition to engineering, students at this week’s session came from biology, physics, and geography and atmospheric sciences. Department representatives had time to speak with students in their specific disciplines, but the overarching goal was the same for everyone: to help undergraduate assistants in STEM fields better understand their role in the classroom.

McVey added another element this time, based on experiences with the previous two training sessions.

“We realized that we really needed to get the faculty in the room, too,” McVey said. “Some of the things we were communicating to the teaching fellows, faculty needed to hear, as well, so that everyone was on the same page.”     

Students assemble Lego creations at the workshop.

The need for undergraduate TA training has grown as active learning in STEM fields has expanded over the last several years. These TAs perform a variety of duties, but their primary role is to move about large classes and help students with problem-solving, discussions and questions. Instructors choose the TAs from among the students who have taken their classes in previous semesters. That way the TAs know the subject matter, the class format, and the needs of fellow students.

Undergraduate assistants have been instrumental in improving student retention and learning in such fields as engineering, geology and biology. Many other factors have been involved in those improvements, but the assistants provide key support as instructors shift courses from lecture to hands-on class work. They offer additional eyes and ears in large classes, and they provide additional contacts for students who might be reluctant to speak up in large classes.

The training sessions this week helped undergraduate assistants understand some of the challenges they will face. Lorin Maletsky, associate dean for undergraduate studies in engineering, led a workshop in which teams of students assembled Lego contraptions using instructions from teammates who listened to descriptions in a different room and then raced back to explain – or try to explain – the appropriate steps. The scene was occasionally comical as students dashed in and out, gave colleagues blank looks and grimaces, and tried to put together pieces based on sketchy directions.

The exercise was eye-opening for those involved, though, in that it simulated the challenges that students face in trying to understand information that instructors provide in class. Sometimes that information is clearly understood. Most of the time, though, it comes through in patchy and incomplete ways as students struggle to grasp new concepts.

Students consider questions posed by Ward Lyles (in the background)

Maletsky offered another analogy between the Lego exercise and teaching: Good teaching requires instructors and students to bring together many pieces, put them in the right order and create a coherent whole.

“That’s not easy,” he said.

In the diversity workshop that Lyles led, participants grappled with questions of student motivation, preconceived ideas, student perceptions, and class climate. Toward the end, he asked the undergraduate assistants to think about things they could do to help foster an environment that encourages learning.

The student who told his fellow participants not to be jerks said he spoke from experience. An undergrad TA in a class he took in a previous semester was pompous and unapproachable, souring the atmosphere for many students in the class. He vowed to approach his job in a more appropriate way.

Other participants offered these suggestions:

  • Relate your own experiences so that current students better understand how you learned course material.
  • Call students by name.
  • Find something unique about each student to help you remember them.
  • Pay attention to student struggles.
  • Be an ear for instructors and listen for potential problems.
  • Work at leading students to finding answers rather than just giving them answers.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

 It was excellent advice not just for undergraduate assistants, but for anyone working with students.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

At workshops for graduate teaching assistants on Monday, I shared one of my favorite quotes about education.

It’s from Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab. In a TED Talk on innovation last year, he said: “Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do to yourself.”

Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, leads a discussion during the open session of the GTA conference at KU.
Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, leads a discussion during the open session of the GTA conference at KU.

He added, “What you need to learn is how to learn.”

Several students took issue with Ito’s premise of “education” as something imposed on students. They should. It’s a generalization that pulls in all the negative perceptions people have about schools and higher education. It draws on imagery of education as a factory where students are slathered with information as they move along a conveyor belt and tested for uniformity before they emerge at the end of the line wrapped in a generic diploma that guarantees they will provide the “right” answer on cue.

And yet that’s Ito’s point. Learning is individual. It’s something you take on because you see value in it for yourself. Ito dropped out of college twice and is largely self-taught, experiences that most certainly shape his perspective on education but should also inform ours. As educators, we need to stress the importance learning rather than information. We must provide approaches to learning that are as rich and varied as our students, and create opportunities for students to find their own meaning and relevance in our curricula.

In my classes, I tell students that I can’t make them learn. I provide material to help them learn. I try to create a classroom environment where they feel welcome, and lead discussions that I hope will inspire them to learn – and keep learning. But I can do only so much. Students have to meet me halfway. They must complete the work I assign, share their ideas, and participate in discussions. They must invest in the process of learning. Only then will they truly learn.

Discussions at the GTA conference continued in the hallways of Wescoe Hall during lunch.
Discussions at the GTA conference continued in the hallways of Wescoe Hall during lunch.

Most GTAs understand that, I think. After all, by making their way to graduate school they have learned to work within – and thrive in – the current educational system. As they shift from students to instructors, they must unravel the concept of learning and help their own students put it back together. That’s a challenging mission, one they will spend the rest of their careers trying to perfect.

The GTAs in my sessions had a good sense of how to begin that mission. When I asked them to consider how we can help students learn how to learn, the group discussions were robust and enlightening. Here are some of the responses:

    • Ask good open-ended questions and provide concrete examples that lead to meaty discussions.
    • Provide a variety of examples that allow students to approach ideas from many angles.
    • Provide a variety of ways for students to demonstrate understanding.
    • Vary the method of instruction to help students learn in different ways.
    • Model the behavior you want students to follow.
    • Draw on your own experiences with learning and use those as relatable examples.
    • Help students make connections between academic topics and life.
    • Scaffold class material so that students work in increments toward mastery of a subject.
    • Humanize yourself as an instructor, make yourself available, and provide consistency throughout the semester.

The students’ suggestions provide an excellent framework for classes of all types. I hope they left the sessions feeling as energized as I did about the possibilities not just of education, but of learning.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Whenever I give workshops about teaching with technology, I try to provide a handout of resources.

This is one I distributed after workshops I led at the Best Practices Institute at CTE last week and at the School of Education. It’s a relatively modest list, but it includes sites for for visualizing text; for editing images; for creating maps, charts, infographics; and for combining elements into a multimedia mélange.Ward Online Tools handout cover

My goal in creating lists like this is to help instructors think about ways to incorporate multimedia elements and technology into their teaching. I never insist that instructors use specific tools. Rather, I try to show how various resources can enrich assignments, deepen learning, expand skills, and make class time more engaging.

Not all assignments lend themselves to multimedia elements, but I’ve found that multimedia tools inspire creativity in students, and make assignments more interesting and more meaningful.

I’ve listed a few tools below. The rest are available in the accompanying PDF.

You’ll find more tools like this at my site and at Teaching With Technology, a site that Germaine Halegoua and I manage. (This post appears on that site, as well.) Nearly are all are free. Some may have restrictions, so please read the terms of use on each site.

Multimedia tools

  • New Hive. Provides many options to create a single web page with text, images and video.
  • ThingLink. Allows you to upload photos and place icons on them that pop up with text, other photos and video.
  • Weavly. For creating mashups from YouTube, SoundCloud and other sources.
  • Popcorn Maker. A tool for mixing video, audio and images from the web. From Mozilla.
  • Meograph. A site for creating multimedia stories.
  • Storify. An easy-to-use tool for creating stories from many types of social media.


  • Dipity. Create timelines, flipbooks, lists and maps. Easy, effective and free for the basic version. One glitch that I’ve found: The embed codes don’t always work well with WordPress sites.
  • TimeGlider.
  • TimeToast.

Text visualization and analysis

  • Wordle. Insert text and create customizable word clouds.
  • Document Cloud. Upload documents to the website, analyze them, highlight them and annotate them. You can also create a slideshow-like form that can be embedded elsewhere.

Chart and graph tools

  • Many Eyes. Offers tools for creating maps, charts and diagrams, and for analyzing text (word clouds and tag clouds, for example). It offers many examples of how to turn data into visual information. You can input or upload data.
  • Chart Gizmo. A free website that allows registered users to create basic charts and graphs.
  • Cacoo. Allows you to create and share diagrams, which can be linked, embedded or saved as .png files. More options available with a paid account.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.



CTE is hosting a series of lunchtime workshops for experienced GTAs who want to discuss facets of teaching in higher education. The workshops will take place from noon to 1 p.m. on the final Friday of every month, through April, in 135 Budig Hall.

To participate in a session, register at at least two days before the event. A light lunch will be provided. Please note that space is limited. If you have any questions or need accommodations, contact Judy Eddy at

January 31: Using Film in the Classroom
Have you always wanted to use film in your classes but you’re not sure how to do it? Have you wondered what assignments work best when using film? In this workshop, we will talk about mindfully choosing films (both short clips and whole films) to complement lectures and/or as a component to an assignment so as to actively engage students. Time will be allotted to brainstorming film ideas for your own class. With two of CTE’s graduate student staff members, Ann Martinez, English, and Mary Beth Woodson, Film Studies.

February 28: Best Practices in STEM Teaching & LearningCTE sign

During this session, participants will engage and reflect on several evidence-based strategies for increasing student learning in STEM disciplines. This includes multiple levels of inquiry-based approaches, use of technology, and use of appropriate assessment tools. With KU teaching post-docs Kelsey Bitting, Geology, and Anna Hiatt, EEB.

March 28: Managing the Paper Load

Are you faced with stacks of assignments to grade? In this workshop, we’ll talk about how to respond to student writing in ways that support learning goals and help you grade strategically and efficiently. GTAs are encouraged to bring sample assignments to discuss with peers. With Terese Thonus, Director of the KU Writing Center.

April 25: What I Wish I Knew Last Fall

This is a special session for graduate students who are graduating this spring or summer and are preparing for faculty positions. Bring your questions for two faculty members, Ward Lyles, Urban Planning, and Eileen Nutting, Philosophy, who started teaching at KU last fall.