TAPcast S1E2: Kristina Howansky on Controversial Topics and Diversity in the Classroom


In this episode of TAPcast, we talk to Kristina Howansky, a current PhD candidate in the School of Graduate Studies at Rutgers University studying Social Psychology. Our conversation focuses on her strategies for and experiences with classroom discussions about controversial topics. I ask her about strategies for setting the right tone early in the course, ways to moderate the discussion with as little bias from personal feelings as possible, and tips for helping students to feel comfortable sharing their personal experiences. We also talk about diversity in the classroom and how that can affect these difficult conversations, as well as what these conversations look like in a hybrid course. Finally, Kristina tells us about getting students engaged and motivated though growth mindsets and comedy, such as her “potato project.” 

Resources Mentioned in this Episode:


TAPcast S1E1: Senior Associate Dean Barbara E. Bender and the TA Project


In this inaugural episode of TAPcast, we hear from Senior Associate Dean Barbara E. Bender, the Director of the TA Project. We talk about what the TA Project is and how it got started. We discuss how it has evolved and what it looks like today. Finally, we spend some time talking about the motivation behind training new graduate student TAs.

Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Introducing: TAPcast


The Rutgers University School of Graduate Studies’ TA Project has launched a brand new podcast: TAPcast. Listen to hear professors, graduate students, administrators, and other members of the Rutgers educational community discuss multiple issues regarding pedagogy in the contemporary classroom.

You can find us on all your favorite podcast apps like iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, TuneIn Radio, and Google Play Music. Or, you can listen to us right here on our blog!

The first episode, which provides a history and overview of the TA Project, airs on Monday, September 3, and features the Director of the TA Project, Senior Associate Dean  Studies Barbara Bender. New episodes will be released every other week from September through April.

Subscribe and learn more about current trends in university instruction, hear creative tips about managing your time in and out of the classroom, and discover resources for expanding your pedagogical repertoire.

Making a Strong Start to a New Semester

The first few weeks of class usually set the pattern for the semester. Making a strong start requires that teachers communicate their expectations to the class in an effective manner. What is said and done during the first few weeks of a class may determine the outcome of the semester for many students.

On the most obvious level, students have a right to know what will be required of them during the semester. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • papers, exams, and/or projects;
  • policies on attendance, late assignments class participation, etc; and
  • how final grades will be calculated.

You should also provide a detailed syllabus which states this information. If all has been carefully prepared and explained at the beginning of the semester, and no surprises are sprung later in the semester, students have no grounds for complaints.

Perhaps less obvious but equally important are the other messages that must be conveyed. Unless students get a sense that the teacher views them as capable adults on equal footing with all others in the class, they will almost certainly not respond to the class with active participation and enthusiasm. Students need to get the message from their teachers that they will be treated with honesty, respect, and fairness.

Treating students honestly does not mean being brutal or cruel. If, indeed, the truth sometimes hurts, it may be because the truthsayer, in many cases, seeks to hurt rather than help. Every student has weaknesses in one area or another; rather than focusing on the students’ weakness alone, look also at the students’ strengths. Let all the students understand that you regard them as capable, especially those who are experiencing difficulties in the class. Don’t portray a student’s problem as failure; transform it into an opportunity to approach a problem in a different way.

It is important, however, always to be open and honest with students about grades. Kindness doesn’t mean glossing over a students’ bad performance on a test or a paper. Work with the student to set realistic goals and then determine what level of work will be necessary to reach these goals.

Respecting students as individuals is another crucial element in creating an environment where students are able to learn. Encourage them to think independently and to express their ideas without fear of ridicule. Pay attention to students when they speak; for some undergraduates it is extremely difficult, almost painful; to speak up in class—an inattentive or joking response could inhibit that student from participating in the future.

Be fair to all students. Do not just teach to the three smartest students or to the majors, ignoring the rest. Set high expectations for all of your students. Research has shown that students work up (or down) to the expectations of the teacher. Give up on your students and they will give up on the class; inspire students to put forth their best efforts and they may surprise you and, even, themselves.

(Originally posted on 1/22/2106)

Register for a Fall 2017 workshop

Each semester TAP offers free workshops to assist TAs with their continued professional development. Students who attend at least four sessions in a particular workshop series (listed below) will receive a certificate of participation.

Preparing for the Professoriate

Teaching with Technology


Incoming Students with Strong Prior Beliefs

We often come across students who simply state, “They aren’t good at this ‘stuff.'” Having such a strong prior belief of one’s own capability can have negative effects. In particular, it can result in “fulfilling” the prophecy that they had written for themselves. How do we weaken these beliefs?

Dr. Melissa Wehler suggests 5 tips to resolve such an issue in this article. Check it out!

If your classroom was a movie genre .. what would it be?

Dr. Vincent Genareo argues that the classroom should have the same elements as a zombie movie (see article here).

According to Dr. Vincent Genareo, there are the six zombie movie characteristics that can help improve the classroom:

  1. Hook: grab the students’ attention
  2. Collaboration: implement group activities
  3. Problem Solving: allow opportunities for students to apply course material
  4. Risk-Taking: encourage students to master material despite possible failure
  5. Humor: relate to students
  6. Hope: provide feedback to students to demonstrate their progress in the course*

What movie genre is your classroom?

* I would also include in this element that you should summarize all students’ mistakes — from experience, students feel relief that they are not the only ones that made the same mistakes. This also gives you, as the instructor, a sense where your instruction may need improvement!

Activities for Engaging Students

Need fresh ideas to engage students? Take a look at this article by Dr. Lynne N. Kennette and Wes Hanzuk!

Literacy Levels

Food for thought about literacy levels in higher education.

Students’ Perception of In-Class Participation

As instructors, we have strong beliefs that in-class participation is crucial to the learning process as well as a confirmation that students understand the material. But have you ever wondered what students’ thoughts on in-class participation? In a study outlined in this article, students reported believing that in-class participation increased their engagement with the course’s content, facilitating memory of the course’s content, confirmed their knowledge of the course’s content, clarified confusion about the course’s content, and deepened their understand of the course’s content.