Working with Different Levels of Academic Preparation

Most classes include students of varying levels of academic preparation. At first, it may seem an insurmountable task to make class time worthwhile for both academically-prepared and under-prepared students. This challenge, however, can be addressed with several techniques.

Know Your Students
It is not possible to address various student needs until you know what those needs are. There are several ways to accomplish this.

  • Solicit feedback during class by encouraging student responses and class discussion.
  • Give regular assignments that require students to demonstrate understanding, not just repetition.
  • Give a pretest. This test, given before material is covered may help to set a baseline for what students know and understand, and can help you tailor future class sessions to meet student needs.
  • Administer attendance quizzes. Attendance quizzes are given for 5 minutes at the end of a lecture and do not affect student grades. They serve as a day-to-day litmus test of how successfully students have learned that day’s material. Allow students to use their notes. After an attendance quiz, sort solutions by common mistakes, and address those mistakes by email or in the next class.

While none of these ideas will work perfectly in every class, experiment until you find which feedback techniques work best in your particular setting.

Planning Lectures
Once you know the needs of your students, you face a new question: for what level students do you plan the lecture?

If you change between easier and more challenging material frequently, you run the risk of confusing your students. If a class is tailored to leave absolutely no student behind, students with more advanced preparation will quickly become bored. If a class is tailored to meet the needs of the most advanced students, much of the class will not have the background to understand the lecture and may become frustrated. To resolve these issues, many experienced instructors recommend leading a class so that it is aimed to the middle of classroom preparation. This way, as much of the class as possible understands what is going on.

Providing Extra Resources
No matter what level class is conducted at, at least initially you will have multiple levels of student backgrounds to address. Providing the extra resources needed to address students’ needs outside the classroom is important as well.

A first easy step is to be aware of tutoring and learning centers that can assist your students. When students ask for help, having this material readily available from the beginning will enable them to quickly get the help that they need.

You may wish to collect both remedial and enrichment material to assist and to challenge as many students as possible. This may be distributed in several ways. You may choose to assign readings on multiple levels. As the semester progresses, you may wish to distribute additional resources through a class website or Sakai page as well.

Final Comments
Although teaching a diversely prepared classroom may at first seem intimidating, it does not have to be an insurmountable task. Make sure that your classroom policies are helpful to all students, and be prepared to provide extra materials, but most of all, be approachable to help students of all backgrounds find and make use of the material they really need.



Course Design seminar

Designing Your Own Course (16:186:856) was created to help students design and develop materials for a course which they might someday teach.

Topics to be covered include:

  • establishing learning goals
  • lecturing
  • class discussions
  • active learning
  • assignment design
  • assessment
  • setting course policies

This seminar:

  • is 0-credits
  • graded satisfactory/unsatisfactory
  • will appear on your transcript
  • will not incur additional fees

Class meets the first twelve weeks of the semester on Wednesdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on the College Avenue Campus.


  • open to doctoral students only
  • at least two semesters of college teaching experience at Rutgers
  • OR
  • have taken  Introduction to College Teaching (16:186:855)

To request a special permission number, contact the TA Project with your name and RUID.

The Teaching Portfolio

In your first semester of teaching or serving as a TA, you should begin to collect materials for a teaching portfolio. A teaching portfolio provides a profile of you as a teacher. It is a solid collection of evidence detailing the effectiveness of your teaching and reflections on that evidence.

An increasing number of colleges and universities are using teaching portfolios to help them make hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. A teaching portfolio can also help faculty members write reference letters for you, as they will be able to see exactly how and why you’ve been teaching and tailor their reference letters accordingly. While a teaching portfolio can help you get a job, it can also help with teaching awards and research grants. With time, a teaching portfolio will document the evolution of your teaching and will aid your personal and professional development.

For every course you teach, you should take notes that describe the course, how you taught it, and why you taught it the way you did. Gather syllabi, copies of any assignments you created, including exams and paper topics, and any handouts you made. Your portfolio should also include evaluations of your teaching. In addition to student ratings or evaluations, you can ask a faculty member to observe your class and write an evaluation. If you attend a workshop, take a course related to teaching, or participate in any other activities to improve your pedagogical skills, document it in your portfolio. Evidence of an interest in teaching and efforts to develop your teaching skills may make you stand out as a job candidate. The Center for Teaching Advancement & Assessment Research (CTAAR) have information on creating your teaching portfolio.

Talking about Teaching in Academic Interviews

All of us at Rutgers are part of a large research university. Our views of teaching and research, and those of the faculty with whom we work, are shaped by this institutional context. Our faculty prepare us to be like them—professors at major research universities.The reality, however, is that only 2.4% of the 4,500 institutions of higher education in the United States share Rutgers’ comprehensive mission. Most of us who earn jobs in academe will work at institutions that emphasize undergraduate teaching. Even large research universities will be concerned with your teaching abilities and may ask direct questions about teaching during an interview.

Those who have prepared a teaching philosophy statement or gathered materials for a teaching portfolio as part of the application process will have already begun thinking about some of the relevant issues. Whether or not you’ve formally written out a teaching philosophy, take some time to think about your general approach to teaching. This includes what you want students to get out of your courses, your teaching methods, and your approach to assessing student learning.

Before an interview, prepare to answer questions about teaching in that specific department at that particular university. In addition to looking up the research interests and publications of the faculty who will be interviewing you, study the courses regularly taught in the department as well at the university’s general curriculum. Learn about both the institution’s mission and what types of students you’d be likely to teach. Be ready to talk about what you could contribute to the department as a teacher.

You can burnish your teaching credentials and give yourself material to talk about on the job market by participating in TAP teaching workshops and certificate programs.

A New Twist on End-of-Semester Evaluations

A New Twist on End-of-Semester Evaluations” from Faculty Focus

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity resources at Rutgers.

Promoting Academic Integrity: Are We Doing Enough?Faculty Focus

What is it like to be an Undergraduate?

Many TAs feel far removed from undergraduate culture, distant from that way of living and thinking, even though they themselves were undergraduates not so long ago. The TA who can remember this experience, however, and empathize with the trials and stresses of undergraduate life may be able, in the end, to reach more students than those who view them from afar.

Although the life of an undergraduate may seem idyllic when looked at through the eyes of the overburdened graduate student, it is not quite as simple as memory makes it. Most undergraduates have a full schedule of classes, carrying at least twelve credits (often, sixteen or more). In addition to this, a majority of undergraduates must work at part-time or even full-time jobs to subsidize their education. For many students, a job is a necessity: without it, they would be forced to leave school. Furthermore, many of these students are living away from home for the first time in their lives––an emotionally and socially demanding period. Clearly, students who are overwhelmed by work and social life will have difficulties investing the needed time to complete their coursework.

Once TAs recognize the fact that the life of the undergraduate is not always an easy one, they are in a position to help their students: to consider ways to translate this knowledge into action, to adopt teaching strategies that acknowledge and alleviate the problems that come along with being an undergraduate. Perhaps the most effective first step TAs can take is to stop thinking about their students as an amorphous mass–the undergraduates–and to attempt to see them as individuals. Do not make generalizations about your students (i.e., undergraduates are lazy, silly, shallow, unmotivated, etc.). Most students are sincerely involved with their education and willing to work hard to succeed.

Be understanding when students come to you with problems or with excuses for late or unsatisfactory work: they honestly do have tight schedules and may be under a lot of pressure. Help them if you can; don’t put another obstacle in their way. This does not mean that you should fall for every line they give you, but do not be so skeptical that you do not accept any excuses. Dealing with students in a fair and honest manner is the best policy. Try to help them find ways to meet their commitments to your class without losing control of other equally important parts of their lives.

Non-traditional Students

The non-traditional student, often an older student with a career or a family, or both, has become a strong presence on American university campuses over the past thirty years. Non-traditional students must meet the same standards as all students, but, often, because they are only attending part-time, they will take more time to complete their degree requirements.

Unlike the lives of many ‘traditional’ Rutgers students, those of non-traditional students will probably not be centered around the university. Their schoolwork is important to them, but they are equally committed to their jobs and families. This is not to suggest that they are less interested in their education; for the most part, they are dedicated and demanding students, often more actively involved in their education than other students. In many ways, they are closer to graduate students in their dedication and commitment than to most undergraduates.

Many have jobs that have accustomed them to carrying out assignments independently. This experience may make them more demanding as students, less tolerant of wasted class time, poorly-prepared lectures, and careless grading. Changing requirements, policies, or due dates mid-semester, while never a good idea, could cause severe hardships for these students whose time is necessarily carefully budgeted. Always be clear with your classes about requirements, whether work is voluntary or required, extra or no credit.

Your policies on deadlines and attendance may have to be more flexible than is usual. A student may have to travel occasionally for her job. A sick child may prevent another from completing his paper. All the work, of course, must be completed, but deadlines should not be totally inflexible.

Because non-traditional students often have a much wider range of experience than traditional students, classes with these students are often livelier and more challenging to you as a teacher than those with only traditional undergraduates.

How to Write a Reverse Calendar

One of the biggest challenges facing a graduate student instructor is finding ways to balance your teaching responsibilities, the need to make progress on your dissertation, and the rest of that thing called your life. It is particularly tough because there might not be anyone waiting to hear about your dissertation on any given day, but you will definitely be in front of a classroom once, twice, and even three times each week. Your dissertation committee probably won’t know if you take one night off, but if you walk into a class without anything to say, your students probably will. One way to keep perspective is to write a ‘reverse calender,’ which you check regularly, to see if you are progressing according to your plan for yourself.

The core idea of a reverse calendar is that it can be hard to conceptualize the time and steps between ‘now’ and ‘defend my dissertation in two years.’ We all know that there are many steps involved, but it can be difficult to know intuitively when those steps need to be completed in order to achieve your larger goals. Before you write a reverse calendar, you must first decide on what your goals are and by when you want to achieve them. A simple example of this might be that you wish to graduate in May 2017.

The next step is to identify as many of the different steps this requires as you can (one thing you will likely find is that when you start to break down a project into steps, many smaller steps all of a sudden become clear). Obviously, the steps are going to be different depending upon your research, but here are a few examples of basic research structures and the steps required to complete them. It is important to remember that some steps have time constraints beyond just you (such as, you have to defend by a certain date in order to have a May graduation date). It is also likely that your department has specific timelines that they require as well. So, if for example, you expect to pass with revisions, you need to build 30 days for revisions into your calendar.

So your initial calendar might look something like this:

  • February 15, 2017 — Send final draft to advisor

  • March 1, 2017 — Circulate final draft to committee

  • March 15, 2017 — File diploma application

  • April 1, 2017 — Defend dissertation

  • April 30, 2017 — Submit revisions

  • May 16, 2017 — Graduate!

Once you’ve got the endgame lined up, it then becomes a matter of filling in from where you are at the moment to where you need to be. From this reverse calendar, you now realize that if you want to graduate in May 2017, you need to have a final draft by mid-February! Knowing that it is always hard to get things done at the start of a new semester (in this case, January 2017), it is also a good idea to build in some extra time to get things done. Say that right now, February 2016, you have drafts of 3 out of 6 chapters. That means that you will need to write three more chapters, get feedback from your committee, and do revisions/edits in the next 12 months. Below is an example of what that work plan (for a dissertation where the initial research is completed and writing is a substantial part of the work) might look like:

  • March 31, 2016 — Revise chapter 1

  • April 30, 2016 — Revise chapter 2

  • May 31, 2016 — Complete first draft of chapter 4, revise chapter 3

  • June 30, 2016 — Complete first draft of chapter 5, revise chapter 4

  • July 31, 2016 — Complete first draft of chapter 6, revise chapter 5

  • August 31, 2016 — Complete revised draft of entire dissertation, discuss w/ advisor

  • October 31, 2016 — Send edited chapters 2 & 3 to advisor

  • November 30, 2016 — Send edited chapters 4 & 5 to advisor

  • December 31, 2016 — Send edited drafts of introduction and conclusion (ch. 1 & 6) to advisor

  • January 31, 2017 — Complete revisions from advisor

  • February 15, 2017 — Send final draft to advisor

  • March 1, 2017 — Circulate final draft to committee

  • March 15, 2017 — File diploma application

  • April 1, 2017 — Defend dissertation

  • April 30, 2017 — Submit revisions

  • May 16, 2017 — Graduate!

This might change a thousand times before the actual graduation date—indeed, you might realize that you need to finish your first draft before you revise the earlier chapter, you might realize you need additional interviews, and you will have to spend a month barely writing anything at all! But what a reverse calendar does is it gives you a clear, visual timeline so that you don’t bury your head in your teaching and then look up four months later and realize that you have no idea how you can finish on time. One of the great challenges for many of us is that our work can be so largely self-directed, the key is to make sure you’re the one doing the directing.

Peer Observation Program

The program is structured as a reciprocal peer observation process; TAs observe each other teach and provide feedback.

TAP will provide certificates to graduate students who participate. To receive a certificate, simply email or mail copies of the completed Peer Evaluation Template to us.

To aid participants, we’ve created an evaluative template of factors to observe and discuss with one’s peer.

Two further points are important concerning the evaluation template:

  1. Peer observers should not only critique each other, but provide concrete and practical suggestions for improvement; and
  2. It is intended as a flexible guide, not a rigid specification of necessary responses.

The Peer Observation Program is clearly a program that will benefit TAs who are in the same or similar disciplines and/or teach similar courses. However, it also has the potential for fostering true interdisciplinary interaction. The observer could, in effect, come to the class with an undergraduate’s background in the subject matter but with a pedagogical background on par with the instructor and thus offer a unique vantage point for evaluating the effectiveness of the class.