How to... Dispel nerves in a lab novice

June 22, 2001

What should a postgraduate demonstrator do if a student faints and falls off their chair? Kate Exley has all the answers.

A few more years ago than I care to remember, I was a science postgraduate and, to earn a bit of money, I did some demonstrating in undergraduate practical classes. The experience was useful, particularly in terms of my CV.

My tasks included practising the experiments before the students arrived after a short briefing from the academic responsible. I was given a "crib sheet" with answers to the questions posed for the students in the schedule. but despite these aids, I felt anxious in my new "demonstrating role", wanting to do a good job but not exactly sure how.

I found it embarrassing to approach students not much younger than myself to ask if they needed any help. It was even more difficult to work with some of the mature students. I did not want to come across as being cocky or patronising. I wanted the students to like me and to see me as being helpful and knowledgeable. I wanted to be able to answer their questions and I dreaded being asked about something I did not know.

In later years, I was responsible for organising a set of first-year practical classes and coordinating a team of postgraduate demonstrators. I was keen to tell them that their job was not to answer all the students' questions but to prompt, encourage and guide the students to find their own way to the answers. I was also aware of how important the demonstrators were to the successful running of a practical class.

I still believe that a key ingredient for successful learning in the laboratory is timely help and feedback, and this is often provided by a demonstrator. Higher education has been fairly slow to appreciate the teaching work done by postgraduate demonstrators and tutors. A few years ago, awkward questions about guidance and training for demonstrators may have been difficult to answer.

Yet now the need for such training is obvious from a teaching quality perspective and a personal development perspective.

In recent years, many universities have been more active in providing a range of training courses and written guidance on the teaching role of postgraduate demonstrators and tutors. I believe this institutional support is necessary to supplement the subject-specific guidance that is best provided by the course or module leader.

What help and advice do postgraduate demonstrators seek? Consider the following:

  • Students have been asked to work in pairs on an experiment. In one pair, one student appears to be doing all the work. How would you advise a demonstrator to respond or intervene?
  • A student has fallen off their chair, apparently fainting in the laboratory. What would you expect the demonstrators to do?
  • A postgraduate tutor co-leading a mathematical problem class is pitching explanations at too high a level. How would you, as another postgraduate tutor, help?
  • A demonstrator has been asked to formatively mark a large batch of laboratory reports from a big first-year practical class. The rate of pay assumes each report should take ten minutes to mark, but each is taking the demonstrator 20 minutes. How could the demonstrator reduce marking time while still giving helpful feedback to the students?
  • A postgraduate tutor marking a batch of tutorial essays strongly suspects two students of plagiarism. What should that tutor do?

Issues of student learning, course management, work management, health and safety and university regulations are raised by these scenarios. I have been asked about all of them in workshops for postgraduate students.

The bottom line is to remember that the postgraduate student is not trained, is not paid enough and indeed is not expected to take overall responsibility. That responsibility lies with the academics who design and run the modules. The demonstrator should always be able to raise any concerns they have.

That said, many teaching situations require a more immediate response. For example, the health and safety advice for the fainting student would probably include the advice that on no account should an untrained person seek to treat the student, they may do more harm than good. A first-aider should be located and an ambulance called if necessary.

Second, the demonstrator should not leave a laboratory full of students unsupervised. If for any reason a demonstrator found themselves alone in that situation they should ask one of the undergraduates to seek help.

The opportunity to discuss approaches to common problems with more experienced colleagues can be an effective way of developing the confidence of new demonstrators. Many module leaders organise their teams so that a mix of new and experienced demonstrators work together. In some instances, a more formal mentoring arrangement is provided for new demonstrators or a hand-over briefing is arranged between old hands and novices.

Getting ideas on how to reduce marking time for conscientious demonstrators is important because many PhD students are expected to spend no more than six hours a week on teaching-related activities, as stipulated by the funding councils.

Suggesting that they could produce a summary page of feedback on commonly made mistakes, which could be individually annotated and attached to the back of marked reports, might help.

Or, likewise, a model answer or a worked example could be provided to show where improvements could be made. Using feedback forms or tick-box grading sheets to indicate where marks have been lost or gained can also provide a shorthand, but effective way of giving feedback to students.

All these strategies can help in trying to mark work from large first-year practical modules when it is more likely that several students may make similar errors.

From the viewpoint of the module leader, it is beneficial to work closely with the postgraduate demonstrators. This is likely to involve being explicit about your expectations, providing appropriate training briefings and resource materials beforehand.

It can be very helpful to involve the demonstrators in module evaluation by seeking their views after the teaching session to see how they thought it went or how it could be improved.

It can also be beneficial if you can organise hand-over opportunities between demonstrators so that insider knowledge about likely errors or common problems can be passed on. Many universities offer a more generic level of training for postgraduate demonstrators and tutors in addition to the guidance they receive from module leaders.

There are some interesting variations in how this is organised. The London School of Economics and De Montfort University offer intensive two or three-day teaching skills workshops for all their postgraduate tutors. Liverpool University offers a range of shorter sessions for mixed groups of postgraduates.

Warwick and Nottingham universities have used a partnership model between the central staff development provider and some of the academic departments, which can work well in the bigger departments that have larger numbers of postgraduates each year. All three approaches have proved popular with postgraduates.

Kate Exley is on a career break from the University of Nottingham where she is staff development officer.

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