Assisting students in ‘hard’ classes

On January 25, 2011, in Being a GA/TA, Guest Posts, Teaching Tips, UWindsor, by Jessica Penwell Barnett

single desk with a single chairWhat is a ‘hard’ class? A hard class is any class students perceive as particularly distasteful or difficult, likely suspects include discipline specific required courses and discipline specific courses offered to non-majors. Often, these are classes the students have negative feelings about before the first day of class. They are said to be “pointless” or “incomprehensible” or just plain anxiety provoking. Assisting students in such classes can pose particular challenges for you as a GA/TA. If nothing else, they require you to be in good form. Students in these classes are more likely to come to your office hours, contact you with questions, and generally need more support than they would in other courses. The following suggestions are intended to help you assist students in these situations.

Understand your students

The first step to helping students succeed in hard classes is to understand where they’re coming from. As a GA/TA you are enviably positioned to help students learn without being responsible for all the administrative and institutional obligations shouldered by the instructor. While the instructor must balance empathy for students with a host of competing imperatives, you get to just be there for the students. Take advantage of this! Remember what it is like to be new at the higher education game? What were your anxieties (e.g. grades, exams, etc.)? What procedural stuff were you ignorant of then that seems so obvious now (e.g. paper formatting, citation, etc.)? Put yourself in the learner’s shoes.


  • Take a deep breath. Try not to get frustrated. Don’t get callous. Imagine yourself in their position and try to understand how they came to the decisions they did.
  • Assess where your student is at. It is important to assess their incoming knowledge because it is possible they lack the basic building blocks that you are expecting them to have. Your explanation of new material won’t make a lot of sense if it presumes a non-existent grasp of ‘old’ material.
  • Explain the logic of the subject. How do things fit together?
  • Explain terms gratuitously. Students often find terms confusing because, when you’re learning, terms to do not immediately mean something in your head. You have to actually take time to think about what concept that word refers to (and they may be a little fuzzy on that anyway!). Because of this, using one term to explain another or to explain a process may leave learners mystified.

Respect your students

You are going to be busy. You are going to have your own anxieties and frustrations as a student. Sometimes it is difficult to treat the students we are assisting with adequate respect when we have our own lives and busy schedules. However, it is important to respect them as learners.


  • Help them understand why they are being asked to do something. Why do they have to cite that way? Why do they have to use a certain term in their response to get full marks?
  • If you are actually teaching, for example a lab or tutorial, have a lesson plan. Every time. Do not wing it! What are the objectives for the time? How will you accomplish those objectives in the time given?
  • For a clear, general lesson plan template, visit [editor’s note: see another great template in yesterday’s post on Lesson Planning]
  • Answer emails promptly.
  • Take adequate time to mark assignments and provide formative feedback. Formative feedback is feedback than can guide future practice, in other words, what changes they could make to perform better (Piccinin, 2003). This can be particularly hard to manage as marking takes a substantial amount of time. However, students learn more from formative feedback than from a mark. (It will also help you out when students challenge their grades. You will remember and be able to articulate why the assigned grade is appropriate.)
  • Think about implementing a midterm GA evaluation, especially if you teach.
  • Simply ask students to answer two questions.
    1. Which aspects of this lab/tutorial are working well?
    2. What specific changes would make this lab/tutorial more effective? (Kustra & Potter, 2008)

Help your students learn

Student learning is the outcome that justifies your pay. It is also a plus for you in your role as a GA/TA and as a fellow citizen or co-resident of those you’re assisting. If you help a student learn, they are less likely to request support as frequently as they would if they ‘just can’t seem to get it.’ In addition, this person will be more well educated and skilled as they move about the planet you share with them. Perhaps you even value learning as a good thing in and of itself. How, then, do we do this?


  • Confer with the instructor to make sure you are really clear on the quality criteria for an assignment when it is assigned, NOT when you are marking it. Quality criteria are the things (i.e. use of terminology, proper citation, etc) that must be in place for a student product (i.e. answer, participation, assignment) to be judged as being of a certain quality (i.e. mark) (Sadler, 2010). Communicate these quality criteria to students. If you are teaching, communicate criteria when assignments are handed out. Try showing an example of an answer with all the quality criteria present and another example that is missing some; this will help students concretely recognize what criteria look like. It is also helpful to mention criteria when teaching relevant concepts. Whether or not you are teaching, you can provide this information when students email you, even if they don’t ask for it.
  • Use accessible analogies and examples. People learn new things by making associations with things they already know.
  • Try wording explanations multiple ways and repeating them, particularly for concepts that are difficult for students.
  • If you teach, try to be high energy. They don’t have good feelings about this class and probably don’t want to be here. Try to keep them with you and don’t let their disaffection drag the energy level down. That only results in increased inattention and thus less learning.
  • Tell students about additional resources for learning support. Many students are not aware of the resources that are available.


Kustra, E.D.H., & Potter, M.K. (2008). Leading Effective Discussions. London: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Piccinin, S.J. (2003). Feedback: Key to learning. London: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Sadler, D.R. (2010). Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), 535-550.


“The written feedback provided should give students guidance to improve their performance on subsequent summative assessments.” P. 33

“Formative feedback flows from assessment activities with the exclusive aim of providing information that allows people to learn something about their knowledge, skills, or attitudes and to make a change and ultimately improve their learning.” P. 17