At MIT Biology, recitations are meetings outside of lecture where the class TAs can work more closely with the students and facilitate meaningful learning. Preparing and teaching recitations are the primary responsibilities of a TA. This page details strategies used by undergraduate and graduate TAs who taught a variety of classes from large-lecture classes that are part of the Biology General Institute Requirement (GIR) to upper-level biology classes. Thanks to Phoebe Li (7.012), Vidit Bhandarkar (7.012), Joanna Lin (7.06) and Brian Vassilo (7.21/7.62) for sharing how they prepared for and structured their recitations.
Biology graduate students are required to participate in departmental TA training that emphasizes key aspects of teaching that are critical to the success of TAs. In addition to class-specific preparation, the sessions provide training in stereotype threat, implicit bias and enhancing student engagement.
How do TAs prepare to lead recitation?
Depending on the class, your preparation for recitation will look slightly different. At its heart, preparing for recitation involves reviewing the past week’s lectures to identify material that you will discuss during recitation. The content in recitation can include reviewing topics covered in lecture, applying class material to new problems or contexts, and working on problem sets.
The materials that TAs should discuss during recitation differs between class. Phoebe and Vidit were TAs for the large lecture class 7.012 (Introduction to Biology), in which the instructor provided a handout containing a lecture summary and 2-3 problems. Below, they describe preparing to facilitate discussions regarding the lecture material.
Phoebe: I like to do a brief lecture recap at the start of recitation. I prepare slides beforehand if there is information that should be written out or included as an image. When there is a lot of material, I ask my students ahead of time which topics they would like me to cover. In case I decide to leave out some material, I prepare slides for the students to look over on their own time.
Vidit: My goal is to create an environment that encourages student participation such that the recitation is primarily student-led. I begin each recitation with slides about challenging concepts from lectures. These slides include thought-provoking, open-ended questions, as well as true/false questions and some images to explain ideas.
TAs for upper-level and smaller classes might not be given handouts to guide recitation. Instead, the TAs choose their own problems (for example, from a question bank) and decide on topics to discuss during recitation. Below, Brian describes the process for the class 7.21 (Microbial Physiology):
Brian: My preparation for recitation begins by going through the lecture slides from the past week and pulling out topics that are particularly important — often because the professors identified them as such during the lecture. I then write questions on those topics that are either comprehension- or application-based. My own answer key serves as a guide that I can use when discussing the students’ answers.
Structuring a recitation
Recitation time is limited and planning a structure in advance can help optimize effectiveness. Different strategies may be used to structure the time depending on your goals for the recitation. Recitation in large, undergraduate lecture classes is focused on problem-solving, while upper-level classes might include a reframed discussion of lecture material. In the sections that follow, former TAs describe the strategies they used for different types of classes. Each structure incorporates active learning techniques that enhance student engagement and learning.
What is active learning and why should TAs incorporate it?
Large-lecture classes with a focus on problem solving
Upper-level classes with lecture-style recitation
A hybrid approach: interactive lecture and practice questions
Encouraging student participation
FAQs for Biology TAs
How do I balance working in a lab with my TA responsibilities?
What should I do if I don’t know the answer to a student’s question?
What “level” should I teach at?
Are there any recommended software for remote TAs?
How do I know how I’m doing as a TA?
Continued training opportunities
MIT’s Teaching + Learning Lab (TLL) offers several additional training opportunities for graduate students. For first-time TAs, TA Days are a series of workshops that provide resources and training on navigating TA responsibilities.
The TLL also offers two teaching certificate pathways that provide training in evidence-based teaching techniques:
Biology graduate students can also apply to be a departmental Teaching Development Fellow. Fellows organize department-based events and develop resources to support Biology TAs.