At the August 2013 TA training workshop, we asked participants to write down some questions that they have about being a TA. These questions ranged from preparation, to the actual in-class teaching, to creating professional relationships with students.
Please note that these answers are generic, given the broad diversity of disciplines represented. We encourage you to send us any additions/deletions/corrections that you believe would be useful.
Where can I find information about academic honesty?
How can we make the students comfortable about the corrections to mistakes made in their homework?
A lot depends on how you frame the corrections. If you provide constructive feedback, and recognize that mistakes are one of the main ways that people learn, the students should take their cue from this.
If, on the other hand, you declare that the student is incompetent/stupid/lazy for making mistakes, then they are unlikely to feel comfortable. The bottom line is that positive reinforcement and constructive feedback trump judgmental comments every time.
How do I deal with students who fight the grade I gave them? How do I deal with students who don’t like the grade I gave them? (Subjective grading)
An open and honest conversation is a good start: s/he should present an argument for a higher grade; you present yours for the grade that you assigned. If you have a grading rubric, you can take the student through this, step-by-step. If you reach a point at which consensus is not going to be possible, refer the student to the instructor.
Where can I find more information about preparing for and teaching a class?
You can find this information and more on our classroom TA page.
How do you recommend handling it when students ask questions you can’t answer?
Be honest with them: tell them you don’t know the answer. There is no shame in that. Even the course instructors do not have the answers to everything.
Then, you can do one of two things:
- Work on finding the answer, and then share it electronically with the class (or at the start of your next meeting). Make sure that if you choose this path, you follow up. It sends a negative message to your class when you promise them some information, but do not deliver.
- Ask the students to take out their laptops/iPads/smartphones, and give them a few minutes to research the answer. You could turn this into a ‘think-pair-share’ exercise, in which the students look up answers individually, then share the information they have found with a peer. You could then invite two or three students to share their answers, and unpack them in the group.
If I can’t understand the question that the student asks me, what should I do?
Don’t panic—that will just fluster you, and make the situation infinitely worse.
Ask the student to repeat the question, perhaps in other words, and with an example if possible. Try to re-word the question out loud: “What I’m hearing you ask is this. Am I correct?” Let the student correct you, to help you focus on what is being asked.
If it still does not make sense to you, admit it, and don’t try and answer it. Ask the rest of the class to work together in pairs (or individually) to find an answer, or refer the student to the instructor. There is no shame in that at all. It is better to do this than to answer what you think was asked.
Students also need to be able to set some expectations of you, since the teaching relationship is a two-way street. They can reasonably expect you to be on time, prepared, and willing to actively listen to them, and engage with them.
If a student misses one class, do I need to help him/her make up the content?
No. It is the responsibility of the student to do this. However, they can make an appointment with you during your office hours to discuss any part of the content that they are unclear on if they have made the effort to get notes from a peer, and do not expect you to re-lecture it.
How deeply should a TA be/get involved in their students’ affairs? How do I deal with my relationships with students?
You need to make a distinction between professional and personal involvement here. Professionally, you are required to perform the work of the TA: teach, guide, facilitate, engage, and assess. If you believe the student to be in some form of distress (either academically or socially), or headed toward distress, you should file a CARE report.
On a personal level, there should be no relationship with the student at all. If you happen to know one of the students in your class personally (e.g., via church, as a family friend, etc.), there could be a conflict of interest. In this case, you need to bring it to the attention of the instructor/course coordinator and arrange a swap (for either you or the student).
How do I respond to a student who approaches me about concerns with the professor, either personal or academic?
This is a difficult one because it could situate you in the middle of a dispute that doesn't involve you. However, the student’s concerns cannot and should not be taken lightly.
If the issue is personal—including harassment of any kind—the student should be referred to the University Intercessor.
Academic concerns can be addressed at a number of levels: students can be referred to the professor as a first option. This is not an easy option, though, since many students might feel intimidated and ultimately victimized if they take this route. Failing this, they may wish to discuss their concerns with the course coordinator.
As a last resort, the students can be directed to the department chair. They would need to make an appointment first, and to be aware that they would have to hear the professor's side of the issue, too, before coming up with a resolution.
What do I do with a student who won’t ask for help even if they really need it?
That’s a tough question, mainly because you can’t force a student to ask for help even if it is obvious that they really need it. Unfortunately, they need to come to that realization by themselves, and this can be a painful process for both of you.
The best and possibly only thing that you can do is keep pointing the class as a whole (and not just the individual student) to the various resources available at the University:
- Their TA (you)
- Writing, Speaking, and Argument Program
- University Health Services (UHS)
- University Counseling Center
- Study skills counselors at CETL
It is then up to the student to access these services. Alternatively, you could file a CARE report.
TA Employment Issues
Can a TA have a shift off due to sickness or an emergency?
Of course—life happens! However, it is important that you notify the instructor or the course coordinator as far in advance as possible, so that they can make alternative arrangements. In certain cases, you may be required to find a stand-in for your class on your own. Find out from your instructor about your department’s policy on this issue.
How much time a week should TAs put aside for their TA responsibilities?
Something to remember is that having multiple ‘sections’ doesn't translate into a lot more time in prep, necessarily. Be smart about your prep time, and do it enough in advance that you can feel prepared in class.
Having said that, monitoring a chemistry lab might not take as much preparation time (read and understand the lab, safety issues, questions that might come up, important teaching points) as preparing for teaching a WRT 105 section (have a reading ready, have a plan for the class that involves reading time, discussion, group work, and individual writing time).
A good resource for this will be other graduate students who have taught your class before. How did they find the proper balance? Would they ‘mentor’ you in finding that?
Where can TAs print class handouts? Can I get paid? Do TAs generally get paid? Should we obtain books or solutions manuals for the classes that we are TAing? How are we evaluated as TAs? When do we find out what section we are going to TA?
The above (five) questions are largely departmental with regard to their answer. The faculty in charge of your teaching should have the answers to these questions, and they will differ greatly from department to department.
Most departments have a printing center (or simply a dedicated copier/printer) for use, and most have some evaluation method (even if it’s informal). You should speak to the faculty you work with and the other graduate students in your department to see what is in place for you.
Will I be overworked?
That’s largely up to you, and it depends on your organizational skills and your personal, ‘outside-of-school obligations’. Remember, there are lots of ways for you to find help if you feel overworked, including talking to your advisor/mentor.
Also, everyone who does graduate work will feel overworked and overwhelmed at some stage—this is normal. Planning ahead can minimize this, to a point. As a graduate student, you have access to the following resources, which we encourage you to use:
- The Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning (CETL)—Study skills counselors are available to help you with time management skills.
- University Health Service (UHS)—Looking after your physical health is important. UHS offers primary health care, treatment for illness and injury, management of existing medical conditions, and preventative health care.
- University Counseling Center (UCC)—Mental health is just as important as one’s physical health. UCC offers individual and group therapy, medication management, and 24-hour crisis services.
- The Interfaith Chapel—Some students may find comfort from their spirituality. The Interfaith Chapel offers a tranquil space for prayer and meditation.
We would also encourage you to connect with the course instructor and your advisor for advice. They have been where you are, and will have some useful coping strategies to share.
Remember: you are not alone. Others have gone through this and survived, and so will you!
What are the requirements for office hours?
These requirements are usually department-specific. Check with the department chair or TA coordinator.
What you actually do during these times can vary: it can range from general discussions with students about points of clarity to more focused discussions on specific problem sets. What should be non-negotiable is that students must come prepared: if they have a question, or a problem, they need to demonstrate some evidence of having attempted to come up with a solution. Otherwise, they will simply use this time with you as a way of getting answers without having to think for themselves.