In a past 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.
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.
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.
You can find this information and more on our classroom TA page.
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.
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. 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.
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-teach it.
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 notify the instructor and/or file a CARE report. It is best practice to let the student know what steps you have taken and why.
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).
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 Ombuds.
Academic concerns can be addressed either through the academic department or through the AS&E Deans’ Office. At the departmental level, if students feel comfortable, they can directly address their concern with the course instructor. If they do not, they can speak with the course coordinator, if there is one, or the department chair who supervises the course instructor (usually by appointment). If they prefer to go through the AS&E Deans’ Office, they can use the Praise/Complaint form, which collects and routes issues for attention within the Deans’ Office.
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
- Academic Success Coaches at the Learning Center
It is then up to the student to access these services. Alternatively, you could file a CARE report.
TA Employment Issues
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.
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 WRTG 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?
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.
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, many students feel overworked and overwhelmed at some stage—this is normal. Planning ahead can minimize this. As a student, you have access to the following resources, which we encourage you to use:
- The Learning Center—Academic Success Coaches 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.
In addition, 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. This is especially important if you are managing your time well but are still overwhelmed. Your instructor may be able to adjust your duties, and advisor can help you determine what adjustments you might want to make outside of your TA role.
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: they need to demonstrate some evidence of having attempted to come up with a solution. Students learn best by doing the work themselves with your support, and you will better understand how to coach them through their challenges if they have already identified where they are getting stuck.