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Effective Use of Teaching Assistants

As a faculty member at VCU teaching a large class, you have been assigned one or more teaching assistants to help you with conducting your course.  It is important to recognize the value of these individuals in your daily work.  Depending on the department you are in, teaching assistants may be formally assigned to you, or you may have to request this form of assistance from you department chair.   In a smaller department, you may know some or all of the graduate students who will be available, and you might get the opportunity to choose an individual about whose abilities you have some knowledge. If you know the graduate student pool in your department, you may be able to request certain individuals who appear to be accomplished and who will perform well.  Otherwise, whom you are assigned just may be a matter of luck and circumstance. Teaching assistants come from all walks of life with carrying degrees of experience.  The elements of a good teaching assistant include encouraging student-faculty contact, cooperation, active learning, providing feedback as necessary, communication of high expectations, and respect of diversity in talents and ways of learning.

Getting Started

It is important to meet with your teaching assistant several times before the start of the course.  Many graduate students will have contracts that need to be read and signed. It is imperative to read these contracts carefully as they may contain specific items related to the responsibilities of the teaching assistant.  Clarifying salient issues and points will help avoid future misunderstandings.  For many in graduate school, assisting in teaching classes is part of their graduate school training.  The teaching assistant should plan his/her teaching assignments as carefully as the academic program/ course work. 

  1. At the first meeting, establish a rapport with your teaching assistant; inquire about general likes/ dislikes, and abilities/shortcomings. 
  2. After these preliminary introductions, you can be more specific concerning requirements and expectations.

Teaching Assistants as Assistants to the Faculty

The role of the teaching assistant (TA) as an assistant to the faculty is perhaps the most important one, as the primary reason for the TA being with the professor is to provide help in conducting that professor’s course.  The role of a TA can be broadly defined, but the relationship itself may be a delicate balance of diplomacy and compromise.

  1. It is integral to establish early a working relationship with your TA.  Your styles may be quite different, and since many TA’s are foreign, the command of the English language may become an issue. 
  2. The best manner to proceed is to have more than one meeting prior to the course, so that ground rules and expectations can be established from the beginning.  It may be propitious to have these items in written form, so that the document can be referred to when necessary. 
  3. During the course, the professor should schedule at least weekly meetings with the TA.  In this way, small problems or concerns regarding the students can be addressed before they become major impediments to learning and progress.  The TA should definitely attend all lectures and laboratory sessions.  On the MCV campus, many TA’s are assigned to assist in the laboratory, for example, in gross anatomy, and attendance at the professor’s lectures may be negotiable.  Establishing attendance expectations at the outset of the course is a good plan.  From the TA’s viewpoint, he or she will want to know what you, as the professor will want to achieve. 
  4. The TA will want to know how much leeway in running their section or recitation session is allowed.  Some professors will assign topics and readings for each session, others let the TA’s decide themselves how and with what material to proceed. 
  5. In large classes, the TA will most certainly assist with grading.  For objective tests, simply organizing grades if they are computer graded may be all that is required; if the tests are hand graded, one page should be graded at a time.  This method allows for some analysis of the test items.

If a subjective test is given, very specific guidelines for grading of teach questions are imperative.  If more than one TA is available or assigned to you, one student should grade the same questions throughout, for consistency.  In large classes where essay questions are used, grading can become an extremely sensitive issue for both TA and student alike.

  1. Before the course starts, delineation of exact responsibilities should be carefully outlined.  TA’s will want to know how they will be evaluated.  This may be formal, with a letter grade given, or very informal and graded pass/fail.  The faculty member will find that future master teachers can be discovered and encouraged early in their career. 
  2. Recall that in large classes, both the student and the TA may be overwhelmed.  It is desirable that the TA’s have taken the course in which they are assisting, but this is not always practically possible.

In summary, the TA should decide what to ask, when, and of whom to ask it. 

Misunderstandings occur between TA and professor when they take each other for granted and each expects the other to guess or anticipate his/her needs and feelings.  Remind yourself that the TA is there for just that, to assist in teaching, and not to perform tasks for the professor that are unrelated to the course and its conductance.  For example, the TA may gather resources, do photocopying, and learn how to run a class session. Doing library research for the professor on material unrelated to the course is inappropriate.  Lastly, introduce the TA (or TA’s) the first class session, and give the student body a bit of the TA’s curriculum vitae so that the students feel more comfortable.  State how proud you are of having the services of a TA, and outline to the class the importance of assisting in teaching in the overall training of the graduate student.  If possible, address or question the TA in the course of a class session, and remind the students of the TA’s availability.

The Teaching Assistant as a Student Advisor

  1. The TA should recognize both their role and limitations, most importantly so that the student recognizes and respects these roles and limitations.
  2. The TA should schedule office hours and keep them, Two hours twice weekly will suffice for most assignments, more or fewer hours can be adjusted accordingly as the need requires. The TA should often invite the students to visit, let them know frequently that they are welcome and you are there to assist them. TA’s can post answers to quizzes or homework on their office doors, which may afford a serendipitous meeting with a student. 
  3. Maintain approachability throughout the course.  The TA should rely on the students to tell them their problems and concerns, and should give undivided attention and allay anxiety. 
  4. Appreciate the fact that the student views the TA as a power figure of sorts, and the TA-student relationship may take time to develop into a trusting one. 
  5. The TA needs to know that referring a student out to counseling may be the optimum avenue of solution.  The TA should not hesitate to refer a student who is seriously troubled.  As a TA, the graduate student may encounter students who are overly dependent, and this should be managed quickly and professionally. 

The Teaching Assistant as a Student Liaison

The TA is an excellent example of an individual who is liaison between the professor and student.  Since the TA is usually in graduate school, he/she stands somewhere between the professor and student, and the position as mediator facilitates the overall process of learning.  A professor teaching a very large class will rarely meet each of the students individually. 

  1. The TA needs to assure that course organization and requirements are clear to the students.  The TA should provide student, in discussion sessions, clarification on confusing points, and troubleshoot any problems in the professor’s lecture style.
  2. The TA should communicate frequently with the professor and make sure that the supervising faculty member will be receptive to their initiatives. 
  3.  The TA can also provide the invaluable service for the professor by reviewing exams for accuracy. 
  4. An important task is for the TA to help prepare the students for exams, distinguishing between what is “nice to know” and what is “need to know”.  If the supervising professor allows it, the TA can construct study guides with important concepts before the exam.  If these are carefully crafted, and do not give most of the exam away, most supervising professors will welcome this facet of the teaching assistant milieu.

Teaching Assistants in Large Classes

In a large class that has more than one TA, it is advisable to split the class up between the TA’s for expediency and to assure that students’ needs are being met.  This can be done alphabetically.  Some TA’s will be more available than others, but if there are specific numbers of students for whom he/she is responsible, the work will be more evenly divided.  In a large class especially, stress to the students the presence and practicality of the TA’s and encourage the students to contact them. 

  1. In a large class, attendance can be taken if seats are assigned, with a seating chart, the TA can quickly glance across the room and note the absentees.
  2.  For large classes, the TA should assist in handing out handouts, test packets, answer sheets and other pertinent material. 
  3. The TA can choose appropriate instructional strategies (lecture, discussion, lab, presentations, group projects, etc.) for the laboratory session/recitations sections, and then choose the proper materials (text, film, handout, etc.) to assure that the student is given the opportunity to master the objectives that have been set forth. 
  4. The TA should of course show a personal interest in each student, and attempt to have at least one conference with each student, even in a large class. The effort will be worth it, as students will begin to feel comfortable approaching the TA for help. 
  5.  Lastly, the TA should watch out for any risk patterns on the part of the student and respond appropriately and timely to issues as they arise.

The TA should take pride in his/her efforts, and know that they are an integral part of the university system.  They are both learning the teaching profession, and affording a most necessary service to the student.

References

Bailey J (ed).  (1986) Handbook for Teaching Assistants: The TA at the University of Delaware.  Center for Teaching Effectiveness, University of Delaware

Chism Nancy et al. (1992) Teaching at the Ohio State University. A Handbook.  Center for Teaching Excellence, Ohio State University

Ronkowski S. (1986) TA’s as Teachers: A Handbook for Teaching assistants at UCSB. Regents of the University of California

University of Illinois (1980) Handbook for Teaching Assistants at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Office of Instructional resources.

Resources for Teaching Assistants
http:/www.uni.edu/walsh/teach.html

Guidelines for Teaching Assistants
http://www.treatu.ca/academic/graduate.taguide.html

Handbook for Teaching Assistants
TA Handbook- The Center for Teaching at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
www.umass.edu/cft/handbook/

OISD / Teaching Assistant Support/ Handbook for Graduate TA’s.  Understanding the Teaching Assistant Role Preparing to Teach- conducting a complete course, special teaching situations, international Teaching Assistants.
www.jsd.uga.edu/teaching_assistant/ta_handbook.html

Teaching Tips for Graduate teaching Assistants.  Introduction.  The Dual role of the Graduate Student Teaching Assistant.  Teaching assistants should set their goals about the instructional style.
Ase.tufts.edu/cae/pages/Tips.htm

Notes and Suggestions for Teaching Assistants
NR-1348 part 1 (August 1995)
Department of Physics and Astronomy
www.pas.Rochester.edu/yigal/TA-notes.html

NC State University Graduate Teaching Assistants Handbook.
Graduate TA’s function in a variety of roles.
www.fis.ncsu.edu/grad_publicns/ta_handb.htm

PDF Graduate Teaching Assistant resource Guide 2005-2006. pdf.Adobe/Acrobat, view as html. Resource Guide to aid and support Graduate Teaching Assistants
www.cte.umd.edu/grad_programs/gtarg.pdf

Teaching Tips A Guide for Teaching Assistants in the Biological Sciences at Columbia
Handbook for Teaching Assistants
turmac13.chem..Columbia.edu/LearnTeach/ta/html

The Graduate School, Duke University
Teaching Assistant Guidelines
www.gradschool.duke.edu/policies_and_forms/teaching_assistant_guidelines.html

TA’s Teaching Assistants
University of Maine Teaching Assistant’s Handbook
www.umaine.edu/teaching/TAS.html

 
 
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Last updated: 06/20/2013
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