Teaching Assistants

University and College can be challenging, and a good teaching assistant can be an asset to both students directly, and to the professor teaching the course.

I have been a Graduate Teaching Assistant for the past 2 years of my degree, and since I completed my Undergraduate degree at the same institution, I feel that I have unique insight into the role of teaching assistants.

Teaching assistants help students by providing a contact person for all questions concerning the course. Students should always consider asking their TA before seeking help from other staff, such as the course coordinator or the professor. The TA is also generally responsible for marking all work by the students for the term, including midterms and exams. As such, the TA will have a good idea of how each student is progressing individually, where as the professor would have much less detailed knowledge.

Students should know a few key facts when dealing with TAs. First, the TA is there to help you with the course material, but it is expected that the student will show some level of thought before bombarding the TA with questions. It is inappropriate to expect the TA to offer help outside of the set class or office hours, as the TA is usually a Graduate student with their own classes, research, and life to attend to. Also, students should consider checking the course manual or other documents before emailing questions to the TA. My biggest problem with my own students is generally the huge amount of questions and requests for extra help I get around exam time – the more students can prepare ahead of time and avoid procrastinating, the more helpful the TA will be able to be.

Professors and course coordinators benefit from good TAs because there are simply too many students in most courses for the professor to deal directly with them. Good TAing can be encouraged by these staff members by clearly stating the expectations of the job, and providing support for the TA when faced with difficult students.

As a TA, there are a few tips that I would recommend. I think it is a good idea not to mention that it is your first time TAing, even if it is. Students may sometimes think that you could be ‘pushed around’ if you have little experience – so just don’t mention it if you are new. You can be a better TA by putting some time into preparing for your classes. You’ll feel better because you will be confident and ready to go, and your students will appreciate your clear understanding and effectiveness. I recommend trying to learn your students’ names. Sometimes this isn’t feasible, but the more personal you can make the learning experience, the more respect and effort you will receive from your group.

TAing can be a great experience, and can really make a difference to a student.