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Guidelines For Teaching Assistants

This guideline defines the task of teaching assistantship, indicates its benefits to the graduate students, and gives some tips that makes the job easier.

The course(s) assigned to every teaching assistant (TA) is announced by the departments before the beginning of every academic semester and the summer school. The following summarizes the average expectations of their departments from the TAs:

  1. Helping the course instructor by grading the course homeworks and term-projects, by instructing in the labs, by giving recitations, and by providing support in the course organization.
  2. Helping the students during office hours, in labs, and by contributing to the course web page.
  3. Serving as a "role-model" to undergraduate students.
  4. Further educating themselves for an academic career.
  5. Contributing to the University in general, by exam proctoring and by performing various organizational activities.

These expectations target the joint benefits of TAs, students, and instructors put together. Teaching and learning are not distinct processes, `to learn something fast and good, teach it' as most teachers soon realize. Conversely, learning well is a prerequisite of being a good teacher. If TAs do a good job in items 1-5, then all parties will gain in experience.

In what follows, each expectation is first defined and described in more detail. The guideline concludes with some tips that may make the life of a TA enjoyable and easy.

  1. Helping the course instructor: Every instructor has a unique method of teaching and their expectations may vary. Grading, lab supervision, and recitation activities are the most basic among the supports that TAs may provide to the instructor.
    • Grading: TAs may grade homeworks, term-projects, lab-reports, quizzes. They may not grade midterm or final exams unless an unusual need arises. Grading is the most time consuming and the least liked activity by many TAs (and many instructors as well). It is nevertheless an activity that needs utmost care since ``grading is a distribution of justice.'' Is it really worth taking grading seriously, since mistakes average out to zero at the end? What can a TA possibly learn by grading something s/he knows by heart? Nothing if the grader's objective is to minimize the time it takes to grade! If, on the other hand, s/he minimizes the amount of injustice that may be caused by grading, then many benefits arise. No matter how bad the average performance of a class in an exam is, experience shows that at least one creative approach to the solution of one of the problems almost always emerges. The benefit of seeing and realizing that an attempt to a different solution is present among the 65 x 4 or more HW answers is a very rewarding challenge to a TA while, after all, understanding and appreciating a novel idea is not much easier than discovering it! A fair and just grading demands from the grader not only knowing the answers well but also having an idea about possible variations in the admissible answers. A diligent grader of HW's hence (i) sharpens his/her knowledge on the subject matter of the HW, (ii) learns how to differentiate between correct, wrong, correct-but-not-well-presented, wrong-but-creative, and others, and finally (iii) gets invaluable training in the process of scientific discovery.
    • Laboratory Supervision: Some courses depend on laboratory instruction in the form of demos that support the lectures, controlled experiments supplementing the lectures, or open-ended term projects which require creative contribution by students. All these require a careful coordination among the instructor, TAs, and the lab technicians. All take time and effort! Just as in the case of grading, whether these activities are beneficial to the TA or they are a cause of complaints and desperation depend on the level of enthusiasm and eagerness to participate on the part of TA. It does not depend on the particular topic of the lab, the scheduled hours and duration of the lab session, neither does it depend on whether the TA has been assigned to the course for the first time or for the n-th time. Knowing well what is expected of the students, the TA would know what is expected of him/her. Familiarizing himself/herself with the lab work in advance, s/he will be prepared for the questions directed by the students at him/her. Talking to the lab technicians, s/he will be prepared for possible mal-functioning in the lab equipment and will be familiar with the possible safety precautions. Lab supervision is an ample chance for a TA to overcome any antipathy s/he may have had towards the thorny road from theory to practice. It is an opportunity to appreciate the merits of team work and to experience the joy of getting something work!
    • Recitation: If the course work requires, a TA may be asked to give recitation lectures in a classroom. In unusual circumstances, they may be asked to give one or two course lectures as a substitute for an absent instructor. This is usually the first time a TA realizes how different a whiteboard looks from a distance of 30 cm's with 65 pairs of eyes at his/her back! This is also the first time s/he has to convey an idea to 65 individuals in a concise and organized manner. A well prepared one-hour lecture may cost one hour to an experienced instructor and four hours to an inexperienced TA. Is it worth the effort? Among numerous others one reason alone may suffice: whether a one hour lecture is well delivered or not determines whether some students in the class start developing a respect for the lecturer or decide s/he is a waste of time.
  2. Helping the students:
    • In the Laboratory: Whenever the lab instruction is an integral part of the course a TA is assigned to, s/he should be prepared to spend at least four hours a week standing in the lab and being subject to questions and cries for help from frustrated students. This may sound like a brief description of a scene from a Disney cartoon, from a horror movie, or from a realistic novel depending on the attitude of the participating TA. A lab instruction may require from the TA, an introductory lecture summarizing the lab session, supervision of the lab work, and evaluation of the lab work or the written lab reports. It is clear that none of the above tasks will be well delivered unless the TA is well prepared, knows what the lab work encompasses, can perform the experiment himself/herself, anticipates the problems that may occur, etc. An alternative to showing an interest in the lab work and in the problems the students face is to discourage the students from asking questions by a show of authority and confidence, by putting a distance between the students and oneself, by answering "Just do what you know!''. Such methods do work but makes everyone involved feel very uncomfortable. Naturally, there will be times when a TA is faced by a question s/he has no idea of how to answer. The correct approach is to try and think together towards finding an answer. The experienced TAs know that an answer soon emerges and is found - more often than not, by the student himself/herself.
    • During Office Hours: Every TA is expected to schedule and announce office hours during which the students may ask for help on various technical matters. The students tend to seek more help from the TAs than they do from the course instructor for various reasons. They are scared to ask "wrong questions'' (although there is no such thing!) to an instructor and be remembered so while being graded, they are more relaxed before a TA than before an instructor and can express themselves better. The usage of office hours of TAs by students is hence normally extensive. While tutoring the students during office hours, the ``trying together approach'' is not only helpful but becomes even necessary to adopt by a TA. It is more instructive than simply opening a solution manual and pointing out to the right answer. After all, what is most relevant to education is not a correct answer in itself but the reasoning that leads to one. A TA will save time and a good deal of embarrassment if s/he can anticipate most of the upcoming questions during the office hours. This requires a close contact with the course instructor and the happenings in the class. If s/he is keeping an eye on which HW is presently assigned and which topic is being taught in class, his/her load during office hours will be half reduced by eliminating the possibility of surprise questions and by a refreshment of his/her memory before the office hours.
    • By Contribution to the Course Web Page: Some departments maintain course web pages where all course material, HWs, grades and computational tools are kept in electronic format. Such sites, if well prepared, are invaluable for getting quick and compact information on a course. Contribution to a course web page by a TA will not only help the students but will also make the job of the next year's TAs much easier.
  3. Serving as a "role-model'': Being a TA is an imminent step for an undergraduate student interested in an academic carreer. They look upon a TA to see what is in store for them in the next two, three years. A department with ethical, diligent, helpful, happy TAs one year will be sure to recruit similar graduate students next year. This loads on TAs shoulders the responsibility of being a good role-model for prospective graduate students.
  4. Further Education: More often than postponing a due military service or sustaining a certain marital status, the purpose of being a graduate student is to build an academic career. The departments therefore view TA-ship as part of an education preparing the graduate student to an academic life. The similarity of its expectations from an instructor and a TA is then very natural. If a TA views the various tasks assigned to him/her in the same spirit, the task perhaps starts to look less like a burden and more like something to learn from.
  5. Contribution to University: The University needs occasional contributions from TAs by way of exam proctoring, acting as hosts during high-school visits, providing help for orientation programs and other such activities. The general codes of ethics and behavior that apply to any representative of the University also apply to TAs while they are performing such duties. The exam proctoring needs particular care. It is very important that a TA gets in touch with the course instructor at least one day ahead of the exam s/he is assigned a proctor to in order to find out about any special requests that may arise. It is equally important that s/he is punctual in being at the instructor's office prior to the start of the exam or in arriving at the exam location. One TA being late for ten minutes, the exam is usually delayed by ten minutes, irritating (to say the least) a crowd of students and the instructor.

One can almost hear the following complaint coming: "A graduate student has a hoard of other responsibilities! Takes graduate courses, does research, works on a thesis, writes papers. The course instructor expects one thing, the supervisor another. What is a poor TA to do?'' Plan well, be prepared, save time is the only possible answer. Here are some tips put together by some former TAs:

  • Get in touch with the course instructor as soon as you are assigned to a course. Extract as much information as possible from him/her.
  • Talk to former TAs of the course you are assigned to.
  • Get a copy of the course textbook and the old HW, quiz assignments.
  • Check if a course web page is being maintained by the department.
  • Perform all demos or experiments you are expected to supervise, alone or together with the other TAs, at the beginning of the semester before the lab sessions start.
  • Familiarize yourself with the equipment to be used. Talk to lab technicians, they know much more than you might guess.
  • Prepare and plan the logical organization and duration of a lecture you are asked to deliver very carefully. Try to anticipate the questions that may come, skip the ones you can not answer in a reasonable time.
  • For recitations, ask the instructor or the students which questions they want to see solved in class and stick to these.
  • Prepare a complete solution sheet and keep it in front of you the whole time you are grading. Mentally pre-plan the credits to be given to partial solutions. Do not check the results only, that is unjust and causes you more work later.
  • The best time to grade a quiz is soon after it is given. The worst time to grade a HW is at the end of the semester.
  • Do not avoid the course instructor because s/he gives you a new task everytime you appear. This only increases your workload as the tasks required tend to accumulate rather than diminish by time.
  • Do not accept vague instructions by the course instructor, force him/her to be specific.
  • Set up and announce office hours. You will be interrupted less and you will know when to be prepared and what to expect.
  • Always "try together'' with the student asking for help.
  • "I don't know but let us see'' is a better answer than "You are supposed to know this.''
  • Spending some time on being organized saves much time later. Do not postpone and let it accumulate.

Finally, regularly fill out your time-sheets and do include all of your efforts including the preparation time before the recitations and laboratory sessions. Submit the time-sheet to the department secretary by the 7th of each month.