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Understanding your students (as a TA)

Well, today is Monday August 10th. Someone please tell me where our summer has gone? While most of us go on with life as usual over the summer, in just over a month, another school year is set to begin.


If you’re a new grad student, this may be your first time working as a teaching assistant. This can be an amazing, but overwhelming experience. If this is your first time as a TA, or you are a TA for a totally new course, it would be really helpful if you tried to seek out some helpful information now. Set up a quick meeting with the Course or Lab Coordinator, and  get an idea of the learning objectives for the course, the format, deliverables, and especially the timing and time commitment. This will help you ease into your role as a TA and make sure you allocate your time appropriately. One thing you I definitely encourage you to sign up for is Teaching Development (TD) day. This is an annual conference that offers new ideas for teaching to those interested in the profession. Check out the program here.


Your role as a TA changes based on what department you are in, and especially what program you are in. In the biology department for instance, you can  lead lab experiments, work through genetic problems, take up homework assignments, or simply just mark. Other departments have different roles for TAs. Regardless of what your role as a TA entails, there will be many challenges you will face along the way. Through my experience in SGS 901, a grad student teaching and learning group, among other things, engaging and understanding students as a TA is a common struggle, that nearly every TA involved could relate to.


How do we understand our students as a TA?

  1. Understand the material.
  • As a TA, and especially as a new TA, you might end up in the position where you are TAing a course with a topic you may not be super familiar with. In that case, take time to review the material beforehand. Prep time makes such a big difference and trust me, you’ll thank yourself you did it in the end (and so will your students). Now, this doesn’t mean you need to be an expert, and students are most often very understanding of that. When students have questions you can’t effort, do everything you can to find the answer for them – it’s really as simple as that!
  1. Understand the expectations.
  • One of the keys to keeping your students interested in the material is to know what they have to know. You might think you need to cover everything in the text book, but take a step back, and consider what the learning outcomes for the course (or lab component) are. What material is testable? What material is crucial now to build on future material that will be covered? To what depth is the understanding of the material supposed to be? If you know what they’re expected to know, you can more easily parse down and weigh through the content to create an engaging learning environment.
  1. Understand how students learn.
  • I don’t even want to say what year the incoming set of first year students were born. But it’s been almost 10 years since I was in their shoes, and teaching and learning has evolved a lot in that time. One example: most people still took notes on paper when I was in first year… I’m not even sure students know what paper is anymore. We are in a very technologically advanced learning situation with lots of online resources and modules moving into our courses. And although, this might be a challenge for us as TAs, this is how our students know learning. This is how (for the most part) they have learned and want to learn and importantly are comfortable learning. We need to take that information, and run with it. We know how they want to learn, so let’s teach them that way! If what you’re doing isn’t working, ask your students why and I bet you’ll get some great advice you couldn’t get from anywhere else!
Posted in All, General, New Students, Orientation, Student Perspective Tagged with: , ,
One comment on “Understanding your students (as a TA)
  1. Colette says:

    Wow, it sounds scary to be a TA, but I am sure once you get in the swing of it, very rewarding. Thanks for mentioning Teaching Development Day as I understand it is an extremely timely and informative day for anyone teaching.

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  1. […] Amanda has alluded to, the twilight of summer is upon us. Personally, I am not ready to accept this fact; […]

  2. […] talking about prepping for this upcoming academic year. A sometimes-overlooked task is TA’ing. Amanda discussed some ways of being an effective TA in front the classroom, and veteran TAs also recognize […]

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