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TA’ing: Unspoken Skills

I’m not going to echo my colleagues who have lost hope that the summer is going to last forever. I know there are at least some of you that believe, like me, that this is the first never-ending summer. I haven’t double-checked the Farmer’s Almanac on that yet, though, so perhaps I’ll play it safe and continue 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 that there is the World of TA’ing that occurs off-stage. I’m going to write a bit about some effective ways of navigating issues that can occur with students in your TA class.


Getting Started on the Right Foot

We are all animals. We are always trying to figure out what the rules are, and a parent will tell you how true this is, but we don’t stop looking for the boundaries as we grow older. One of the easiest ways to avoid problems with your students as the term progresses is to be clear about your expectations of them in the first class. For example, do you want them to contact you with every question they have? Or, would you like them to search through the textbook and their notes first? Make sure you let them know. It’s also important that they are clear about their expectations of you. Like you, I keep a pretty solid list of things to do, and I’m typically busier than the average undergrad. Perhaps they don’t understand that responding to an inquiry on the same day is not always possible. I always tell my students I’ll always respond within 48 hours, which means that if they leave something to the last minute it’s on them, not me.


If you want to see passion from them, show them what it looks like. Your class will be a mixture of students who (a) know exactly why they’re in your class and are soaking up every piece of knowledge you have, (b) believe that they need to get a university degree but don’t feel like they can do it, (c) are getting a free ride and aren’t really invested, and (d) some combination of these and other things. Group A has all the motivation they need, and usually they’ll figure everything out. For the rest of them, tell them what the point of your topic. If you’re just talking facts at them they’re going focus on their grades, an extrinsic goal that they can wrap their minds around. However, if you can instill in them curiosity and a reason for wanting to know the answer, students will be more likely to be guided by an intrinsic motivation. And now everyone’s cookin’ with gas.


Helping Students

If you don’t get any questions throughout the term, you’re either doing an absolutely incredible job or a terrible one. If you’re teaching a lab/tutorial and you can either field questions during class or after that’s probably best for everyone involved. Beyond that, my experience is that a lot of students like to meet face-to-face. I’m happy to do it, but sometimes questions are more efficiently handled through email. I usually encourage my students to email me with questions for that reason, and because you can include interesting or helpful related links while you’re at it.


Common Issues and Solutions

Some legendary (mythical?) TAs go through the term without any issues. For the rest of us, we need to navigate some issues. Here are the two most common that I’ve come across:

Disputes regarding grading. The best way to avoid this is to give everyone a 100%. No no, kidding. The best way is to have a clear marking key. Most professors will provide it, but if they don’t work one out and ask the course professor to approve it. This will save you endless headaches because it helps you standardize your scoring, and you have some authority. If this isn’t satisfying for the student, make sure the student understands exactly why scores were gained and lost. If she/he still isn’t satisfied, I like to step back to and try to understand what they think is off.

Accommodations. Every assignment/test is accompanied by students with reasons why they couldn’t finish it on time. First and foremost, make sure you’re clear on how the professor would like you to handle it. If you have wiggle room to make decisions, it’s a personal call that will balance your compassion on one hand with the student’s responsibility on the other. I think the most important thing here is that you’re clear and consistent – make sure your students know what to expect from you at the beginning, and make sure you stick to it.


I have always enjoyed TA’ing. Despite the issues that can arise I’ve been able to maintain great relationships with my students, and I owe this to clear and respectful communication. Just like me, they are learning how to navigate new situations. I find it helpful to remember that school is pretty important to most of these students and they’re just trying to do the best they can, and if they did poorly on something that I can give them ways of doing better the next time.

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