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The Essentials of Being a Graduate Teaching Assistant

As graduate students, you may serve as Teaching Assistants (TAs) in one or most semesters. Depending on the program and institution, TA appointments may be linked to your graduate student funding package. As a result, you may teach undergraduate courses that are either directly linked to their graduate program and research area, or not so much (my personal experience). Nonetheless, it is essential for all graduate students who have or want to serve as a TA to understand their role and serve as an effective educator to undergraduate students. In this blog post, I will provide three thoughts on how to serve as a better TA.

1. Starting the Semester off Strong

We all know that first impressions matter. In the teaching and learning environment, they matter even more because they set the tone for the semester. A negative first impression may adversely influence the relationship you can form with students. On the other hand, starting the semester off strong may allow you to form strong connections with students, cultivate these connections throughout the semester, and motivate students towards co-learning and discovery.

The first impression usually forms in the first tutorial. You can use two strategies to form a positive first impression and build a strong group dynamic between students: group contract and group-building activities.

As a TA, I usually spend a considerable amount of time in the first tutorial co-constructing a group contractthat reflects the mutually-agreed expectations as a classroom and within groups of students who may be working on collaborative assignments over the semester. This group contract, although not a formal legal document, may help students hold themselves and each other accountable in learning activities/assessments.

The second strategy I use are group-building activities. These activities are sometimes not relevant to the course content. However, these activities provide students the opportunity to spend some time develop a rapport with peers. The benefit of such activities is profound because it sets the tone for interaction and collaboration that will determine the learning environment for the semester.

In some cases, the group contract and learning activity can be combined. Sometimes, I use an activity called R.O.P.E.S, which prompts students to identify the qualities of effective teamwork that start with each of the letters of the word ROPES (e.g., responsible, optimistic, punctual, empathetic, and supporting). Working in small groups, students determine as many qualities as possible. At the end of this activity, as a class, I will write down the most salient and important qualities on a flipchart paper visible to everyone. Once completed, I ask if these qualities are appropriate for our learning environment. Each individual usually agrees with these qualities, and as a result, an informal group contract has been formed.

Junior Brice Bergman prepares to start the men's 4x400-meter relay during the annual Air Force All-Comers Meet at the Cadet Field House Jan. 14, 2011. The Falcons 4x400-meter relay team finished first among collegiate teams and second overall with a time of 3:15.59. (U.S. Air Force photo/Bill Evans)

2. Office Hours and Availability

Having predefined office hours provides an important opportunity for students to discuss assignments or content in an informal manner. However, I have consistently noticed that students do not attend office hours and instead, TAs are working on other things.

Students seldom attend office hours. If they do, it is usually immediately prior to a major assessment. I believe that the lack of attendance is to due how we frame the purpose and importance of office hours. By reframing the purpose of office hours to be more aligned with students’ needs, we may be able to increase the accessibility of office hours.

I will go a bit further and recommend that these office hours do not have to be in-person. TAs should offer virtual office hours either through Skype or other VOIP software and email. The benefit of providing other mediums of communication is that it allows students with distinct communication preferences to be taken into account. The other advantage of having virtual office hours is that it is easier for you – you do not have to be physically present at a particular location. It is also easier for students because you can determine a time that works for both you and a student if the location is not a factor that determines availability.


3. Clear Criteria for Assessments

There is one crucial aspect of teaching and learning that the majority of educators miss, even if these educators have been teaching for many years.

Assessments can vary depending on the topic and course. Assessments that require students to construct arguments, essays, opinions, and solutions to complex problems – also known as performance tasks – need a different approach and supports than assessments that are considered traditional tests or examinations. When a topic is ambiguous and there are multiple possible answers to a problem, it is imperative for educators to provide the criteriafor answers/responses/assessments that are deemed appropriate by the course instructors and objectives. In some cases, these criteria may be provided as examples of previously written exemplary assignments. In other cases, they may be in the form of a rubric that guides students’ thinking, writing, and assignment development. Without such criteria, the output of assignments will vary widely, which become very difficult to mark consistently as TAs. If educators provide ambiguous assignments without clear criteria or exemplars, as it has been the case for so many courses, then students will be very confused about the objectives, focus, and emphasis of assignments. When it comes to marking assignments and giving feedback to students, there may be more confusion, complaints, and discussion needed to clarify the original purpose and objectives of the assignment.

It is also important to provide the criteria for “bad” assignments as it is for “good” assignments. Both criteria allow students to differentiate between the ideal and non-ideal and clarify how they can use their resources and mental faculties to formulate an assignment that is more aligned with the learning outcomes of the course and assignment.



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