A Crash Course in TA-ing (Teacher's Assistant)

April 29, 2016
Last semester I was overjoyed at finding a new adviser so I could continue my master's degree. He didn't have any funding for me, so I turned to TAing to make some money and give me some of the other financial perks of working for the institution I attended (tuition waiver and health insurance).

But since I was late coming to the paty, I didn't get any kind of introduction to or instruction for TAing. When I found I was going to be teaching the lab, not just grading papers behind the scenes, I googled as much as I could in a panic.

I didn't really find anything all that helpful.

Now it's my second semester teaching and I've learned enough to try and put together a list of what I wish I'd knew before, so some other poor grad (or undergrad) student doesn't have to learn on the job like I did.

I TA a physical science lab for non-majors, which means the content is quite straightforwards for someone with a science background (lot's of easy to grade numbers), and the class itself is going to be radically different from the one you may be teaching. If you're running a social sciences class or writing workshop, please let me know in the comments what you would add!

Here's what I have to do:
+ run the lab - hand out materials, answer student's questions
+ sometimes this means making a short power point to explain concepts
+ grading labs and quizzes
+ writing quizzes
+ be responsible for tracking grades and assignments
+ helping students make up labs they miss

Before the semester starts:
+ Have a clearly defined policies in the syllabus that include:
  • Attendance, missed classes and excused absences
  • Make up work from missed classes
  • When assignments are due and late work
  • Office hours and how to reach you
  • What are their responsibilities for extra help, making up work, and anything else that requires your time. (for example, you won't email them to set up a time, they have to contact you)
+ Come up a method for tracking grades, like excel or google sheets. Chances are you're uploading grades to an online student portal, but you'll want somewhere else to record, flag, edit etc grades.
+ Find out your university's policies on extra time and other accommodations.
+ Have a policy on cheating.
+ Have a method for keeping track of who is missing class (or switching to another section that week). I can keep it in my head if it's one or two students, but sometimes the same student misses over and over again because of an ongoing health problem or work conflict. Sometimes several students just don't show up and it's hard to remember who had an excused absence and who didn't.
+ What your answer key looks like. How much leeway will you have with grading, will you have to make your own rubric, what the teachers considers a good answer, etc.
+ Will you have to do the assignment/lab ahead of time understand it.
+ Do you have a mailbox or somewhere else students can drop off assignments?
+ About how many hours a week should you be spending on TAing?
+ Since I run a lab, the students work in groups and usually turn in one lab per group. This cuts down on my grading, but has the usual pros and cons of group work for the students. 

What each class looks like
- I have about 26-27 students per section
+ While they are getting settled I start handing back quizzes and labs. I call out student's names and generally get used to where they sit even if I can't place a name with a face for a while. I take attendance based on what was handed in and wasn't handed back.
+ I clear up any common problems they had on the handed back material.
+ We take a 10 minute quiz (I usually let them have 12 or 13 minutes since I'm slow at passing things out).
+ After that's collected I talk about some of the trickier parts of the lab, which questions they'll need handouts or other materials for, and any changes in the lab (lots of questions and figures get mislabeled as the lab gets updated).
+ If need be I'll explain concepts using images on slides. Sometimes it's easier to leave a slide up explaining or demonstrating a tricky question instead of explaining it over and over. The slide can also give students a starting point to ask questions.
+ While they are working on the lab, I'll come around with the things they'll need, and check in on those tricky questions. Otherwise I'll sit at my desk and get a head start on some grading.
+ If I know there are some questions students often get wrong or skip, I'll check them quickly when the students hand in their lab.

Between Classes I:
+ Grade labs and quizzes + Update the online grade book
+ Upload useful files
+ Write quizzes
+ Meet with students over make up work
+ Organize students moving between sections or who have excused absences

 Some other things to think about:

+ Who TAed the class last semester? There might be someone in your department who has taught the labs before.
+ When is the professor available to answer questions. I teach Monday afternoons, but the professor teaches Monday mornings. If I have a question for him, I have to ask the week before or hope email will suffice.
+ When the students have the lecture, compared to when they have your lab. I teach two labs on Mondays, but half the students don't have their first lecture of the week until Tuesday.
+ This may be unique to science labs for non-majors, but a lot of the students believe they are bad at math, and many haven't had a math class in years. They can feel intimidated by a lot of numbers, and tell you they can't work through a problem without really giving it a try first. This might mean the lab could be formatted better, with the problem broken down into multiple, smaller parts.

Finally, remember that you are not the professor for the class, you are just a guide to help the students on their own journeys. You are probably not writing the lessons or labs, so you are not personally responsible for difficult questions, and you can tell students when you think something is confusing or badly worded. If you're not given a key, it's OK to say: "I don't know, but I'll find out", and then either leave the question off when you grade or give everyone who attempts it credit. Take responsibility when you mess up, but keep in mind you did not develop the course plan or design the labs, and the students probably realize that.

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