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August 28, 2014

Teaching @ Pitt: Working with teaching assistants


Teaching assistants play an important role in the departments that employ them. Their tasks include facilitating labs, grading homework and tests, and leading discussions during recitations.  In many courses, TAs have more direct contact than faculty do with undergraduate students, and they can shape the educational experience of undergraduates in profound ways.

However, as novice teachers, these undergraduate or graduate students may struggle to complete instructional-related tasks that you, as supervising faculty, perceive as simple. Many TAs do not know how to be effective in the classroom, and they depend on you for training and guidance as they develop their teaching skills.

As both supervisor and mentor, you need to establish clear expectations and maintain communication with your TAs. Ensure that they aren’t working more than 20 hours a week, and confirm that all assigned tasks directly relate to their instructional responsibilities.

These seven steps will help you to work effectively with your TAs:

1. Define the role of your TAs in the course. What will your teaching assistants contribute to student learning? As leader of a discussion recitation, or facilitator of a lab section associated with a large lecture, a TA may provide complementary information, concrete examples, hands-on experience or in-depth exploration of concepts. As a grader, a TA may be responsible for providing valuable feedback to students on their performance.

2. Lay out your expectations for your TAs. What do you expect from your TAs, and in what format? What kinds of tasks are they responsible for? What support or guidance can they expect from you, and in what format, and by what dates and times? If TAs will be developing problem sets, how far in advance of distribution will these need to be developed? Will you be reviewing and revising them beforehand? If your TA has a problem student, should he or she contact you immediately? How and by when will you expect grades to be reported?

3. Meet regularly with your TAs. Be sure that your TAs understand the trajectory and content of the course so they can draw on this understanding in interactions with students. Be aware that TAs may struggle to complete unfamiliar instructional tasks, and take advantage of their insights: They may see aspects of student learning that you do not. If students are struggling to understand a concept, the TA who has been visiting and revisiting this concept with students may benefit from suggestions about how to present the information in a new way, or you may wish to focus on it more before moving on to a new subject.

4. Provide information on course content, institutional resources and effective teaching to your TAs. Alert them to supportive resources that can help them in the classroom. TAs may benefit from access to articles or sample exercises on a subject they will be discussing with students.  Make suggestions about how to broach or present information to students. Additionally, TAs may wish to discuss classroom management with the Office of Student Conduct, refer students to University resources such as the Writing Center, or take workshops in pedagogy from CIDDE’s TA Services.

5. Monitor your TAs to ensure a consistent, effective educational experience for students. Confirm that your TAs are effective instructors by periodically reviewing the feedback they provide on graded assignments, sitting in on recitations or labs, asking them to give lectures or presentations to the class, and involving them in construction of tests and other assessments.

6. Provide constructive feedback to your TAs. Regularly evaluate your TAs’ teaching, grading, guidance or other instructional activities, and let them know in writing what they did well. Give them appropriate, targeted suggestions for improvement.

7. Support your TAs’ goals for professional development. Be aware of their goals in studies, in research and as instructors. If your TA ultimately hopes to secure a job at a teaching college, encourage your TA to build teaching skills and credentials with you while developing research problems with his or her adviser.

If your TA finds classroom management or other aspects of teaching challenging, your mentorship could focus on strategies for improving these skills. As an experienced faculty member, you can help your TAs develop their own practices as potential future faculty.

Remember that your TAs are learning to juggle many challenging tasks. Your insight and support is invaluable as they learn to be more effective scholars, more effective instructors and more effective assistants.

Lauren R. Herckis is CIDDE’s coordinator of TA Services.