Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

February 22, 2018

Teaching at Pitt

Suggestions for Maximizing the Teaching Assistant Experience

Teaching assistants (TAs) are integral to the educational goals of the University, yet faculty members and course directors often wonder how best to involve their teaching assistants in their courses. As graduate TAs receive funding and make progress toward their degrees, they also contribute substantially to the student experience, in roles that may include: course planning, grading and providing feedback, leading recitations and labs, holding office hours and review sessions, developing lesson plans, creating assessments and activities, taking attendance and maintaining the class CourseWeb site.

It is helpful for faculty/course directors to view their own role, not only as course instructor and mentor, but also as the leader of an instructional team. Four factors characterize effective instructional teams: clear expectations for instructional goals, clear understanding of roles and the instructional process, mechanisms for consistent communication and mutual respect for each team member’s experience and perspective.

It is critical to determine in advance what your course’s learning goals or objectives are, as every dimension of your TAs’ roles in the course will be influenced by those goals in some way. For example, if you are targeting higher-order skills, such as application, you will likely design a number of applied activities, such as case studies; perhaps you’ll have your TAs working with the students on these case studies, either in small groups or in recitations.

Other factors determining possible TA roles include course format (lecture/recitation/lab) and size, regularity of meeting and the background knowledge and teaching experience of your TAs. You might identify roles for your TAs in course planning (designing syllabus elements and lesson plans), teaching (leading a recitation/lab), creating materials (quizzes, handouts), administrative duties (proctoring exams, updating the CourseWeb site) and assessment (grading, providing feedback on exams and assignments).

As you identify these roles, be sure to consider how much time each task may take, in conjunction with University guidelines for hours of effort. A recitation, for example, may involve not only facilitation time, but also prep time, grading any assessments administered and administrative duties, such as logging attendance and participation. In the summary of roles that you provide to your TAs (preferably written, at the beginning of the term), you might also consider including an estimate of the time anticipated for each task. Invite your TAs to communicate with you regularly about how much time they are spending on tasks, individually and collectively.

An initial meeting provides an opportunity to communicate expectations and roles and to establish a collaborative relationship with your TAs. It is recommended that you hold this meeting prior to the beginning of the semester. If for some reason this meeting will not occur until the first week of classes, consider communicating basic expectations electronically beforehand.

In addition to using the initial meeting to provide an overview of expectations, it is advisable to use the time to determine your TAs’ own goals and view of their TA assignment. A professor of natural sciences at the University once told the Teaching Center, “When I first started working with TAs, I wish I had known how eager they were to discuss teaching issues. If you frame the questions right you can address the topics that mean the most to them.” For those TAs not planning to enter a career in teaching, stress the relevance of the skills they will develop to other professions (organization, public speaking, collaboration, etc.).

The first meeting is also the best time to communicate to TAs that they are uniquely positioned to identify issues such as struggling or distressed students. Be specific. After how many student absences, for example, should a TA contact you to inform you of this pattern? Keep in mind that, because of the relative power differential, some TAs may be disinclined to reach out to you, the faculty member, with their issues and concerns; invite your TAs to communicate with you regarding course-related matters.

The best way to ensure regular communication is to hold, at minimum, weekly meetings. These weekly sessions provide an opportunity to check in with your TAs to determine if course goals are being met, to inquire about any student issues and to communicate regarding upcoming assignments and exams. You may also use such sessions for benchmarking grading and feedback standards. If, for example, TAs will be grading student papers, you may wish to grade a number of papers together first, and discuss the criteria you have used. Typically, if TA responsibilities include any in-class teaching, the faculty supervisor will also perform an observation at least once during the term.

In addition to serving as course instructor and team leader, you are also a mentor to your TAs. What principles and practices would you like to communicate to and foster among your TAs, the next generation of educators? Together with goals that TAs themselves have identified, those considerations may inform your regular meetings. You might use the time, for example, to analyze how well a particular instructional activity worked and, if it did not work well, how it might be improved or augmented. If time allows, perhaps you might assign an article on teaching within your discipline, or recommend that TAs attend a pedagogy workshop.

Finally, at the conclusion of the term, hold a wrap-up meeting to determine any final responsibilities (submission of grades and record management, for example). Provide your TAs with feedback regarding their performance during the term, and offer thanks for any specific points that you particularly appreciated. If appropriate, you may wish to communicate this information in a formal letter, which your TAs might include in their professional or teaching portfolio. Finally, ask your TAs for any feedback they have on the course, including the faculty/TA dynamic, so that you can use this information to improve the course — and your and your TAs’ experience — in the future.

For more information, including new teaching assistant questionnaires; possible meeting agendas; recommendations for communication and holding office hours; guidelines for adapting educational materials; criteria for standardizing grading; suggestions for facilitating recitations, labs, and discussions; possible tasks in CourseWeb; checklists for teaching observations and end-of-semester meetings, please consult the Working with Your TA handbook, published by the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.


Joel Brady is the teaching consultant and program coordinator of the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.


Leave a Reply