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How to Become a More Effective TA-- FAQs Answered by Past TAs

Q: What are some of the most common tips and advice from past Teaching Assistants (TAs)?

A:

  • "Always come prepared to office hours, whether that involves brushing up on your understanding of the material or reviewing the solutions on problem sets."
    • "but don't stress if you get questions you can't answer immediately -- it's okay to take a pause or get back to them later if needed."
  • "I realized that I was focusing on teaching and not enough on how my students were learning. It's important to have a balance of both!"
    • "Be an active listener to your students and dynamically adjust your teaching based on your student reactions."
    • "As a teacher, it's very useful to take the time to understand how a student is looking at a problem, in order to figure out how best to help them."
    • "always try to put yourself in the position of the student, a position every TA has many times been in."
    • " Be responsive, sympathetic and understanding. Students are always under a lot of stress so it's good to be patient."
  • "Being able to explain a concept from many different perspectives is very helpful. Drawing a picture, write code, or use a ridiculous analogy are other helpful tools."
  • "Don't be afraid to admit you don't know something and ask someone else for advice."
    • "Ask other TAs for help if you need it"
    • "Create a group-chat with other TA's!"
  • "Getting feedback from my students helped me improve my ability to teach and help them through problem."
    • "I found it helpful to ask explicitly and repeatedly whether they were following and how to proceed."
  • "Don't talk to the board!"
  • "Don't be afraid to set boundaries"
  • "Be honest with your TA supervisor. If you're struggling with your workload plus your TA responsibilities, let them know. There may not be anything they can do, but they may also give you some slack."
    • "Make it known to your prof if you are putting in more hours than assigned for a concrete reason (e.g. OH takes longer because of prep time). They really can rebalance responsibilities."
  • "Be humble enough to know that you are still a student yourself, and realize that over your first semester you will learn just as much as your students do."
  • "Only commit to being a TA if you are absolutely sure you can commit the time for it each week."

Q: What are my responsibilities as a TA?

A:

TA responsibilities include: leading recitations, grading, supervising group projects, hosting review sessions, answering Piazza questions, holding office hours

*Note, these may vary from course-to-course!

Q: What are my objectives as a TA?

A:

Objectives

*Note, these may vary from course-to-course!

Q: How do I create a safe space for students to learn?

Q: How do I create a safe space for students to learn?

A:

  • Learn student's names! It will help you feel more personable and that you are invested in them.
  • It is really important to create an environment where students do not feel like they are being judged and they feel comfortable with admitting they don't understand something.
  • Take responsibility in a student not understanding something you have explained so they don't think it is their fault.
Instead of saying, say this instead table.

Note, image taken from Caltech RISE tutoring tips.

  • Be sensitive and patient when students still remain confused.
When this happens, try saying table.

Note, image taken from Caltech RISE tutoring tips.

Q: How do I engage in fair and consistent practices as a TA?

A:

  • "We have found that making a single TA responsible for grading a specific question on homework or exams allows for more consistent grading".
Consistency across grading.
  • Be aware of your own grading patterns (i.e. tendency to get stricter or less strict as you go on) and try to minimize the bias that might arise from these tendencies.
    • "I started to notice I got more strict as I graded more, so I started alphabetizing problem sets and switching the order every so often."
  • "Sometimes I will do two sweeps through the problem sets I am grading. In the first sweep, I characterize why students got problems wrong and in the second sweep, I assign the same score for the same error type."

Q: How should I deal with regrading requests?

A:

  • "I find it helpful to ask students to submit a memo for regrades. This often helps remove the emotion when a student is asking for a regrade and gives a way for them to justify their reasoning."
  • "We found that it is helpful to assign a single person to be responsible for regrades so that the students don't seek the TA they think might be the most lenient."

Q: What is the line between telling students what to do and how to do it?

A:

  • You should never be telling students exactly how to get to the answer of a problem that they are struggling with.
  • "A good first step is to understand what the student has tried so far or what aspect of the problem the student is confused about."
    • If they say "I just don't get anything", it is useful to identify where their knowledge gap begins, which you can try to tease out by asking "whats the first thing you don't get?"
    • Using error analysis, counterexamples, contradictions are all helpful for showing students why they might be following the wrong line of reasoning.
line between teaching what and how to get to the answer
  • "If you prompt students with leading questions, make sure you wait for them to answer questions. If you feel they don't know, ask them if they would like a hint."
  • "Sometimes, questioning students to get them to figure out is not the best way can make them more confused. In these instances, it's better to go back to an easier version of the idea and working forward from there."
  • "If one type of explanation or approach isn't clicking with a student, I try my best to find alternative ways or other examples to explain the ideas."

Q: How can I foster a more inclusive learning environment?

What inequality, equality, equity and justice look like.
  • Make an effort to learn students' names and see each student as an individual.
  • Be aware of students may come from different backgrounds and have varying amounts of prior knowledge, and plan to be accommodating to these differences.
  • Learn to examine your assumptions about students and create more inclusive class structures. The guidelines provided by the CTLO found here are tremendously helpful!

How do I balance approachability and authority?

A:

  • Friendliness shows students you want to help them and care about their learning (knowing their names is helpful with this)
  • You don't want to be so friendly as to have them expect you to compromise your objectivity and fairness.
    • Therefore, there might exist a tension between being approachable and still retaining authority.
approachability vs authority see-saw
  • Maintaining authority often requires being knowledgeable and prepared.
  • "It might be helpful to use the beginning of the course to establish your role as someone who is knowledgeable, and then become more casual as students increasingly see you as helpful."

Q: What are some other helpful tips?

  • "It's good to have a set of anchor points or key ideas that you want students to bring away with them after the session is over (that you write out explicitly for them). I have students say this is tremendously helpful for them figure out what is important."
  • "Nodding does NOT equal understanding. It is useful to gauge student understanding through additional questioning or problems in the same equivalence class."
  • "Be wary of using other people's examples, especially if you haven't thought carefully through them yourself. Sometimes I have collected examples from online, before I realized that I didn't know how to solve the problems when I was explaining them."

References