A Guide to Working with Course and Teaching Assistants
Before the semester begins
Being a teaching assistant is a required part of graduate education in the majority of graduate programs and in every discipline and field. Some undergraduates also have the opportunity to assist in courses. As you prepare to work with teaching assistants, think back to your own experience as a teaching assistant. What were some of the most positive and formative aspects of it? What do you wish had been different? If you could give advice to yourself as a teaching assistant now, what would it be? If you could give advice to the professors with whom you worked, what would it be? How might these reflections impact how you approach working with your own teaching assistants?
Many course and teaching assistants perceive their experience as a course or teaching assistant as vital in their own development as educators, whether they are experienced college instructors or whether they are teaching for the first time in their role as a teaching assistant. Their experience working with faculty and students has the potential to be a significant apprenticeship as they consider and possibly build an academic career. The professor with whom they work has the potential to be far more than a supervisor: they can be pedagogical role models and serve as mentors who provide insight into undergraduate and graduate education and, for graduate teaching assistants, may be helpful as they navigate the doctoral process.
Remain mindful of the role’s many potential benefits and challenges, particularly in the rapidly changing and uncertain context of an ongoing global pandemic and, as our Transition to In-Person Teaching and Transition to In-Person Learning guides emphasize, the diverse and dramatic impact that the pandemic has had and continues to have on everyone. The role of course and teaching assistant has many potential benefits. Teaching can be an inspiring, meaningful, and energizing experience. Teaching and course assistants have the opportunity to learn from the professors with whom they work and to understand how they create their syllabus, approach teaching, work with students and their course assistants and TAs, conceptualize assignments and/or exams and evaluate them. Course and teaching assistants may also contend with a range of concerns throughout the semester: student well-being, grading, plagiarism, and balancing their own coursework and research with the responsibilities of the course assistant or TA position.
As this thoughtful guide from Cornell University states, constructive training, guidance, and support is essential to cultivating beneficial, respectful, and enriching relationships with undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants. Support could take some of the following forms:
- Consider creating a document such as this comprehensive guide to teaching roles and responsibilities created by two graduate workers in the Department of Religion, Columbia University while they were Lead Teaching Fellows at the Center for Teaching and Learning to review and discuss with your course and teaching assistants before the semester gets underway. Remain open to incorporating feedback on and modifications of this document from your course and teaching assistants.
- Meeting with the course and teaching assistants before the course begins is a good way for everyone to share a bit about themselves and their expectations for working together before the hecticness of the semester gets underway. If you have not already shared your draft syllabus with the course and teaching assistants over the summer, this meeting would be a great time to do so and, if appropriate, ask for feedback and suggestions.
- Take an active interest in your course and teaching assistants as educators and scholars in training. Discuss their approach to teaching and learning and have an open discussion about any questions or concerns they might have about any aspect of their role in your course, whether they are experienced instructors or whether this will be their first time teaching.
- Encourage the course assistants and TAs to work together and create a support network with one another so that they can share ideas, materials, questions, and advice and see their fellow TAs as colleagues and collaborators, not competitors. This may be facilitated by setting up a regular time for them to meet together or building time into a weekly meeting just focused on the TAs sharing with each other. Introductory courses in the departments of Biology and American Studies at Barnard hold weekly meetings for course assistants and TAs who serve as discussion section leaders to discuss their section plans for the upcoming week. Instituting a similar meeting, especially for courses in which course assistants and TAs lead discussion sections, may be very beneficial for sharing ideas, creating consistency, and building community.
- Support your course assistants and TAs’ as they gain access to all necessary resources for the semester, including desk copies of books, information about A/V equipment, how to make copies and scan materials in the department, how to get access to Canvas as a TA or Enhanced TA, and how to reserve space for office hours. Be sure that your TAs have a contact list for the key individuals in the department that they may need to be in touch with regularly, such as the department administrator and director of undergraduate and graduate studies.
- Remain mindful of ongoing pandemic-related health and safety concerns that your course assistants and TAs may have about returning to in-person teaching and be prepared to make adjustments on a case-by-case basis should individual circumstances change.
At the beginning of the semester
Establish regular communication with your course assistants and TAs and determine from the beginning of the course how and how often you will communicate with one another. Be clear about how they should communicate with students in the class and how often they are expected to be in communication. If the course requires that regular emails are sent to students, clarify from the beginning whether you or the course assistants or the TAs will be responsible for that. Define what types of student questions and circumstances course assistants and TAs should immediately address with the professor and which they are entrusted with handling themselves.
Be mindful of how course assistants and TAs might need to navigate their role sensitively as they work with students who may be peers and friends. Graduate teaching assistants should understand that while they are not likely near-peers to their students, their students may consider them as role models or advisors with whom they want to discuss the graduate school experience.
Remain aware of the complexity of your own multifaceted role as their supervisor, potential pedagogical role model, and potential mentor. Undergraduate course assistants may be looking to the lead professor’s syllabus and approach to teaching and evaluating students as a possible model as they consider careers in teaching and in academia. Graduate TAs may have similar expectations and may also want to discuss your research and how you navigated graduate school and built an academic career. Be open throughout the semester and beyond to course and teaching assistants’ questions about the subject matter of the course, about the field and about academia more broadly.
Point course and teaching assistants to support on campus that may be helpful to their students including The Center for Accessibility Resources & Disability Services (CARDS), Peer-to-Peer Tutoring, Barnard Writing Fellows, and Barnard Speaking Fellows. They should also be made aware of the resources at The Furman Counseling Center in case they have students who might benefit from support there. Given that many students have experienced trauma during the pandemic, such support may be particularly important to underscore to course assistants and TAs in the upcoming academic year.
Recognize the following questions course assistants and TAs commonly have and prepare to address them in your first meetings of the semester. The Faculty Handbook and Guidelines for Appointment of Teaching Assistants and Graders are valuable resources to consult in approaching them.
- What resources are available for course assistants and TAs who might have little or no experience teaching?
- What resources are available for course assistants and TAs whose specialization may be in a related field to the course but who might not be specializing in the subject matter or even field that the course is in?
- Will I be evaluated (and by whom and in what form)?
- Will I receive feedback from the instructor? Will the students have a chance to evaluate me? Can I create my own evaluation for the students?
- What types of issues communicated in office hours by students should be communicated to the professor?
- What is the course assistant’s and TA’s responsibility if the professor has to miss class?
- What is the departmental, College, and University policy for handling cases of plagiarism and cheating?
Responsibilities of the role:
- What course materials, if any, is the course assistant or TA responsible for preparing?
- What are the specific tasks you want course assistants and TAs to undertake?
- How often will professors and assistants meet to discuss the course?
- What is the requirement for attending course lectures?
- What are the expectations for giving feedback on students' written assignments, exams, and other work such as presentations and class participation?
- What are the expectations for course assistant and TA office hours?
- What is the schedule for due dates and exam dates?
- What are the specific deadlines for returning assignments that require course assistant and TA feedback and grading?
- Who is the first point of contact if a student needs to miss class for any reason?
- What are the expectations when a student comes to me struggling with the course material?
- What are the expectations if a student comes to me to discuss issues they have with the course material or the pedagogical approach or any other content aspect of the course?
- What is the procedure if a student complains to me about the professor’s conduct?
- If there are several course assistants and TAs, how are we planning to maintain consistency with feedback and grading?
- Will grading be done blindly?
- What is the process for handling grade disputes?
- What are the total hours per week course assistants and TAs are expected to work? Will some weeks require more work than others?
- What are the expectations for working during the weekends and holidays? Will I be expected to answer student and professor emails within a certain time period during both the week and weekends/breaks?
- What should I do if I am having trouble balancing my course assistant or TA responsibilities and my coursework, research, and writing responsibilities?
Suggested checklist for working with course and teaching assistants
We offer the checklist below as a reminder of some of the key aspects of building an open, creative and collaborative working relationship with your course and teaching assistants. Our checklist is also available here as a downloadable PDF.
Before the semester
- Meet with the course assistants or TAs as a group to review the syllabus, discuss the expectations and answer any questions.
- Discuss how course assistants’ and TAs’ research, teaching interests, and experience might be incorporated into the course.
- If course assistants and TAs are expected to hold office hours, determine when they will be.
- Ask course assistants and TAs about their own important academic deadlines for the semester to avoid a major grading deadline coinciding with a major academic deadline (e.g., submitting a dissertation prospectus or chapter).
- Encourage course assistants and TAs to communicate openly about any tasks or assignments they are uncertain about or might require modification.
- Point course assistants and TAs to College resources for student health and emotional well-being, disability services, and academic support resources.
- Make the course assistants and TAs aware of the course, departmental, and College procedures for handling cheating and plagiarism
- Explain the departmental and College resources for photocopying, scanning, and audio-visual equipment
At the beginning of the semester and for your syllabus
- Make time during your first class meeting for your course assistants and TAs to introduce themselves.
- Create an in-person and online support network with yourself and the course assistants and TAs to share ideas, teaching approaches and questions (e.g. weekly meeting, regular email communication throughout the semester).
- During the first class, make it clear to the students what the course assistants’ and TAs’ role will be (e.g., attending lectures/class meetings, grading, leading discussion sections, holding office hours).
- Be sure the explanations about the course assistants’ and TAs’ roles are also outlined on your syllabus.
- Clarify to the course assistants TAs and to the students the extent to which they will assist with homework, essays, papers, group projects, and exam preparation and note this on your syllabus.
- Clarify to the TAs and to the students in the course what the procedure is if students have questions about their grades and note this on the syllabus.
- Encourage course assistants and TAs to inform you of any prior or existing friendships or other relationships with students in the course that should exempt them from grading or teaching them.
During the semester
- Refer to the course assistants and TAs by name in class (rather than as “your course assistant” or “your TA”).
- Value the course assistants’ and TAs’ particular teaching and research experience and find ways to integrate it in the course (e.g., inviting them to give a lecture during one of the course meetings, contributing to the syllabus, leading discussion during the course session related to their research).
- Consider that graduate TAs with extensive prior teaching experience might be helpful as mentors to graduate TAs with little or no teaching experience.
- For course assistants and TAs leading discussion or lab sections, make it clear what key concepts and material should be covered in each meeting.
- Be sure that course assistants and TAs establish a consistent way to keep track of student assignments, attendance, and exam grades.
- Establish and review grading rubrics and have at least one session where the instructor and course assistants or TAs grade an essay/exam together to ensure the criteria is clear.
- At your weekly meeting with the course assistants or TAs, discuss how their discussion/lab sections are going, share ideas for addressing challenging topics and texts, and discuss feedback they may have about the course and any student-related issues.
- Require course assistants and TAs to communicate with you immediately about students whose attendance and performance in the course is impacted by extenuating circumstances or whose attendance or participation drops off suddenly.
- Create reasonable deadlines for submitting grades and/or paper comments in consultation with your course assistants and TAs.
- Be available to answer any questions about grading in a timely manner, especially during midterms and finals.
- Ask for feedback throughout the semester to make any necessary adjustments and/or to modify readings and assignments for a future version of the course.
- Make the course assistants and TAs aware of opportunities for their development as teachers and scholars, drawing upon resources such as workshops and talks at the Center for Engaged Pedagogy and at the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning.
- Be consistently mindful of course assistants’ and TAs’ need to balance their own coursework, research and writing, their assistant responsibilities, and personal lives.
- Remain aware of undergraduate and graduate workers’ organizing efforts to better understand the issues they identify as of primary concern to their working conditions.
After the semester
- Have a final meeting over lunch or coffee with all of the course assistants and TAs to discuss how the semester went and to get feedback about future iterations of the course.
- Offer to act as a reference or write a letter of recommendation for strong course assistants and TAs.
- Remain open to course assistants and TAs who want to consult about their own research and careers in academia.
Selected resource guides
Selected resource guides for professors working with course and teaching assistants
Selected pedagogy-focused guides for course and teaching assistants
Resources for graduate teaching assistants at Barnard
Columbia graduate workers teaching at Barnard can take advantage of a wide variety of opportunities at the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning including consultations, learning communities and workshops.
Bushnell, C. (2020). Designing a Racial Project for WAC: International Teaching Assistants and Translational Consciousness. Across the Disciplines, 17(1-2): 26-41. wac.colostate.edu/docs/atd/volume17/bushnell.pdf
Cho, Y, Myoungsook K, Svinicki, MD, & Lowry Decker, M. (2011). “Exploring teaching concerns and characteristics of graduate teaching assistants. Teaching in Higher Education, 16:3, 267-279. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2010.524920
Dayton, L., & Batzell, R. (2017). Uniting Academic Workers: Graduate Workers Organize with the United Auto Workers. International Labor and Working-Class History, 91, 164-173. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0147547917000011
University of Pittsburgh Center for Teaching and Learning. (2018). Working with your TA. teaching.pitt.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/GSTI-Working-with-Your-TA.pdf