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Graduate Matters

TA Tipline, part 1: starting the semester off right

Experienced teaching assistants offer guidance for first timers and veterans looking for new ideas.


As a new semester approaches and incoming and returning graduate students embark on their teaching duties, we polled seasoned teaching assistants for their tried-and-true tricks of the trade. Welcome to the TA Tipline, where challenging teaching scenarios are broken down by seasoned grad student TAs. (We’ve compiled their feedback into a Q&A format for easier reading.)

I’ve never been a teaching assistant before. What should I expect?

“The workload varies from course to course,” says Sophia K, an MA/PhD student studying experimental and applied psychology at the University of New Brunswick. “Sometimes you have 20 students, sometimes 100. Sometimes you’ll have to grade online multiple-choice tests, sometimes it will be papers or video submissions. But usually, the work does not take too much time. As soon as you get the hang of it, it’s smooth sailing.”

“Students might be more keen about going to you compared to the professor, and they may ask questions not related to the course, but more towards your [research] project,” says Fritz, a doctoral student at the Technical University of Denmark.

I was sent a contract for my first TA session and have a meeting set up with the course instructor. What should I be sure to ask them?

“Ask for extremely clear expectations and open communication. This will prevent frustration and misunderstanding,” says Sophia K.

“Are slides provided? This is important. If preparation time is not included in your contract, slides should be provided. How is grading standardized? It is incredibly difficult when a student goes outside your section to ask another TA what grade they would have received, or students across sections compare marking parameters,” says Justin Van Houten a doctoral student studying analytical chemistry at the University of Toronto.

I’ve signed my contract and have been given access to the course website, but I am overwhelmed with the content and tasks. How do I organize my workload at the beginning of a semester?

“I outline the weekly objective and topics that will be covered throughout the semester and find when the academic weeks will take place. By knowing these, I can list down my weekly objectives and [look for] those key topics when navigating around the content on the course website,” says Zyrene Estallo, a master’s student in education (curriculum and instruction) at UNB.

My graduate school work keeps me pretty busy. How much time should I devote to my TA duties?

“I’m one to do my duties first before my actual studies because I believe it gives me the right headspace to think and study. I would say about a maximum of two hours a day, five days a week,” says Zyrene.

“I usually prioritized my own work and responsibilities and made sure to communicate with the teacher whom I was working for when I was unable to do their tasks quickly,” says Sophia.

I was assigned to a course that I have never taken before, so I am less familiar with the content. How can I still help my students?

“Again, the key here is knowing the objective of the course. I believe being an effective teacher is not about knowing everything but being aware of what the course wants to teach the students. I will study the content and what it wants to accomplish with the students,” says Zyrene.

“You don’t need to be an expert in course material to grade fairly and support students with questions. Just familiarize yourself with the syllabus and what is expected of the students,” says Sophia.

My research is not progressing smoothly and I am having a rough week. How can I keep a positive outlook on my TAing?

“I will take a step back from my research and use my TAing as [an opportunity for] a breather and space. I find that TAing gives me a lot of room to apply what I do and communicate with students, both of which are helpful as a positive output from all the studying for my research,” says Zyrene.

“Be honest with the professor and be honest with the students. They know pressure too well and will be understanding that you can have a bad day,” says Fritz.

I’m a very shy person. How do I get through the semester?

“I am also very shy, but you need to challenge yourself. There’s a reason you chose or were chosen for this position. Believe in yourself,” says Jay Pimprikar, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at Concordia University.

“I’m not really shy. But generally, being a TA needs communication skills, so the key here is to practice. Practice by talking to other people about your research, your subject area, or even just about anything. Practice on your own by presenting your slides to someone or just on your own — knowing what to say and understanding what you teach will overcome shyness,” says Zyrene.

A student asked me a question and I don’t know how to help them without giving away the answer. What should I do?

“I will take note of the question, excuse myself from the student, and ask for two to three minutes to formulate a way to guide them with this question without giving the exact answer,” says Zyrene.

“Tell them to think more and do their best. Maybe the textbook can help them,” says Chenqi Hu, a doctoral student in forestry at UNB.

A student just asked me a question and I do not know the answer! What should I do?

“Ask your supervisor or other TAs,” says Sophia.

“Say things like, ‘That’s actually a great question. I’m not entirely sure. Let me get back to you on that.’ Better to be honest than give a false answer,” says Jay.

One of my tasks is to conduct problem solving/exercise sessions and to give occasional lectures. How can I do this in an engaging and effective manner?

“Picture yourself as a student in that class. Try to make material relatable to their experiences, encourage questions. A little humour goes a long way,” says Jay.

I am TAing for a course with wet labs. Do you have any advice on how best to teach practical skills to students?

“Be very patient, encourage questions and help guide students every little step of the way,” says Jay.

“Teach practical skills first and let them try the experiment on their own,” says Chenqi.

Kelly Burchell-Reyes is a PhD candidate studying organofluorine chemistry at Université Laval. Sevag Pilavdjian is a master's student in chemistry studying organic synthesis at Concordia University.
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