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Graduate Matters

TA Tipline, part 2: grading, mentoring, invigilating, oh my!

This is the final instalment in our two-part series where experienced teaching assistants offer guidance to both first-timers and veterans looking for new ideas.


Welcome back to the TA Tipline, where challenging teaching assistantship scenarios are explored by students who have previously faced similar issues. Here, our online interview respondents dive into the nitty-gritty of evaluating student work, mentoring undergraduates, and invigilating exams. (We’ve compiled their feedback into a Q&A format for easier reading.)

Do you have any advice on how to tackle time-consuming tasks such as grading papers?

“Have the grading matrix open on a separate screen,” suggests Sophia K., an MA/PhD student studying experimental and applied psychology at the University of New Brunswick. “Grading in sections helps with consistency.”

“It depends on the assignment,” says Justin Van Houten, a doctoral student in analytical chemistry at the University of Toronto. “I find marking question by question or page by page is useful for tests and exams and encourages consistency. However, lab reports become more difficult since they can vary so much.”

I just finished grading assignments and several students are displeased with their grades and have requested reconsideration. What should I do?

“I will open a time for conversation with those students. That way, I can get to assess them better about their understanding of the assignment. It becomes a chance for them to review what I assumed to be their deserved grade, and I will definitely give a huge consideration to their effort and give them a better grade,” says Zyrene Estallo, a master’s student in education (curriculum and instruction) at UNB.

“Review your grading on their papers and if you and the professor think that it was fair then tell the students no revision will be made. You’re there to do a thorough job, not make friends,” advises Jay Pimprikar, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at Concordia University.

I suspect a student of plagiarism. Should I report them?

“I will be honest and raise this concern with the student but in a nice, non-interrogating way,” says Zyrene. “I will ask the student where they took the idea from and ask them to elaborate.”

“Be 100 per cent sure. If you are sure, yes,” Jay recommends.

A student requested to see me in my office hours outside the availability that I posted. How do I approach the situation?

“State your boundaries clearly and keep them,” says Sophia K. “If you feel like it is an emergency, a one-time thing, can be handled quickly, or if you have the availability, there is nothing wrong with being flexible. But students need to respect your boundaries.”

“I will ask the student for alternative times. I will hold my boundaries in terms of my working and personal hours. Alternatively, this student can email me to raise their concerns,” says Zyrene.

I am TA-ing a course this semester with another graduate student who is not putting in as much effort and dedication. What steps should I take to equilibrate our workload?

“Set clear deliverables for each person that are equal,” recommends Jay. “If they fail to continue meeting their deliverables, meet with the prof in confidence.

The practical laboratory experiment is not aligned with the lecture (theory) component of the course and my students are confused and concerned. How should I react to the situation?

“Maybe provide other supporting materials for the practical laboratory experiment and discuss this with the professor,” suggests Chenqi Hu, a doctoral student in forestry at UNB.

“I will empathize and validate their concerns. I will ask my class to step back from the lab work, ask them to elaborate on the challenges, and go back to the theoretical lectures [to] understand these concerns,” says Zyrene, who adds that she will “work collaboratively on how to overcome them.”

A student was assigned to shadow my lab work. How can I help them get the most out of their mentorship experience while still moving my project forward?

“Give them a lot of encouragement and give them just enough materials to do the lab work,” advises Zyrene. “I find that having a number of things to help them is better than giving them so much material that it can get overwhelming. Just keeping it simple will get the job moving and I can have more time and headspace to take care of my own project.”

“Explain what you are doing and why you are doing it (techniques are more important than saying what you are doing exactly),” recommends Sven, a master’s student in chemistry at the University of Bonn. Students should also know that they can “ask anything related to what you are doing and what they don´t understand.”

I am mentoring an international student and there is a language barrier between us. How do I overcome this?

“Your hands and gestures are also a tool to communicate. Try drawing what you want to explain. You could also use a translator,” says Sven.

“I will keep my English simple. I will encourage this student to express themselves even if it takes a longer time,” says Zyrene. “I won’t be picking on grammar in their writing or their speaking but [I will] focus on their ideas. I believe this is an inclusive way of putting their ideas first before anything else — their ideas are more important. We can work on the English later on, or I can suggest that they approach the writing/reading adviser of the school once they have tried writing down their work.”

“Be patient and speak slowly and clearly,” suggests Chenqi.

How can I be a supportive exam invigilator?

“I will make the exam-takers comfortable before they start and make sure I set a tone of enthusiasm and confidence by smiling more often,” says Zyrene. “I will encourage them [and] speak in a more emphatic and expressive tone when enumerating the instructions before they take the test. Nothing beats being friendly and wishing the exam-takers good luck as a means of being supportive.”

“Help and accommodate any reasonable student requests,” recommends Jay. “Hovering over them all the time is very irritating.”

Do you have any other tips for new grad students with teaching assistant duties?

“Take advantage of the teaching assistant duties as a place to learn, as an integral part of graduate studies (and not just a side hustle) and communicate with your students. Being in graduate school is a good indication of probably taking on more teaching responsibilities in the future, and having this role is a great preparation for that. Remember, you were also once that student taught by a teaching assistant. Understand the students and be responsible with your role,” says Zyrene.

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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