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The Skills Agenda

Transforming teaching assistantships into talent development

How instructors can help teaching assistants develop as graduate students.


As a new political science graduate student in the mid-1990s, I was assigned as a teaching assistant (TA) for an introductory course. My responsibilities included leading weekly tutorials and completing grading on behalf of the professor. The guidance I was provided for each task was, to put it mildly, “light”. In turn, the value I provided the students was equally limited. I didn’t know what I was doing or how to do it properly, and I have no doubt that it showed.

A lot has changed since my graduate student days. Many universities offer training and/or resources to new TAs. Syllabi are more extensive, with expanded information on the purpose of the course and its various components. The use of grading rubrics is also more common.  Importantly, there is now increased attention to the need for graduate student professional development.

It is possible to pull these parts together to use TAships as a significant career booster for graduate students.

A talent development model for teaching assistantships

In our forthcoming book For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities, Jonathan Malloy, Lisa Young, and I acknowledge the importance of graduate teaching assistants in enabling universities to more efficiently deliver undergraduate programs. Our book argues that graduate programs should be updated to meet the following five criteria:  Efficient, Deliberate, Inclusive, Talent-Developing, and Student-Centred (EDITS). To this end, we suggest that faculty members and programs reimagine TAships to serve as talent development (that is, building career-relevant skills and competencies) rather than simply as labour.

Specifically, we write:

TAing remains a randomized world, dependent largely on the inclinations and needs of individual instructors who understandably view TAs primarily as short-term help, with the primary focus on undergraduates themselves. There’s a missed opportunity here to be more systematic about teaching assistantships in particular as opportunities for systematic talent development, not just helping professors reduce their piles of grading while hopefully picking up some skills along the way.

What types of talents (skills and competencies) can TAs develop? While it depends on the course and the assigned tasks, TAships generally will build human literacy skills, such as leadership, communication and intercultural skills. Even if the TA’s assigned tasks are limited to grading, there is an opportunity for the TA to develop and demonstrate professionalism skills, such as time management and paying attention to detail.

Establishing a talent development model for TAships requires a few steps. First, it is critical that the instructors who are assigned TAs for their courses adopt a talent development mindset. Second, universities need to provide TAs with skills training programs and resources. And third, universities should help TAs understand how the skills they are developing in their TA work, such as leadership and organization, are professional skills that can be applied to other realms of their current and future work.

How instructors can advance a talent development model for teaching assistantships

If you are assigned a teaching assistant for an upcoming course, there are several steps you can take as an instructor to help your TA use the experience to develop their skills and talents. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Ask your TA about their skill development aspirations. Many TAs want to maximize their opportunities to expand their skillsets over their graduate degrees – but not all do. Like students generally, some may say “Just tell me what I need to do.” TAs have to balance their work with their program responsibilities (coursework, thesis writing) along with other possible jobs and responsibilities. This will mean that some just don’t have the bandwidth to reflect beyond their assigned tasks. But I encourage you to set a talent development tone for your TA and then ask them if and how they would like to work with you on skill development.
  • Meet with your TA prior to the term to discuss your syllabus, the course assignments, and your goals for the course. Explicitly explain the logic of your course design, such as how your assignments link to your course learning outcomes. Discuss their role as TA and brainstorm with them how they can intentionally use their TA experience to develop their own skills. (The University of Guelph’s list of skills developed through teaching assistantships might be helpful to this discussion.)
  • Let your TA know your philosophy for teaching and the role of grading within your approach. Ensure the TA has a full understanding of the purpose of assignments, how to apply your university’s grading criteria, and how to apply any rubrics or other grading materials.
  • Find out what TA training courses are offered by your university. Encourage your TA to attend and to share a brief write-up of their learnings with you.
  • Ask your TA to read Kathy Nomme and Carol Pollock’s The Successful TA: A Practical Approach to Effective Teaching (available as a free open-access download – nicely done, UBC Press!). Ask them to complete “Scenario 1.1” and another scenario that you feel is relevant to your course, and then meet with you to discuss their responses.
  • Schedule a series of short check-ins with your TA over the term. Suggested meetings include: before the term starts, a few weeks into the term, before and after major grading tasks are dueand after the end of the term. During the meetings, go beyond simply asking “How are things going?” to discuss how their experience as TA is helping them develop and strengthen their skills and competencies.
  • When assignments are due, ask your TA to grade a small number and then meet to review. Provide your TA with constructive feedback on how to improve their grading comments and practices.
  • On weeks when you aren’t meeting with your TA, send a short e-mail to check in with them. Let them know you value their efforts to support your course.
  • In all communications and interactions with your TA, aim to treat them as a trainee and mentee, rather than as an employee. See yourself as an experienced mentor and seek to help them use the experience of working with you as a positive career boost.
  • For more ideas, be sure to review Western University’s Western Guide to Working with Teaching Assistants.

Of course, you may choose only some of  these ideas. The point is to create a space for your TA to view their position as an opportunity to develop and grow, not just earn a paycheque.

TAs perform important work for universities. Planning ahead can help make the experience more valuable to TAs themselves.

Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation

How do you use TAships as an opportunity for graduate student talent development? Please let me know in the comments below. I also welcome the opportunity to speak with your university about skills training. Please contact me at [email protected], subject line “The Skills Agenda”. And for additional teaching, writing, and time management discussion, please check out my Substack blog, Academia Made Easier.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is a 3M National Teaching Fellow, an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her most recent book is For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities (with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young, University of Alberta Press 2024).
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