Teaching Assistant Information Guide

A key element of being a good TA is to build positive relationships with the instructor, students and other TAs. You are an essential part of the course staff and your performance will affect not just how much the students enjoy the class, but the experience of the instructor and other TAs. This guide that I put together provides tips on being an effective teaching assistant in a variety of contexts such as leading recitations and tutorials, performing grading duties, invigilating tests and exams as well as conducting labs.

 Recitation/Tutorial Tips

The recitations/tutorials in the course are a place for students to take up homework questions, ask questions on basic course material, and build a relationship with their course assistant (i.e., someone they can relate to on a more informal level than the instructor). The following are a few considerations when planning your recitation/tutorial teaching strategy:

  1. Be prepared. The best way to overcome any anxiety is to know your stuff.
  2. Keep the recitation/tutorial interactive. When solving problems on the board, it is best to stop at key points in the analysis to obtain student feedback or pose questions. Waiting for student response includes them in the problem solving procedure and fosters a much more open environment for learning.
  3. Be thorough in your solutions. The source of problems for students is often the fundamentals. Sometimes the confusion has more to do with a misunderstanding of mathematical principles or even notation than it does with the new concepts being taught in the course. Writing out complete solutions in proper notation will go a long way to help the students.
  4. Work as a team with the other course assistants (i.e., teaching assistants and graders) and the instructor. Feel free to contact me regarding any questions you may have about the course material and topics. Communication and collaboration among the teaching staff of the course is essential for a cohesive course (i.e., a course in which the recitations/tutorials complement the lectures).
  5. Be true to yourself. Last, but certainly not least, your presentation style should be comfortable for you and help promote your best assets (eg. sense of humor, proficiency). If you get good feedback, then it may be best to stick to your own personal style of student interaction.

Grading Policies

The following is an outline of the grading principles for the course:

  1. You will receive the full solutions to each quiz/test/exam (unless otherwise stated). I will put the grading scheme on the solutions sheet. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me.
  2. The most important principle for grading is consistency, which maintains fairness and equality in the classroom. Here are a few tips for helping with consistency:
    1. Before you begin grading take a look at a few (approx. 10 %) of the quizzes/tests/exams to gain a feel for the class performance.
    2. On a separate sheet of paper, make a (doesn’t have to be too detailed) *master list* of common mistakes and the corresponding penalty or corresponding points. This list can be used later on when students ask for grade rechecks.
    3. Re-grade the quizzes/tests/exams with exceptionally poor results to make sure that these students really deserve to do so poorly. It will save them heartache and stress and it will save you time/negotiating energy if some students return asking for more points.
  3. Another common issue is that of cheating. The following techniques should be used to discourage this:
    1. When grading, place a line through every blank page/half page that you see in a quiz/test/exam.
    2. If you think that a student has changed an answer, in the future make photocopies of randomly selected quizzes/tests/exams. If the issue repeats with the same or different student, then let them know that you’ve made photocopies and ask one more time if they really want you to recheck their test. If they do and there is any deviation between the photocopy and their version, then we will have to deal with the situation formally. Please notify me if this happens.
    3. If a student is very aggressive, and you feel uncomfortable dealing with them, refer the student to me.
  4. After the quizzes/tests/exams are graded, on your softcopy of the class list (if I haven’t emailed one to you in time, please remind me) enter all of the grades. If we need to coordinate grading amongst multiple teaching staff, then I will email everyone how we will deal with this.
  5. After the quizzes/tests/exams are graded and returned, the students will be allowed to have rechecks upon request. Please note that the primary goal of this process is to make sure that no answers were overlooked (i.e., not graded). The purpose is not to reassess the quiz/test/exam. If there is doubt in your mind that you may have graded something too low, then you can take a look at your *master list*. If this particular mistake is not on the list, you should leave it as is unless you think it’s an exceptional case.

Invigilation/Proctoring Issues
  1. During a quiz/test/exam, unless otherwise instructed, only one person should answer students’ content-related questions – we will call this person the assigned teaching staff. This helps with maintaining consistency during the test. If a student approaches you with a question while you are proctoring and you are not the assigned teaching staff, please ask them to wait for the proper person. If you are the only person proctoring, then of course you are the assigned teaching staff.
  2. It is important that the quiz/test/exam environment foster one of fairness and intolerance to cheating. Poor quiz/test/exam conditions can severely demoralize students. Therefore, all quizzes, tests and final exams must be proctored strictly.
  3. If the room easily allows, actively look around and move about (without disturbing the students) during a quiz/test/exam to discourage collusion among students. Please keep in mind that the goal isn’t to catch people cheating. It is to prevent cheating from happening in the first place. Cheaters are very costly (in terms of time and other resources) to deal with by the University and the associated teaching staff.
  4. It is important to be alert to common methods of cheating such as writing information inside baseball caps and using wireless communication devices. The best way to deter this type of cheating is to ask students to completely clear their desks of all items except those necessary for the exam. Another way students have cheated is by communicating with individuals in close proximity to them. Be alert to discourage this. You can also randomize seating to prevent “friends” from covertly communicating.

Lab Instructions

As a course assistant in a lab, understand that a significant part of your role is to be a bridge between the students and instructor. This role is important in making sure that the labs enhance the lectures and the lectures aid in elucidating lab concepts.

  1. Please be well prepared for every lab by doing it yourself ahead of schedule. This will help you deal with any unforeseen issues when the lab is actually in progress and will instill you with more confidence. If the organization of the lab allows for this, please make sure that you give the students a 3-10 minute overview of the lab before they start.
  2. If equipment is not working, I usually reserve one station for such cases (as well as any demos) and you either can move a group there or borrow working equipment from that station, but please don’t forget to put it back and notify the proper Department staff about the non-functioning equipment.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open between yourself and the students and instructor. Please notify me of any issues brought up by the students or feedback (e.g., they really hated/loved a lab) or if anything is not working in the lab. After each lab, I would like you to email me on how it went (did they like it, was it too easy/difficult, was anyone not present/unprepared, etc.).
  4. You should be approachable because much active learning occurs in the labs. Answer the students’ questions directly and completely (except if a question has to do with something they need to answer for a report they will be evaluated – then, answering the question may provide an unfair advantage). If you would like to challenge them by asking them what they think the answer is and talking them toward the answer, this is fine too; however, please make sure that by the end of the conversation the students have a direct and complete answer to their question.
  5. If you feel that they are unprepared for the lab, then let them know why you think this is the case and explain to them firmly that they need to be prepared from now on. Notify me of people who are habitually unprepared.
  6. If final reports seem identical and you feel some students are cheating, then there will be a grade penalty. Let me know about the situation and we will work something out that is fair.