As s teaching assistant you will be involved in a number of other responsibilities and relationships, most of which have much less formal guidelines attached to them than does the role of instructor. In this section we would like to outline some of the key aspects of being a teaching assistant and to provide some very broad suggestions for operating successfully in the TA role with respect to students, faculty, and graduate life in general.
The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education distills findings from fifty years of research on the way teachers teach and students learn (Chickering and Gamson, 1987). These seven principles assert that good practice in undergraduate education:
• encourages student-faculty contact
• encourages cooperation among students
• encourages active learning
• gives prompt feedback
• emphasizes time on task
• communicates high expectations
• respects diverse talents and ways of learning.
Throughout this handbook you will find many strategies for encouraging student contact both in and out of classes; for actively involving students in learning tasks; for encouraging students to work with each other; for providing frequent opportunities for students to perform and receive suggestions for improvement; for setting high but attainable goals for students; and for working with the different talents and styles of learning that students bring to the University. Results of research indicate that incorporating these strategies into your teaching approach will enhance student motivation, intellectual commitment, academic achievement, social interaction, and personal development.
Adapted with permission from Stanford University, Center for Teaching & Learning
There are several ways to find out if you are meeting your goals as a teacher:
• Ask the students. Give out a course evaluation midway through the semester. The Center For Teaching (CFT) has forms you can use, or you can make up your own. All departments distribute and collect course evaluations at the end of each semester. You can add your own questions if you want feedback, for example, on specific aspects of your teaching or on particular innovations you introduced.
• Ask a faculty member. Have someone from the faculty sit in on your class. This is highly advisable in any case, since you may want a recommendation for a teaching job some day. Choose someone with experience, preferably in the course you are teaching, and someone whose opinion you respect. An experienced TA in your department also can provide helpful feedback.
• Watch yourself on videotape. In some departments, you can arrange to have your class videotaped, and then you can see for yourself what your strong and weak points are. If you wish, a peer or faculty member can watch the tape with you and help you assess your teaching.
If you wish to improve your teaching skills, working as a TA at the University will provide you with a great opportunity. When you enter the job market, whether in or out of academia, you'll find a successful teaching record is a strong asset.
• Practice. If you know what aspects of your teaching need work, you will find they improve with time, just because you are thinking about them. Repeat the evaluative steps after a few months to see how you are doing. Or, ask a friend or colleague to observe you in a dry run.
• Observe successful teachers. There are many outstanding teachers at this university. Sit in on sections of successful TAs in your department, especially if they are teaching the same course. Or ask popular professors if you can sit in on their undergraduate courses. The CFT has a list of Distinguished Teaching Award winners and Lilly Teaching Fellows and Mentors. We also have videotapes of successful teachers you can watch.
• Learn about teaching. The CFT has a library of books and videotapes on specific issues in teaching. The Handbook for Teaching Assistants is designed for both beginning and experienced teachers; you will find it helpful to go back to it after you have seen the sorts of problems that arise in class. In addition, many departments offer lectures and workshops on teaching, often in cooperation with the CFT.
• Learn about learning. Think about how your students will learn as well as what they'll learn. Teaching is more than just giving information, it is motivating people, giving them new concepts and approaches, and helping them to learn more effectively. Observe yourself and others as learners. The CFT has videotapes and articles on student learning.
• Keep track of what you've done. Experience is a good ally. If you keep organized records of your work for courses you teach, you can use them as a springboard for next time. You'll get more efficient, you'll have a better sense of what worked and what didn't, and you'll have more time to prepare new materials. Analyze your tests to see what questions elicited good answers and which were confusing. Record which assignments made students think, which ones made excessive work for you at grading time, and which ones improved the quality of your teaching.
Adapted with permission from Ewens, 1976
Increasingly, graduate students are discovering that in order to obtain teaching jobs in higher education, they need to demonstrate to potential employers their overall teaching competence and experience. If you aspire to become part of the future professoriate, you are much more likely to impress potential employers with your teaching abilities through systematic and rational planning.
As compared with research scholarship which is generally considered to be a public activity leading to written materials such as journal articles or research monographs, teaching is often looked upon as a private affair between oneself and one's students.
Given the press of events, we often do not write down descriptions of the teaching methods or techniques that we attempt in the classroom or go to the extra trouble of having these methods or techniques evaluated by others.
If you are a teaching assistant or have other teaching related experience, keep a file in which you write down descriptions of all of these teaching activities. It is easy to forget many of the things that one does in the classroom, so write down descriptions of the duties you perform, the teaching exercises and techniques you employ in your discussion sections, your techniques for grading essay exams and papers, outlines of the lectures that you give, and so forth. Also keep in your files syllabi, exams, and other written material from these courses. These files will be useful for planning your teaching program as a graduate student, for helping job references write good letters of recommendation for you, for writing your job vitae, and for organizing your job interview.
Also, put into this file any evaluations by others concerning your teaching effectiveness. This might include reaction by students in your discussion groups, written evaluations concerning your teaching by faculty members or administrators, or evaluations by other graduate students. This gives you good feedback which may be useful in improving your teaching skills; it also provides a written record of your abilities for demonstrating to potential employers your capabilities as a college teacher.
If possible, plan your teaching assignments in graduate school as carefully as you plan your academic program. Make sure you have a variety of teaching experiences in a number of types of courses. Particularly important for most students is to have some experience in broad survey courses that most new faculty members will be asked to teach, and also courses in your special area of interest. Also select courses which expose you to a variety of teaching methods and teaching styles. Finally, it is important to choose teaching assignments so that you get practice assisting students individually, conducting discussions, lecturing, and all of the other specific tasks that you are likely to perform as a college teacher.
It is important to be able to demonstrate to others your professional commitment to teaching in your discipline. You might, for instance, consider joining the national professional organization within your field, or participate in the activities of local or regional organizations, many of which have special sections devoted to teaching issues.
Finally, make sure to keep records of any teacher training activities in which you engage. This might include education courses, workshops and seminars on education (off-campus or sponsored by the Center For Teaching or other units within the University), or department-sponsored teacher preparation activities. Memory is a tricky thing! Keep a file of written materials related to these activities with descriptions of the things you did, what you learned, and the names of individuals you may want to contact again at a later time.
One way to focus the representation of your teaching activities for a potential employer is to create a teaching portfolio. This is a coherent set of materials, including work samples and reflective commentary by you, used to document your work with students. Many schools will accept or request a teaching portfolio, or some of its signature pieces, when considering your application for employment. It is best to collect and write materials for the portfolio while you are a TA, rather than afterward, when students and the work they did are gone and memories of why you made certain pedagogical choices and what their outcomes were are no longer as clear. Typical contents of a portfolio include a statement of teaching philosophy and goals, sample syllabi and assignment sheets created by you, prose accounts of specific teaching activities or approaches, student work, reflective observations from peers and mentors, and evaluations. For more information on compiling a teaching portfolio, contact the CFT.
The mission of the Center For Teaching is to support faculty and graduate students in their roles as teachers, and to enhance teaching and learning at the University. The CFT assists individuals and departments in designing, developing, and evaluating curriculum, courses, teaching methods, and materials. Below is a summary of special services that support TAs.
Teaching Assistant Orientation
At the start of each academic year a day-long orientation is held to help prepare graduate students for their roles as instructors on campus. Sessions conducted by faculty and veteran TAs address a wide range of teaching and learning issues.
Departmental Consultations
The CFT will assist departments in designing teaching assistant training activities and will provide resource materials about teaching to TA supervisors. Please consult your department to see what kind of training and support they provide. Confidential individual teaching consultations can also provide support. Call the CFT regarding availability.
Teaching Documentation Program
Inaugurated in 1999, the Teaching Documentation Program (TDP) offers graduate teaching assistants a flexible and selfpaced program to organize, reflect upon, and document their teaching development efforts. The TDP is structured around three key requirements: demonstration of a basic understanding of current research and practice in teaching and learning, experience with at least one form of classroom-based assessment of teaching, and the compilation of materials that reflect evidence of the development of discipline-based teaching interests. Graduate students who complete the full program will receive a letter from the Center For Teaching, which documents their teaching development activities for job applications.
Education 695A: Introduction to College Teaching
This one-credit course is designed to provide graduate students with an introduction to college teaching via exposure to theories of student learning and the opportunity to practice a variety of teaching techniques. The goal of this discussion/seminar is to give participants a practical grounding in teaching effectiveness that will enhance future academic career goals as well as current teaching assignments at the University. This course is generally offered each spring semester.
The CFT produces and distributes teaching development resources of several kinds:
• The Handbook for Teaching Assistants, a manual of practical information on teaching and learning.
• Teaching Portfolio, a guide to creating a collection of materials to document your growth as an instructor at Corona.
• Teachers’ Choices: The Ten Best on Teaching and Learning, an annotated bibliography of selected top-rated articles for teachers. These articles are available at the CFT.
• Stepping into Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom, a collection of twelve articles available at the CFT.
• Two Thumbs Up: A Selection of Teaching and Learning Videos, a bibliography of videotapes on pedagogical issues. These and others circulate from our library.
Workshops and Seminars
During the academic year workshops are held to address issues related to teaching and learning, with emphasis on the special problems and challenges graduate students face as instructors.
Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom Grant (TLDC) Activities include interdisciplinary and department-based workshops, access to print and video resources, discussions of interpersonal, classroom and curricular diversity issues, and consultation for individual skills development. Additionally, in spring, nominations are accepted for joint TA/ faculty teams to participate in a year-long collaborative teaching development opportunity: the TLDC Faculty and TA Partnership. Team members develop practical pedagogical skills for creating inclusive learning environments for all students. In addition, each team creates a project to bring increased sensitivity to diversity issues back to their own classrooms and departments.
For more information on any of these resources contact the Center For Teaching, Email, or on the web at:
Adapted with permission from Chism et al., 1992
Being the kind of teacher who continually strives to improve instructional technique is a challenging task, especially for instructors who are simultaneously conducting their own studies or research program, engaging in service activities, and maintaining a personal life. Often, instructors feel caught among all these roles and have the sense that they aren't performing up to their personal standards. Severe stress can result.
Experts in the field suggest several ways in which stress can be controlled. Psychologist Anthony Grasha (1987) lists the following:
• Be more assertive about refusing requests. He suggests that instructors avoid feeling that they must please others at personal expense to themselves. He cautions that it is not necessary to provide a reason for refusing requests.
• Set priorities. Grasha advises that instructors look at their calendars before each week begins with the following questions in mind: (a) Does the task have to be completed as scheduled? (b) Is the task something that can be delegated to others? (c) Can completion of the task be delayed for a period of time? and (d) Is it really necessary to do this task at all? After using the questions to eliminate some tasks, the instructor should schedule social and recreational time as well as uninterrupted "work" time for writing or extended projects and take these "appointments" as seriously as scheduled meetings.
• Use quick relaxation techniques. Grasha suggests that tensing the body for a count of ten and then breathing deeply in and out to a count of four for a period of three to five minutes is especially effective after a tension-producing event. He also suggests that writing, such as keeping a personal journal or writing angry letters that are not mailed, can help during extremely stressful periods.
• Positive thinking. Citing William James, Grasha points out that stress often occurs when people feel that they cannot perform to self-expectations. He advises that people reevaluate their expectations, seek small "wins," focus on achievements rather than deficiencies, and seek social support.
As a beginning TA you should remember that you have a great resource at your disposal in the event that you have questions or run into problems—other more experienced graduate students. They may be very helpful in letting you know how your department "runs" in the informal sense of whom to ask for specific kinds of information, who can provide you needed resources (e.g. computer answer sheets, pencils, etc.), or services such as photocopying. You might ask a senior TA to introduce you to your department's office staff so you can get to know the people who have the answers and resources you may need from time to time.
Your more experienced fellow students may also have quite a few suggestions about how to run a discussion or lab section or how to deal with students. Asking them about their classroom experiences may be a way to anticipate or resolve problems in your own discussion, lecture, or lab setting. They may also have suggestions for ways to negotiate the relationship between TAs and faculty members and provide advice for dealing with difficult situations which might arise. Fellow graduate students can be great "sounding boards" for your troubles and concerns as a TA. Very often you may find, upon consulting someone who has been a TA, that your concerns are quite common and are easily resolved. Experience is the best teacher when it comes to being a TA, so don't be afraid to ask other graduate students to share their accumulated wisdom.
Adapted with permission from Unruh, 1986
The TA's office is an important extension of the classroom. This is one of the few places where the protective shield of impersonality at the University can be broken.
Most TAs have office hours but students are not necessarily required to come in during those times. Usually office hours are scheduled before the semester begins and announced to the students during the first week. One alternative is to check with the students about convenient times before scheduling. Some professors may ask that you schedule your office hours at times which alternate with theirs, thus increasing the time that one or the other of you is available to students. While the number of office hours you decide to hold per week will depend upon the arrangements you make with your supervising instructor, two hours twice a week will probably be sufficient.

How do you get students to come in? Let them know frequently that they are welcome. Invite them individually. A comment on a paper (e.g., "Please see me about this.") brings about a 75% response. Stress the importance and value of office visits both to you and to them. Most TAs deal with freshmen and sophomores who are not used to personal contact at the University. If those first few who come in have positive experiences, the word will spread. Some TAs make at least one office visit a course requirement.
Others find that posting the answers to quiz or homework problems on or around their door is an effective means of attracting students to office hours.
Adapted with permission from Unruh, 1986
Getting students to come to your office is not always a problem; you may find that many students will come in for many different reasons. You may find yourself helping a student with the material for your course, with the logistics of a course that contains unfamiliar material, or with a personal problem. You should be aware of ways to facilitate a helpful tutorial or counseling session:
• Try to be as approachable as possible. The best thing to do when a student comes in during your office hours is to make her/him feel welcome. It is very easy to make students feel that they are intruding; it takes only a little bit of care to create a relaxed, pleasant atmosphere in which communication is natural and easy.
• Rely on the student to tell you what s/he has come to see you about. You may suspect some hidden problem, but you should not press the student to disclose it. You can help students if they actively request your help, but your responsibility need not extend further than their requests.
• Listen to your students when they come to your office. Give them your undivided attention. This is all part of making students feel welcome and encouraging communication. The best way to show that you are listening is to ask questions—it also shows students that you find their concerns important.
Students often fear that they are wasting your time; by listening attentively and responding thoroughly, you can help allay their anxiety.
Finally, you should realize that you won't always be able to provide the answers or information that are needed. If you are helping a student with the material for your own course, there is nothing wrong with saying, "I don't know, but I can find out for you."
In a situation in which a student is asking for more personal counseling, remember that you are not always the best qualified person for the student to be talking to about a problem. If you feel that the student needs more specific advice, you may be able to suggest someone who can provide it. The Instructor's Guide to Student Services has been compiled to serve as a referral list for you. It may not be able to solve all of the problems you are confronted with, but it is a start. When in doubt you should always consult the faculty member you are working with, especially if you feel that a student may be having serious emotional difficulties or some other kind of serious problem.
While in general not as many people will take advantage of office hours as could, on occasion you may encounter students who are overly-dependent on you either for assistance with course material or for companionship and counsel. It may be necessary to set limits with these students. You might try encouraging them to tackle assignments on their own before coming to you for help, or explain to them that you have limited time to spend with each student and must, therefore, restrict the frequency and duration of office visits. As indicated above, seriously troubled students who seek your assistance may be referred to the University's professional counseling services.
As a teaching assistant, you occupy an unusual position in that you stand somewhere between the status of professor and the status of student. Indeed, you are some of each. This position allows you to play the role of liaison between faculty and undergraduate students by communicating to each the needs, desires, understandings and misunderstandings of the other. This can be one of the most fruitful aspects of being a TA, especially when your participation as a mediator facilitates the overall process of learning. (adapted with permission from Segerstrale, 1982)
Some ways in which this role can be played out might include:
• taking time in discussion to ensure that the course organization and requirements are clear to students
• providing students with an opportunity in discussion sections to get clarification on confusing points in the lecture
• troubleshooting any problems in the professor's lecture style or presentation (e.g., too fast, not loud enough, not enough written on board, difficult to follow, etc.) and reporting them to the professor (Gently!).
Be sure to use tact and good judgment here. It may be wise to wait until suggestions are solicited by your supervising faculty member. Some professors will be more concerned than others about how they come across to students. If you don't think your supervising faculty member will be receptive, it may be better to drop the issue or to provide the clarification students desire during your discussion sections.
TAs may also be helpful in the construction of exams by indicating to the professor whether the proposed exam material is adequately geared to the students' level of understanding. Because of your closer contact with students in sections or labs, you may be in a particularly good position to determine whether or not exam questions may be too difficult, or not challenging enough. Not all professors will include the TA in the process of constructing tests, but in the event that you are involved, you may want to reflect upon your impression of the students' understanding of the course material in putting the test together.
TAs can help students prepare for exams or complete assignments by making the professor's expectations clear. Part of this involves helping them to distinguish between what is relevant and irrelevant information (without giving it all away, of course). Depending upon the course and the professor's wishes, you may want to construct study guides containing important concepts and terms relevant to upcoming exams. Spending some time in discussion sections reviewing for exams may also be very helpful to students.
Another element of the role of TA is that of assistant to a faculty member. New TAs may find this relationship very rewarding since it provides them with a sort of apprenticeship in teaching. The TA-faculty relationship may also require a delicate balance of diplomacy and compromise, though, because the boundaries of the TA's responsibility and authority may be somewhat fuzzy. It is advisable, therefore, to attempt to determine early on just what your supervising faculty member's expectations are and to establish the range of responsibilities you will have for the semester. These responsibilities will vary from professor to professor and across departments, some of which have well-established roles and responsibilities for their TAs. Therefore, our suggestions are offered as broad possibilities, not as imperatives.
Some of the questions you might want to discuss with your supervising professor early in the semester include (Segerstrale, 1982):
• What do you want the section to accomplish?
• How much leeway do I have in running sections?
• Will there be separate readings assigned for sections by the professor or may I make my own assignments?
• Is section attendance mandatory? Will there be a section grade?
• How much responsibility for grading will I have?
• How can I get some help for my teaching?
• How often will I meet with the professor?
• If there are several TAs working with the professor in the same course, to what extent am I to coordinate my plans with theirs, and what is the mechanism for doing this?
There are numerous ways of obtaining answers to these questions. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind as you begin to negotiate your responsibilities as a TA (adapted with permission from Bailey, 1986):
You might ask directly, or wait until the instructor offers information. For example, some professors may tell you exactly what to cover in sections and assign particular readings for discussion. Others may say nothing and assume that you already know what to do. In negotiating your responsibilities as a TA, deciding what to ask, and how, when, and of whom to ask it requires some subtle judgment capabilities on your part. Marching into a professor's office and making demands is certainly not advisable, yet you do have the right to know what will be expected of you throughout the course of the semester. Your experience as a TA may go more smoothly if you learn to practice the fine art of negotiation in establishing a working relationship with your supervising faculty member.
Some faculty members may want to structure some kind of weekly meeting into your relationship where current issues and concerns pertaining to the course can be addressed. Others may accomplish this more informally by meeting now and then, before or after class, etc. This setting is where your role as a spokesperson for students is likely to be carried out. Once again, it is advisable to learn to negotiate these situations with subtlety and diplomacy.
Misunderstandings occur between TAs and professors when they take each other for granted and each expects the other to guess her/his needs and feelings. One professor might want course materials brought from the library. Another might want you to come to her/his office 15 minutes before class. Professors who have worked with many TAs sometimes assume every TA knows of their wishes. And TAs who are new to a professor need to be told what is expected. Experience shows that it helps to ask specific questions: "Shall I come up before class tomorrow? Are there any handouts?"
If you have too much work or if there are problems of other kinds, it almost always helps to talk to the professor. Let the professor know that you respect and trust her/him, and that you understand her/his situation and point of view, too. The most important element in a relationship between a TA and the faculty responsible for the course is open communication. (adapted with permission from Unruh, 1986).