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Grad Hack: Turning Tiresome TAing into Terrific Teaching

Turning Tiresome TAing into Terrific Teaching

By Sarah Williams and Benjamin Johnson

GSC Members-at-Large


Being a teaching assistant in graduate school is often the grad student’s bread and butter.  But rarely are we actually trained how to do it.  Here are some tips we’ve learned that might help turn groans into grins with the students you teach.  

  1. Don’t begrudge the students their office hours.  Before the semester starts you schedule an hour and a half out of your week to hold office hours.  Weeks pass and only that one student who sits in the front of the class and gets 98’s on the homework shows up.  If this happens, don’t get comfortable: Exam week will come around and you’ll have students lining up to ask you questions and this way you won’t resent them. If you can, consider having office hours by appointment - this way, you can give individual students your full attention without worrying about any others who are waiting outside your office.
  2. Ask questions—but not more than the students can handle.  Getting students to open up is worthwhile, but challenging nonetheless.  Try using positive reinforcement, aka candy!  Also try not to ask questions that are too hard (the students won’t want to answer to avoid embarrassment) or too easy (they’ll feel patronized).  
  3. Rely on faculty and peers.  Your course instructor should keep you up to date with the expectations for students, and what the expectations are for you, but they may not have as much day-to-day experience with the realities of being a teaching assistant. That’s why it’s important to talk to peers who have TAed before. These are the people who can give you lecture materials from previous years, let you know specific concepts that students find most confusing, and suggest the best ways to aid learning. Also, when a class has multiple TAs, be sure to coordinate with the others and share any problems you come across, because chances are they have the same problems.
  4. Keep your materials close at hand.  Always bring any materials on a flash drive! Even when everything is easily accessible online or from a network drive, computer and internet issues are inevitable, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. This is also a preventative measure if you’re feeling nervous...
  5. Feeling nervous?  Actually standing in front of a class and delivering a lecture, or guiding students through a lab, doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking. Make sure that you run through everything beforehand, so you know not just what you’re saying or demonstrating, but how to explain it. If you do stumble on a concept, or forget what you’re saying, take a moment to breathe, or a drink of water, and realize that you’re your own harshest critic, and most students won’t even realize. And finally, don’t be afraid if you can’t answer a question - you can always reply with “I don’t know, but I’ll find out”, and answer it next week.
  6. Don’t take it personally.  Sadly, not all students have the same level of devotion to their education. You’ll realize this when you look up to see half your class texting, when you restate the same due dates for the fifth time in a day, or when only two of your twenty students show up for an 8:30 am lab. It can be hard to maintain motivation in the face of this, but try not to take it personally - these students are undoubtedly behaving the same way in their other classes. That one student who sits in the front of the class and gets 98’s on the homework? That should be the person for whom you’re trying your hardest.