As I have stated in a previous blog post I find that there are many advantages to being a teaching assistant, however, a major disadvantage is all the grading. For me, leading a three hour lab class twice a week is the easy and usually fun part of being a TA. It’s the hours of grading that puts a damper on the whole experience. Students hearing any TA, professor, or instructor complain about grading will always suggest that students don’t need to take tests or complete homework. However, tests and assignments allow instructors to gauge students’ understanding of the material and to assign grades. So for those of you that are new to teaching, I have a few tips for making grading easier.
First, make sure to warn students about legible handwriting. I have a strict policy: If I can’t read it, it is wrong. There is no reason in a college level course for a TA to be straining to decipher a student’s chicken scratch. Some students figure if they write badly enough the TA will just give up and assume they had the correct answer for a question that they didn’t actually know. I make sure to remind students at the beginning of every test so no one can dispute legibility requirements.
Secondly, make sure the general guidelines for writing/completing an assignment are very clear and accessible to the students. The better you formulate the assignment or questionsthe easier it will be for you to grade. Ambiguity allows students the opportunity to debate with you about the “correct” format, length, and depth of the assignment. Having the guidelines posted on a course website prevents students from making excuses about not understanding your in-class explanation.
For the actual questions, make sure there are not multiple correct answers. Instead of just one correct answer, you’ll end up with your expected perfect answer, a few good ones and five mediocre versions. Additionally, make sure that other questions in the assignment do not answer each other. It helps to develop a grading rubric before you start, so that you know exactly which answers you are accepting for each question and how any partial credit will be given out. The grading rubric is especially important if there are multiple TAs grading for the course. The rubric makes it much easier for everyone to be consistent and significantly cuts down on complaints of there being an “easy” or “hard” TA.
As with any skill, developing good test and assignment questions takes practice and knowledge, so make sure to ask other experienced TAs about their techniques. I also suggest taking advantage of the many seminars and certificates offered through the Teaching Assistant Project (TAP) to hone your teaching skills.