The two types of teaching assistants (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

I had a few perceptions about teaching assistants when I was an undergraduate student. There were two distinct types of teaching assistant personalities that seemed alarmingly obvious. The first “type” of teaching assistant was the one who didn’t care, who just went to class to teach because they had to, and who graded word for word based on whatever teaching rubric they were given. Then, you had the T.A. who was completely, utterly, in love with the subject they were teaching–their enthusiasm showed in ways in which the word “passion” would be an understatement. These were the ones who wanted you to love the subject as much as they did, and when they were good at it, boy were they good. One in particular made me love American History–and believe me, I am a complete science nerd at heart.

My first class as a T.A., I decided I wanted to be the later. I wanted to show how passionate I was about learning to my students so that they would become excited and want to engage with me as well. Let me tell you–it’s exhausting. After a full day of lab, sometimes I don’t want to be that happy-go-lucky girl who has a giant smile on her face as I’m talking about human migration out of Africa. But I try. At the same time, being a T.A. has taught me that it is not easy. Time management is key–grading 75 papers each week isn’t something that can be done in one sitting. On the other side of the fence now, I realize how much T.A.’s put into their courses, even if they are the first type that I mentioned previously. I appreciate them so much more now, and especially the later who encourages, listens, and shows passion. I only hope that with time I can inspire my students as much as some of my T.A.’s did in the past.

Originally posted  on November 13, 2012

Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

One important aspect of being a teaching assistant is learning to teach non-majors, since in many cases, these students don’t come to class with a strong interest in the subject or with particular or special motivation for the course (it is, after all, not in their major subject). In my experience in mathematics, I have seen that the plurality or majority of teaching resources seems to be spent teaching students outside their respective department (at least by some measures, e.g. number of courses offered). This is probably true of many other departments. Teaching majors being a serious and core priority, teaching non-majors should nonetheless be a different, but still important, sort of priority. Continue reading “Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)”

Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

When I was first looking into graduate school programs, I was attempting to avoid having to teach at all costs. However life, and especially research funding, does not always work out as planned. I’ve been a TA now for several years and have to say teaching has greatly enhanced my graduate school experience. Yes, it does take a lot of time away from doing your actual thesis research, but it does develop many valuable skills. I’ve noted a few: Continue reading “Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)”

Teaching Assistants: Teachers in Training

Serving as a graduate Teaching Assistant or “TA” provides graduate students with opportunities to experience and learn what it is like to teach. The role of the TA often depends on her/his subject matter expertise for the course. Whether serving as a professor’s assistant or primary teaching support, teaching class part-time, or as the primary teacher for a course, a graduate student TA experiences firsthand the joys and challenges of teaching. Serving as a TA is often the first real teaching experience for those aspiring to become a faculty member. Although TA’s usually have experience performing research, writing, and working with colleagues both faculty and graduate students alike, they often lack real teaching experience. Serving as a TA helps them understand the important difference of being in front of the classroom and sitting within it.

TA’s are compensated. TA’s receive a significant stipend plus payment of their tuition and fees. In return, TA’s work 20 hours per week. TA’s usually have some background in the course or courses for which they serve as a TA. TA’s often have taken the course or related courses for which they serve as a TA. In return, TA’s often have office or lab hours in which they work with students. TA’s help grade exams and papers subject to the professor’s judgment. Also, TA’s may lead exam review sessions. Most importantly, professors often assign TA’s to work one-on-one with students having difficulty with the course.

All of the TA’s roles and responsibilities not only assist the professor, help students learn the course’s content, and build a sense of classroom community but also provide the TA with valuable training. How well a TA benefits from this training is directly related to how well s/he teaches when s/he becomes a professor. This training enables a TA to better communicate her/his expertise to her/his students when s/he becomes a faculty member. Serving as a TA is integral to a TA’s success when s/he becomes a professor because the experience will enable her/him to teach more effectively and enhance students’ learning.

5 Teaching Tips for New TAs

A year ago, I was starting my first semester as a TA in the new Biology Workshop set-up. This change was going against decades of pedagogy as TAs were asked to act as facilitators rather than re-lecturing content that professors explain in lectures. Now, I had taught some informal pass/fail classes before, as well as done some science outreach teaching middle school students (Rutgers Science Explorer Bus), but this was my first experience teaching course content to college students. To make matters worse, I hadn’t taken biology since my first year of college! But over the past year, I’ve not only learned more about biology than I ever thought I would need again (as a chemist!), but I’ve learned even more about teaching and controlling a classroom.

1. Learn Student Names

After my first year teaching, I was appalled at how few TAs actually took the time to learn student names. I’m actually very poor with remembering names but as an instructor I think it’s important to know who your students are as it makes you seem more personable, as well as holds students accountable for their actions. If you have a Sakai site, getting photo rosters from them is extremely easy. I’ve actually made use of seating charts to help me early on each semester. From a student’s perspective, it might be the only time during their first year that an instructor of a class knows their name.

2. Be Yourself

Whatever your personality, find a way to integrate that into your teaching style. I feel most first year TAs try to portray an image of them acting like a professor, I know I did when I first started teaching, but I often find imitating the intimidation of a “scary” real-life professor can sometimes curtail questions from students. If you like to joke around, find ways to connect to your students that way. If not that is fine too, but students need to see you as knowledgeable AND approachable before they’ll feel comfortable in your class.

3. Be Prepared

I try to account for every situation imaginable but I’ll be the first (hopefully!) to tell you things will go wrong sometime this year. You will make mistakes, but that’s okay!! As great as technology is, it can lead to problems. This happened to me this week as 35 minutes wasn’t enough time to prevent tech issues from showing up 1 minute after class started. As someone who has a strict routine in almost all aspects of my life, teaching helped me think on my feet and innovate on the fly! You’ll need this in any job, especially teaching.

4. Grade as You Go

If your students are handing you work that needs to be graded, don’t take any new assignments until you hand them back. If you are expecting students to generate content, you should be generating feedback. As a side bar, hand out previous assignments/quizzes at the end of class as low grades can increase side chatter as well decrease motivation to listen during class.

5. Don’t be Afraid to say “I don’t know”

There have been times when students have asked me a question that I couldn’t answer. These are maturing adults. Copping out with an answer like “That’s a good question, look it up!” or merely avoiding makes you seem like you don’t know the answer AND you don’t care if the student finds out either. Try looking it up yourself, asking another TA, and if necessary follow up with the student the following week. It’s actually a nice way to review content and build connections from past material to what you are covering that week.

Most importantly, if this is your first semester teaching, good luck and I hope you learn from your students as much as they do from you.

Teaching Non-Majors

One important aspect of being a teaching assistant is learning to teach non-majors, since in many cases, these students don’t come to class with a strong interest in the subject or with particular or special motivation for the course (it is, after all, not in their major subject). In my experience in mathematics, I have seen that the plurality or majority of teaching resources seems to be spent teaching students outside their respective department (at least by some measures, e.g. number of courses offered). This is probably true of many other departments. Teaching majors being a serious and core priority, teaching non-majors should nonetheless be a different, but still important, sort of priority.

An important factor in teaching non-majors is identifying the goals of the course. Generally, saturating students with content is how most syllabi and curricula seem to look on paper, but when I teach a calculus course, I know that our major goals are to build mathematical and quantitative literacy, develop the skills involved in calculus, and give students the required background for their majors and for their careers. This is universal, independent of the intended audience (biological sciences, social sciences, engineers) or the level (we have 4+ semesters of mathematics for non-majors, depending on their curriculum). Quantitative literacy is an important goal of mathematics education, and is a reason mathematics is a component of many majors (and of other general requirements). As Michael, another fellow blogger, mentions in his recent post, scientific literacy (and I would say quantitative literacy, statistical literacy, and other such matters) are important for our civil discourse and our society in general.

It is important for non-majors to understand expectations, especially expectations surrounding assessment. Alexandra mentions this in her post this month. Student work should be legible and comprehensible – this is very important in mathematics I can say from experience. Establishing the expectations and assessing students fairly, but firmly, makes an assessment tool more effective (and easier to grade not just in itself, but by soliciting good responses from students). Remember that this is not a non-major’s “native language,” so to speak.

Brian mentions in his latest post that sometimes students are hopelessly out-of-touch. That is certainly the case, but when teaching non-majors (or introductory classes, or interdisciplinary classes) it is especially important to adapt to students’ interests and abilities – otherwise, they are indeed pushed more and more out-of-touch. There is usually a reason students are required to take a course, but they don’t necessarily see it that way. Many students (freely!) confess that courses are often things to “get out of the way” – if a lecture, quiz, homework set, or discussion can develop their interest and give them some hands-on time with the course material, it may spark interest and make the course meaningful and connect them better to goals like quantitative literacy (or a respective equivalent).

Fellow-blogger Jennifer speaks about the enthusiasm of TAs in her most recent post, and to tie that discussion into this post, I would assert that non-majors do not usually share that enthusiasm. It is important to identify the level of interest students have, and if there are enthusiastic students, give them opportunities to extend and enrich the course. But if, as is likely, the majority are not especially interested, it would be a mistake to disconnect from students by expecting them to connect with that level of enthusiasm. Not that enthusiasm is bad (it’s great!), but it’s important to meet them at their level – and also to meet them at the interface of the course and the topics about which these students are enthusiastic.

The two types of teaching assistants

I had a few perceptions about teaching assistants when I was an undergraduate student. There were two distinct types of teaching assistant personalities that seemed alarmingly obvious. The first “type” of teaching assistant was the one who didn’t care, who just went to class to teach because they had to, and who graded word for word based on whatever teaching rubric they were given. Then, you had the T.A. who was completely, utterly, in love with the subject they were teaching–their enthusiasm showed in ways in which the word “passion” would be an understatement. These were the ones who wanted you to love the subject as much as they did, and when they were good at it, boy were they good. One in particular made me love American History–and believe me, I am a complete science nerd at heart.

My first class as a T.A., I decided I wanted to be the later. I wanted to show how passionate I was about learning to my students so that they would become excited and want to engage with me as well. Let me tell you–it’s exhausting. After a full day of lab, sometimes I don’t want to be that happy-go-lucky girl who has a giant smile on her face as I’m talking about human migration out of Africa. But I try. At the same time, being a T.A. has taught me that it is not easy. Time management is key–grading 75 papers each week isn’t something that can be done in one sitting. On the other side of the fence now, I realize how much T.A.’s put into their courses, even if they are the first type that I mentioned previously. I appreciate them so much more now, and especially the later who encourages, listens, and shows passion. I only hope that with time I can inspire my students as much as some of my T.A.’s did in the past.

“Teaching Assistant” is a state of mind

Working as a teaching assistant implies a very wide variety of experiences. For some, it’s a full semester of two hours sitting in a lonely office every week and very little else. For others, it requires two new lesson plans every week, with staggering piles of homework and tests to grade. For me, being a TA has landed somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I’ve had my hours of boredom in the office and I’ve had stacks of grading to do.  The most notable thing about my experience as a TA is that I’ve mostly worked with graduate students, who claim to be a different breed from undergraduates. In that sense, I feel like my experience has been a little atypical, devoid of the frustrations usually referred to by popular representations of academia (I’m looking at you, PhD Comics).

Despite the atypical nature of my experience, there are at least a couple things that I’ve come across that seem to be common threads for TAs. First is the frustrating duty of enforcing the rules set down by the professor and the University. There always seems to be at least one person that neglects or ignores his responsibilities as a student. TAs are usually not the ultimate authorities but they do bear a responsibility to keep people honest. It’s frustrating to work with people who are unwilling to make the effort to engage, or are blind to the effect their ambivalence has on those around them.

That being said, there are significant upsides to being a TA which often outnumber the negative aspects. Being a teaching assistant always brings the potential for engaging and educational interactions with students. While these interactions are often superficial they also contain the potential to be meaningful for both the student and the TA. On the student side, engaging with the TA shows dedication to learning and succeeding in class. It also gives undergraduates an opportunity to speak with someone that has taken a deeper interest in academics and may have some advice about careers. For the TA, speaking with students can deepen their understanding of the class’ subject. Being responsible for someone else understanding difficult concepts can clarify and sharpen one’s own understanding.

Working as a TA always reminds me of a saying I once heard: ‘you can’t truly understand something until you can bring about that understanding in others.’ That is more relevant for some TAs than others. Teaching an entire class on the history of planning in the United States is probably a bit more revelatory than helping half a dozen students with their GIS problem sets over the course of a semester. That being said, I think working as a TA has helped me refine not only my professional interests (do I want to be a teacher?), but my pedagogical interests as well (what do I want to teach and how?). It has made me a better student, a better teacher, and a better person all around.

Teaching can equal lots and lots of grading…

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 questions, the 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.

Teaching with YouTube: Creating a Classroom Community

Although my first teaching gig at Rutgers won’t be until next year, I did have the opportunity to TA for a film class and teach English 101 (Intro to Academic Writing) at University of Maryland, where I earned my Master’s in English Literature. Being in the front of a classroom full of undergrads for the first time can be both exciting and daunting, so here are a few lessons I’ll be sure to keep in mind when I start teaching again.

As soon as you can, try to create a sense of community within your class. If you can get your class to think of themselves as a class rather than a set of individuals fighting for a grade, you’ll have a much more enjoyable and productive time together. I tried to foster a community among my students by frequently having them work in groups during class (perhaps discussing a particular passage of the reading) and then presenting their findings to the rest of us. Not only did they love working in smaller groups (less pressure), these activities provided variety during lessons and gave me a few minutes to set up the next portion of class. I also saw many friendships grow through this process. Go Teamwork!

Make Yourself Available. Setting up mandatory conferences with students EARLY in the semester was a great way to get one-on-one face time with each of my students. During these meetings I would ask what they were hoping to get out of the rest of the semester, address any concerns, and — believe it or not — just by virtue of having a conversation with a student I found they were much more attentive and engaged during the next session. I guess they could tell I was paying attention!

Remember to have fun. Although it is important to have a plan for what you all need to cover during a particular class session, do not underestimate the power of spontaneity as a learning tool. Case in point: One English 101 session, after we’d thoroughly discussed some key elements of rhetoric (if you’re curious: ethos, pathos, and logos), a few of my students asked if I’d heard the newest, awful song making the rounds via YouTube. I hadn’t. It turns out Rebecca Black’s infamous “Friday” was all the rage, and let me tell you — as we watched the music video, my students broke into an impromptu, spot-on (and hilarious) rhetorical analysis of what we were watching. Needless to say, I was very proud of how well they had mastered the material.

How do you create a sense of community among your students? How else do you make sure your students know you are there for them? And has YouTube made an appearance in your classroom yet? What are you waiting for?!

I can just Google it.

Despite having several thoughtful blog entries “in the works,” I thought I’d make my first post about something perhaps slightly amusing and somewhat observational. We live in an age well past the dawn of the internet. Indeed, I would not call it the age of information, but rather, the age of data. Social media, bulk email, Youtube, cell phones, smart phones, Twitter, the blog-o-sphere, and everything else — we are highly connected to media. I was struck recently when a group of undergraduates was somewhat shocked that I knew some basic theorems of mathematics off the top of my head. And while that was surprising to them, they were thoroughly confounded when I identified an arachnid as something other than a spider  — not only that it was possible to identify such things by their physiology, but that one could do so without aids or notes (some were also unaware that such creatures exist at all). Indeed, my observations and conclusions were checked on Wikipedia as soon as they got to a computer.

I don’t know if there are technical definitions of the terms data and information (and whether those definitions vary in whatever fields they find use), but to me, they have sharply different connotations. I believe the superhighway of the Internet, and all of its major repositories of (mostly) text-based media, are not conductors of information, but rather, of data – data of varying types, formats, detail, and reliability. And for that reason, significant research is being done to distill and interpret large sets of data, in myriad formats and structures and scenarios (which is not the topic of this blog post).

What I wanted to discuss is how “looking it up” has become such a pervasive technique for the acquisition of information, and why — with so much data around — it is important to know precisely what this process really means. In the end, I think there is an important distinction between looking up information and hearing it from an authority (in a lecture, discussion, conversation, correspondence, or however else). In person or by some personal medium of communication, knowledge and insight can be expressed and even transferred. The ideas are filtered and interpreted carefully, especially in a dialogue or discussion, and the information is contextualized and is explained with greater depth and breadth than a Google search or a Wikipedia article might provide.

Indeed, I believe various tools like Google, Wikipedia, or Wolfram Alpha (for those of us who are mathematically inclined) have all changed the nature of our interactions (be we students, teachers, or those outside of the university setting) with information and data. Painful anecdotes circulate about students who complain that no sources exist for their term paper because Google can’t find any, or who complain that a math problem cannot be solved because Wolfram Alpha can’t solve it. If only research were so easy!

That misunderstanding, which may be a more subconscious sort of convolution of bad habits and lack of information about better practices, really limits students. And these same misconceptions bleed over into the younger generation in academics and the workforce — and even into older generations as well. Bad habits are hard to break, but surely, they are somewhat easy to adopt. What used to be somewhat novel has become the go-to method for trying to find information, but is it the best first-line for that process? If not, when are alternatives more appropriate?

The reason it is so easy to adopt this model — that all information and knowledge can be obtained by reasonable computer search, and thus does not need to be known or understood beforehand — is that for trivial or logistical information, it has become increasingly valid. Indeed, I am blessed with a relatively uncommon name, and the number one Google search terms going to my website are things like “Kellen Myers Rutgers office hours” or “Kellen TA Math” or the like. Students who need logistical information about my office hours, course policies, etc. can find my website and find all that information there. But if they need help with the course, they should not Google “Kellen Myers calculus homework answers.” I doubt this would be useful, and at the very least, I don’t recommend looking up homework answers online to any students.

Once, in particular, I was sorely disappointed to find students asking (many of them repeatedly) when office hours were. Finally, when one student asked by email for the second time (having forgotten my previous response?), I responded that this information can be found by a Google search or by visiting my website — the student was very displeased, and even accused me of disrespect and dereliction of my duty as a TA for not answering the question directly. This stance, in addition to being somewhat hyperbolic, is an unfortunate passing over of the resources and information at hand. Students can often find a wealth of information about their courses’ logistical information, about their instructors’ availability, library hours, school policies, etc. etc. There is a huge amount of information out there! Here, by the way, is an important note for those who provide this information — doing it correctly, effectively, and clearly is an important part of the administrative side of instruction. Five minutes putting together a clear, concise webpage for a course may save hours of emails, confusion, etc.

But information like times, dates, locations, birth-dates, and so forth, seem to be easily accessible and, if the context is understood, a precise online search would yield this sort of information easily. There is no problem discerning from a search what data are valid and which can be trusted to give the correct, valid, desired piece of information. For example, if I needed to know offhand what year the Magna Carta was issued, without the Internet I could (very cautiously) ballpark it as 1100-1400, but a Google search brings it up immediately (the first hit being Wikipedia, which has the information right there in the first paragraph). But knowing the context helps, as a similar search attempting to find the year Marie Antoinette gave her famous “Let them eat cake.” speech brings up several news stories about Mitt Romney, various complicated historical accounts of how she never actually said such a thing, and much more data (related and unrelated) than I would have liked. More knowledge and context might help me sift through that information, but here Google does seem to fail to deliver precisely the datum I was expecting to find.

In the long run, this issue has an impact on how we teach students to find information, be it informally (that is, day-to-day stuff) or in some formal setting (e.g. term paper). This generation of undergraduates has, after all, never used an actual card catalog. Everything is an electronic search, but knowing how to search effectively and what to expect from various search tools is important, and this might be something students (and scholars, and others) lack. We may not have knowledge of the tools at hand, nor of the results one can obtain when using such tools (or how to use such results responsibly).

Indeed, upper level math courses in particular become a bit tough when planning homework. Is this problem solved online somewhere? Will my students find it through Google? It’s a pretty good argument against posting solutions when often, standard or important exercises would be rendered ineffective by having solutions available prematurely. Perhaps this is another piece of good practice for instructors, in both keeping solution sets off the internet and learning to adapt when such information becomes ubiquitous. It may be challenging, finding ways of still giving effective problem sets without running afoul of these online solutions, but I  would say it is usually possible.

The question becomes more complex when computers can solve problems too. In algebra and calculus, students can make use of Wolfram Alpha to solve problems (now with steps provided explicitly, which makes cheating-detection quite difficult). And this isn’t confined to homework or take-home assignments. Indeed, I have heard of students whose phones have been confiscated during exams, with the Wolfram Alpha App wide open with a solution to an exam question on the display. But is Wolfram Alpha the enemy? Let’s hope not — it’s an enemy we can’t fight! It won’t go away, and surely no one can believe such a service could be blocked, censored, or limited in some way.

Like Google or Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha and any other such site will be there to provide students with access to various data, and how students use that data is something to which we must respond well, but also for which we can prepare. (And here, perhaps, I disagree with Wolfram’s description of its product as a “knowledge engine. I would consider it a data engine, and that usually it could be considered reliable enough to provide information, but not knowledge. To me, knowledge of a calculus problem is the ability to understand the methodology of the solution and solve it without an outside aid of that sort. I realize all three of these terms I have used without definition, and I am not brave enough to venture some postulated set of definitions for the terms despite using them freely.)

But, if students are taught how to effectively utilize searching resources, including things like library catalogs and journal resources, they will have access to a better base of data. If we prepare them to filter and interpret that data, we can mediate the problems created by the influx of data that might overwhelm someone searching on the Web. And if we prepare resources (mainly, websites) that provide important and essential information through search engines effectively, students will find the right information right away, using the resources that they have come to primarily rely on for acquiring data. And for times when this is not the right way to find data, we can help students learn to use other resources — which may, in this generation, be new to them (up until college, Google and Wikipedia may have sufficed entirely). Eventually, we can hope they will not be reliant on these resources for all data, as research, writing, learning, and other experiences should impart knowledge and information. And we ourselves, as faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, or anyone else, can learn to better use these resources. Search engines and other online data/information resources can supplement instruction and research, and are incredible tools for data acquisition, but knowing when and how to use them is crucial — not only to prevent misuse or over-reliance on these resources, but to also make use of them as important and increasingly abundant tools for gathering and refining information.

Balancing Being a TA with Your Coursework

Keeping with the theme of being a TA, which I agree has been a valuable experience, I am going to expand on Alexandra’s second point: Time Management. Being a TA at Rutgers commits you to 15 hours of work per week. For my course, this includes 3 hours a week of actual teaching, several hours of planning classes and reading (or re-reading) course material, 1-2 hours of office hours, and a great deal of time spent reading and grading student work and responding to their emails. Generally, this is very manageable. However, there always comes that moment at the end of the semester when you wonder if you will ever get all of your work and grading done. I can tell you that you will; it just takes some careful planning throughout the semester.

My first piece of advice is to work ahead where you can on your own coursework. Yes, that project may not be due until the last day of class, but if you can start it early, you will be much less stressed in the end. Second, if you can get an existing syllabus for the course you will be teaching during the summer before, this gives you the opportunity to read the materials for the course ahead of time, rather than trying to do everything during the semester. Finally, figure out where your students struggle and work with them throughout the semester. My students have to turn in three extensive written projects. I provide them with a large amount of support on the first two projects so that they are able to write the final project independently. Most courses have a final project that is due at the end of the semester, when graduate students are busiest, and helping students extensively throughout the semester means that you can devote more time to your own work at the end of the semester.

While each course is different, these tips will hopefully be useful as you begin your graduate career. If you are offered the opportunity to TA, I highly recommend that you accept the offer. While it does mean some extra work, the benefits are enormous and the workload is certainly manageable.

Benefits to Being a TA

When I was first looking into graduate school programs, I was attempting to avoid having to teach at all costs. However life, and especially research funding, does not always work out as planned. I’ve been a TA now for several years and have to say teaching has greatly enhanced my graduate school experience. Yes, it does take a lot of time away from doing your actual thesis research, but it does develop many valuable skills. I’ve noted a few:

1) Public Speaking – Lecturing on a new topic every week that you may or may not be very familiar with. Being able to stand up in front of a group and deliver content in an engaging way takes a lot of practice. Undergrads make good test subjects since they are stuck listening to you.

2) Time Management – You have to balance your own course work, teaching responsibilities, and research. Throughout the rest of your life you are going to have multiple projects and deadlines that have to get done.

3) Really learning a topic- People always say you never really know something until you have to teach it to someone else. My understanding of microbiology has greatly improved since you never know what questions the undergrads might ask.

These are just a few of the many skills I feel I’ve honed during my time as a TA. Plus, after you teach a course a couple of times you become an expert, and it is nice to have something each week that you know you excel at as a feel good boost.