Tips for New Teaching Assistants

Julie Dodd shares the advice she gives graduate students about to teach undergrads for the first time -- and reminds professors of their obligation to share their expertise.

August 28, 2015

This time each year, at universities like mine, hundreds of new teaching assistants prepare to teach undergraduates for the first time.

I’ve presented to the TAs at the University of Florida for a decade now, and each year, I’m reminded both how much undergraduate teaching they provide and how important it is that we, as faculty members, provide help to new teaching assistants (and to new faculty) who may join the academy with a limited (or no) teaching background.

Here are three principles that underscored my presentation to the graduate students this year, in hopes that they will be helpful to new teachers elsewhere.

Convey enthusiasm for what you are teaching.

Research on effective teaching and learning -- including McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (Cengage Learning, 2014) and What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press, 2004) -- reinforces the significant impact of the teacher’s enthusiasm in terms of students’ engagement in the course.

Sometimes teaching assistants and new faculty are assigned to entry-level courses or courses that fulfill general education requirements. The TAs may consider such teaching assignments not interesting or important. But those are the courses taken by freshmen and sophomores that can determine if the students continue in college or drop out because they do poorly in those courses or consider what they are learning not worthwhile.

Those entry-level and gen ed courses also influence the majors students choose. I’ve had students tell me that they decided on their major based on a positive experience in an introductory survey course -- with an enthusiastic teacher.

Create a syllabus that provides policies and deadlines.

Beginning teachers sometimes think the syllabus is a formality or even a constraint on the spontaneity of their teaching. But a well-thought-out and well-constructed syllabus can be helpful both to the students and to the instructor.

Creating a syllabus makes you consider what is most important for your students to learn during the course. Developing Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) helps you spell out for yourself and your students what they need to accomplish during the semester.

The SLOs go beyond having students read a chapter. You must determine what the students should be able to do after reading that chapter. Bloom’s Taxonomy for Learning (1956), updated by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001), can help in developing course objectives, as the taxonomy provides levels of learning -- from the lower levels of remembering and understanding to the higher levels of evaluating and creating.

The syllabus also is where you explain the policies for attendance, making up missed work, use of technology, and eating or drinking in class. Then when a student turns in a late assignment or is using a cell phone during class, you can address that as a course policy issue and not just an “I don’t like you doing that” situation.

Connect with your students -- but not on too personal a level.

College students want teachers who are approachable and responsive, but you need to establish boundaries. That’s especially true for teaching assistants, who, typically, are close in age to the students they are teaching.

New faculty members and TAs should talk with faculty colleagues and experienced teaching assistants to see what guidance they provide. Some factors to consider:

  • Edit your online profile (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) so that not too much about your personal life is available for public view.
  • Provide your email address for students to use in contacting you -- not your cell phone number. Email may seem old school to today’s undergrads, but it is still a primary communication tool in higher ed and most industries. Email makes your communication contact with your students more business focused than the personal connection of texting.
  • Let students know how available you will be for responding to their questions. Most faculty and employers wouldn’t want students contacting them at 2 a.m. and expecting an immediate response. By setting guidelines, you can help students adjust their expectations to what is reasonable in academic and work settings.

For those who are experienced teachers, be open to having teaching assistants and new faculty ask for advice.

If we are supervising TAs, we can meet with them regularly to talk about the progress of the course, discuss any student issues and answer the range of questions the TAs may have.

I teach an undergraduate course with 220 students and eight TAs and adjuncts as lab instructors. Each semester, I have weekly meetings with the new TAs. Even though those meetings take time, the regular meetings reduce the number of emails and drop-by questions I receive from the TAs. We use the meetings to discuss grading of that week’s lab assignment, to prepare for the next week’s assignment and to answer general questions. The TAs tell me that they find these meetings helpful.

You can establish an atmosphere where you expect the TAs to have questions -- and that you have questions, too. I’ve found that questions the TAs ask (about assignments, grading, etc.) and the conversations we have help the TAs improve, help me improve and can lead to improvements in the course.

If you are open to helping new faculty members, you can let them know by dropping by their offices. “Do you have any questions that I might be able to help with?” is the direct approach. That can lead to informal chats about using the course management system or determining who to ask about getting a new desk chair.

Another approach is to offer to take your new colleague for coffee/tea and a visit. Sometimes in the course of a 20-minute chat, the new colleague’s questions will surface.

New TAs and faculty may be hesitant to ask questions, as they feel that exposes shortcomings on their part. So you can initiate a subject that you think might be of concern, such as, “One of the challenges I still have after teaching for several years is how to be fair in grading written assignments” or “Even though most college students are professional in their approach, I have found some that can be discipline problems in class.”

Those openers on your part can then lead to a conversation about the issue, with the TA or new faculty member able to ask for advice, either with or without acknowledging any specific problems they may be encountering.

Remember that the start of the semester is a busy time, especially for new TAs and faculty members. So you want to make sure that your offer of an opportunity to talk doesn’t sound like you are proposing a long meeting.

The other issue for veteran instructors to remember is that not everyone is going to want to take the approach to a situation that we do. Even our own veteran colleagues have different approaches. Of course, if the TA is one you are supervising, you can expect a level of compliance to your expectations -- such as having all lab instructors use the same policy for excused absences.

Some of learning about teaching (as is true with most professions) is through trial and error, but being aware of principles of pedagogy and getting advice from veteran teachers can help TAs and new faculty (and the students they teach) have a better semester.


Julie E. Dodd (@profdodd) is a professor in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. She teaches a graduate course on teaching.


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