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Two college students work together in the chemistry lab. She is carefully measuring solutions into two different beakers. He is watching closely. Other students are working in the background.

Teaching assistants can benefit student learning and relieve instructors of some of their workload, and the opportunity gives graduate students hands-on experience in teaching roles.

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Teaching assistants are a common feature in undergraduate learning; the role was designed to focus more individualized attention on undergraduate learners, provide professional development opportunities for assistants and offer course support to the instructor, according to Cornell University’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

More graduate students and teaching assistants are advocating for union rights as workers, expecting additional supports and compensation from their college or university as they work. Here are five ways instructors and institutional leaders can better support their teaching assistants.

  1. Clearly define roles.

Professors should share their syllabi with TAs prior to the start of the term, explaining course goals and assessments of those goals, according to the University of Massachusetts Center for Teaching and Learning.

Purdue University’s CTL created a checklist of guidance instructors should provide to their online TAs and resources to assist, if needed. Some areas include weekly hours, technology skills, LMS skills, course policies and content, and class discussions. One resource category, tone and class pulse, asks instructors to reflect on how they’d like their TAs to communicate with learners or how TAs should respond to a student challenging their leadership.

Faculty supervision can also be confusing or like parenting, Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching shares in its resources. Therefore instructors should be clear that TAs should have a sense of independence and encourage them to take initiative and find how they fit in the classroom space.

  1. Equip them with resources.

Because TAs are in a student-facing role, they may be put in a situation in which they have to support a student with nonacademic issues, including mental health concerns.

A 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found 14 percent of college students believe their teaching assistants have a role in mitigating their stress. Students at four-year institutions (15 percent) and those who were learning in person (16 percent) or in a hybrid modality (19 percent) were more likely to believe TAs have a role to help students with stress.

Faculty members can support their teaching assistants by equipping them with resources or information on where to direct students who may be in crisis. The University of Texas’s CTL offers a list of resources that a graduate TA may need to share with an undergraduate learner.

TAs are often responsible for grading, so identifying resources for academic integrity can help them in the event they become aware of cheating or plagiarism.

The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Teaching and Learning created a Teaching Toolkit website, and Columbia University’s CTL wrote FAQs for assistants to help guide them in unfamiliar circumstances.

  1. Offer training sessions.

Many professors draw on their graduate student experiences as reference for effective teaching and training in instructional design, engagement, emerging technologies and assessment is less common, Ray Schroeder wrote in an Inside Higher Ed blog post in 2022.

Training sessions are one way to ensure all teaching assistants understand their role, how the institution will support them and effective teaching practices. Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning leads a mandatory training session each term for its undergraduate learning assistants, covering academic integrity, confidentiality and Title IX, and it also gives department leaders recommendations for ongoing guidance for assistants.

The University of Missouri at St. Louis’s CTL hosts a Teaching Assistant Academy, a daylong professional development conference that is open to anyone interested in teaching in a university setting, as well as grad assistants and instructors. The event provides opportunities for assistants to connect with one another and receive support in their work.

  1. Be prepared for challenges.

Sometimes, professors can seem intimidating to TAs, making them hesitant to ask questions or feeling unprepared to teach, according to Cornell’s CTL. Being prepared for related challenges that may arise can help mitigate disruptions.

Vanderbilt’s CFT reminds faculty members that they should not expect their TAs to be perfect and should understand that TAs’ knowledge of the course and their competencies will vary. Colleges and universities should also create protocol around managing TAs who engage in unacceptable teaching behaviors.

  1. Provide feedback.

Feedback on performance should be formative and summative, and evaluations should come from beyond student evaluation at the end of the term, according to Vanderbilt’s CFT. A standard scale can help supervisors and TAs understand faculty observations, and personal evaluations can benefit assistants’ learning and reflection on the term.

Some institutions choose to give out annual TA awards, similar to faculty awards, to recognize exceptional work among assistants. The University of Wisconsin at Madison has four categories of awards for which campus leaders nominate and award graduate teaching assistants.

A letter of recommendation can also help teaching assistants as they transition into their next role in higher education or beyond.

Do you have an academic success tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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