Initial Publication Date: October 3, 2014

Manage and Support your Teaching Assistants

This page was written by Kelsey Bitting (Dept. of Geology, University of Kansas) and Geoff Cook (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego), drawing on discussions and contributions from the 2014 Getting the Most Out of your Introductory Courses workshop.

Classes involving GTA's and LA's run much more smoothly when expectations are effectively and clearly articulated between instructors and teaching assistants. Communication is vital, particularly for large-format introductory classes in which there may be numerous teaching assistants with a variety of backgrounds, levels of experience, and even personalities. The following are suggestions for faculty to consider when working with teaching assistants.

Meet with Your TA(s) Before Class Starts

While we are often rushing to prepare classes at the beginning of the term, take time to meet with your TAs before the course starts in order to:

  • Communicate expectations for what they will do during the course,
  • Schedule regular meetings and/or office hours,
  • Get to know them, learn more about their strengths and weaknesses so you can better plan for the course,
  • Share your policies for grading or anything else they need to uphold, and
  • Ask them to sign a contract detailing their rights and responsibilities.

Keep in mind that your expectations and policies may differ from those of other instructors in your department, so it is important that you communicate with all teaching assistants, even the experienced ones.

Designate Specific Roles

Each TA will have unique strengths and weaknesses. At the beginning of the semester, work with the TAs to identify what roles each will be best suited to perform, and consider allowing TAs to specialize (to some degree) in particular tasks related to your course. For example, while everyone may need to hold office hours, one TA may be best at giving feedback to students while another is an expert at using the learning management system (Blackboard, Sakai, etc.) of your university. Within this role designation, consider appointing a head TA who is the first line of advice for the other TAs and the first level of organization for the behind-the-scenes tasks the TAs perform.

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Hold a Weekly Meeting

Scheduled weekly meetings for teaching assistants and instructors provide an opportunity to keep everyone on the same page. Use this time to:

  • Share your goals for the upcoming week,
  • Discuss ideas that were confusing for students the previous week and brainstorm ideas for improvements,
  • Give TAs the opportunity to practice solving the problems that will be done in class,
  • Get feedback on new activities you plan to implement in the coming weeks,
  • Discuss specifics of organization and course management,
  • Go over grading, rubrics, and giving feedback to students.

If necessary, use the weekly meeting times to provide short, targeted training on teaching methods or review content that may be challenging to the teaching assistants.

Provide Course-specific References

Maintaining an archive of course-specific references can be useful for you as well as your TAs. Useful items include:

  • Extra textbooks and lab books for teaching assistants
  • PowerPoint lectures or other course materials
  • Past assignments and grading rubrics
  • Any documentation for using lab equipment
  • Review materials

Many of these items can be archived in a learning management system and made available to others with permission so that physical copies don't get lost and aren't inadvertently made available to students in the course.

Consider using a contract or other document to archive class-specific policies and preferences for how the course will run. A reference document can preemptively answer questions on basic topics, such as whether late assignments will be accepted and for how many points, who on the instructional team has the authority to negotiate grade changes, what is to be done if students are on social media sites on their laptops or phones during lecture, etc. While some of these policies may be in your syllabus, others likely are not, yet TAs will need to know them at some point during the semester.

Offer Feedback and Evaluation

Many TAs are first-time instructors, and giving them feedback on their teaching is important to helping them grow and develop as an instructor. Establish a procedure by which TAs can get formative feedback from you or other experts that will allow them to improve their teaching immediately. You could sit in on their lab or ask for a mid-term evaluation from students or other TAs.

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Track TAs' Hours and How they are Spent

In most departments, graduate TAs are salaried employees with a specific number of designated hours they are meant to spend working on their TA duties. However, having a record of exactly how many hours TAs spend each week and what types of tasks they are performing during that time can be valuable in a variety of ways:

  • If a particular TA is spending far more time on a certain task than others, this might be a good indication that that person should attend a workshop or talk about methods for completing that task with more experienced TAs.
  • Instructors will be able to get a clear analysis of how time is being spent on their course, and determine whether that meets their expectations. They can then adjust the assignments or tasks as necessary.
  • Some TAs will naturally take more initiative than others, and may become overloaded. A quick glance at weekly time sheets allows the instructor to adjust the workload fairly so that no TA is taken advantage of by the others.
  • A clear record of TA hours can be used to lobby for additional TA slots, or for support of other instructional innovation in the future.