Summary: Optimizing Teaching Assistants

Teaching assistants (TA) are a valuable resource to instructors. Typically, the role is filled by graduate students with varied teaching experience and sophistication with the material.  There are many variables that contribute to the success and effectiveness of a TA within the teaching team. We explore some of these below.

Language and cultural concerns

Charlie G. has worked with many ESL TAs and has observed that, although  they are very skilled at statistical calculations, they often have difficulty in articulating problems and interpretations  to students. This meant that faculty members would need to become more involved in explaining the context of the problems.

In the pilot of the TA training program in Surrey, Barb B. observed that some TA trainees described experiencing cultural barriers and exploring cultural myths and assumptions was one way to support TA development in this example. The training included panels with “seasoned” TAs, Q & A’s, and discussions of common TA challenges thus preparing new TAs to take on specific tasks such as grading, marking, consulting with students and being part of an instructional team. Here’s a link to the Surrey TA training blog. Here’s the hashtag if you wish to tweet.

Nienke vH. has come across this as well, she worked with a TA who was not confident about her ability to explain things, in part because she was ESL. After showing the TA a few teaching techniques, the TA changed her style and  improved dramatically in her ability to explain concepts to her tutorial section; in addition,  her confidence rose. This was a huge relief to both the TA and the her students. Nienke vH. would not have uncovered this problem if she hadn’t attended tutorials for all her TAs.

Role of a TA

According to TSSU guidelines, TAs are not responsible for designing and delivering course but are to work as part of a team with the instructor in undertaking these tasks. TAs have a broad range of responsibilities including the  demonstration of lab techniques, acting as resources in open labs, keeping office hours, assisting students one-on-one with course material, running tutorials, viewing student presentations, marking exams, and maintaining course records. In contrast,  a tutor marker is typically involved exclusively in marking.

TA training at SFU

The well established TA/TM day training event that takes place at Burnaby in September and January each school year is the main form of organized TA training. It offers TAs a series of workshops that address specific topics and issues of concern to TAs. Barb B. has been pilot testing a TA training program at SFU Surrey, designed to provide new TAs with 6 hours of foundation training on specific tasks associated with their TA role.

Setting expectations as an Instructor

Since TA training is limited, it comes down to the instructor to set expectations for the TA. When working with a large group of TAs this can become challenging. For example, some courses may have 5 – 10 TAs. In this situation, the instructor may appp\oint a senior TA to manage the TA team. This may not always be possible, for example, the first time Nienke vH. taught HSCI 1oo, she had five TAs, all of whom were inexperienced.  Nienke vH. aimed at achieving consistency between TA styles by using structured tutorials (some of which she had received from the other instructor, and some which she developed on her own), and by having regular check-in meetings as a  group.

Rochelle Tucker, an FHS instructor has had success working with her teams of TAs. She has used TA guides that guide TAs on her expectations. Barb B. also described the Spatial Thinking Course (IAT 106) where a TA Guide plays a prominent role in keeping the TAs and the design labs on track. This guide includes teaching tips for TAs that can then be passed on from one generation of TAs to the next. Maintaining documentation between generations of TAs is very important as it creates consistency and reduces TA training time for the instructor.

Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) and Time usage guideline (TUG) forms

The amount of time that a TA can put into the course is regulated by the number of base units they receive. It is up to the instructor to determine how a TA spends their time, and this gets recorded on the TUG form which acts as an agreement between the  instructor and the TA. It is not uncommon for TAs to be expected to work more hours than they are given, or to underestimate the time it takes for certain tasks. It is up the instructor and TA to work together to create realistic expectations.

Resources for TA development