Developing Tools to Support Graduate Students in their Role as Teaching Assistants

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Danielle Murdoch, School of Criminology

Project team: Tamara O’Doherty, School of Criminology, and Hilary Todd, research assistant

Timeframe: December 2018 to August 2019

Funding: $6000

Final report: View Danielle Murdoch's final report (PDF)

Description: While we strive to create student-centered, safe and culturally sensitive learning environments, we recognize that due to the tutorial/lecture division of labour at SFU, we are not the only persons who are responsible for teaching our courses. Our teaching assistants (TAs) play crucial roles in not only facilitating tutorials, but also in delivering lessons, applying our rubrics, and providing students with feedback and academic support during the term. As both current faculty who frequently supervise TAs, and former TAs ourselves, we know that TAs each have a range of experiences and knowledge that they bring to their work. Further, just as TA experiences vary, so do faculty needs, and faculty expectations of TAs. The Teaching and Learning Center provides some optional training for all TAs at the beginning of the term, and they have created many useful resources; however, the training is not department-specific and in our experiences, it omits a lot of very important information that is actually necessary for courses to run smoothly and for our students to receive consistent and quality instruction. We know that some faculty, including ourselves, have created their own guides for TAs in an effort to prepare TAs for their work in our courses. However, this ad hoc process sustains inconsistency between TA responsibilities, expectations, and benefits of training. We would like to work with faculty and TAs to develop a toolkit of strategies and resources that can be shared among faculty members who wish to employ the resources with their TAs and that can be shared with graduate students to better prepare them for their roles as teaching assistants and future instructors.

We expect that this toolkit will contribute to graduate student learning – which will necessarily affect undergraduate student learning. For example, the toolkit will provide TAs with information on all aspects of teaching, including how to create safe and culturally sensitive learning environments, how to respond to student disclosures, how to appropriately use grading rubrics, and how to provide constructive feedback of undergraduate student assignments. We will also provide tools for faculty to use with TAs that lay out faculty expectations such as late penalty policies, expectations of TA conduct and presence in lectures, email return timeline expectations, lines of communication, and other important rubric-related information.

By combining the best practices already in use, we expect that we will be able to increase consistency among our faculty regarding some policies and TAs’ roles in enforcing these policies, which will increase consistency in how undergraduate students are evaluated. This toolkit is also intended to facilitate the TA/faculty relationship, and give faculty resources that they can use if they so desire. Another benefit of producing this toolkit includes preparing graduate students who aspire to become faculty in the future with the skills they need to grade student work, as well as prepare their own teaching assistants. Further, graduate students can use the resources identified in the toolkit to develop certain components of their teaching portfolios. It is also possible that providing graduate students with access to this toolkit will promote their well-being by mitigating stress around their responsibilities as teaching assistants and in the process, allow them to focus on their obligations as graduate students, thereby facilitating their learning.

Questions addressed:

  • What are best practices to support graduate students who work as TAs in Criminology?
  • What are graduate student challenges in their TA work and what do faculty/sessional instructors identify as challenges in supporting graduate students in their TA work?
  • What resources should be included in a toolkit?
  • What do TAs and faculty/sessional instructors think of the comprehensiveness, utility, and adaptability of our toolkit? In particular:
    • Does the toolkit cover the key useful and appropriate topics?
    • Is the toolkit organized in a useful and clear manner? Is its terminology and structure interpretable by those who will use it?
    • Are the forms and tools in the toolkit easily adaptable to the range of course contexts in which they might be used?

Knowledge sharing:  We shared a draft of the complete toolkit with our colleagues and solicited their feedback. We will share the final draft of the complete toolkits with both the faculty and the graduate students in our department. We have asked for time at the next Faculty Meeting to discuss the findings and we will also share the toolkit at our next Undergraduate Curriculum Committee meeting.

We hope to share the findings at two 2020 conferences (the Western Society of Criminology and the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) as well as to produce an article reflecting on the project for the Journal of Higher Education.

Keywords: Teaching Assistants, support, mentorship, training, toolkit, teaching practices, guidance, professional development, manuals, inclusivity