Being a TA

This past year I was a TA for an introductory class on probability theory and statistics. I expected to just hold office hours and grade but the class actually required me to teach. The fact that I have no prior teaching experience and had to teach a class that I had taken three years ago had me horrified. Here are some general things I wished I'd known as a TA.

1. You do not have to know everything about the material you're teaching.

You might be assigned as a TA to a course in which you might have taken years ago or, in some rare cases, never had taken before. Do not try to re-learn or self-teach yourself everything all at once. Instead, examine the syllabus or consult the instructor about what is being taught and start by going over the material just for the upcoming week.

I find it helpful compile concise notes as you go over the material. Notes will prove to be invaluable when you are in front of the class and suddenly become brain dead. They are also helpful when you have to make handouts or exam reviews.Be sure to give yourself a few days to go over what you will be teaching. My worst moment in teaching is when I felt I did not have a strong understanding of the material and was called out on it since I'd reviewed the material a few hours before class. This brings me to my next piece of advice.

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2. No one expects you to have a mastery over the material.

Mistakes do happen so try not to fret too much about it. After all, you are a student yourself and even professors often make mistakes. Although a few undergrads might call you out on your mistakes, most will take what you say at face value. If you're called out or realized you've make a mistake, retract what you'd taught immediately and present the correct material. If you do not know the correct material at that moment, it is okay to revisit it at the beginning of the next class (you should really have notes to prevent such situation!).

Be sure to avoid apologizing for a mistake! As you are in a position of authority, would you want students to feel sympathetic towards you? Don't get big headed due to having such power however.

3. Do not abuse your power.

No, I'm not talking about quid pro quo as every instructor should know better. I'm talking about playing favorites with students. Sure there is always that student who attends every office hour or the one who is going through some life struggle and totally deserves a much better grade than what he or she is currently receiving. But as difficult as it might be, try to be impartial when it comes to every aspect of your job (e.g., grading, tutoring, etc.).

I try to not look at the name of students when I'm grading. Sure I might notice someone's handwriting style but more often than not I will not be able to correlate the handwriting to the name. Another strategy in grading to help you be impartial is to grade one question at a time. That is, grade one of question from everyone's submission before moving on to the next one. While this might make grading longer, it will dissuade you from judging a student to the standards of another (be honest, how often have your own work to that of a classmate?). I feel like this is a must when grading exams.

In the next update we will discuss tips to make your job easier so you can focus on the things that matters in graduate school (e.g., sleep, complaining about your adviser, etc.)!

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Post Resources

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Posted in Business Service Post Date 11/01/2015


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