Ways to Tackle a New Teaching Assistantship

July 23, 2019

The responsibilities of a teaching assistant (TA) can be overwhelming when you are taking classes and doing research simultaneously. Your teaching assignments may vary from teaching classes, facilitating labs, to grading assignments. Here are some strategies to help you get through your first teaching assistantship. 

Build a Teaching Support System

Having a good support system is key to accomplishing your teaching goals. Identify TAs who have taught or graded for the same classes and discuss strategies that worked well for them. You can use their strategies as a template and construct your own style.

Do Your Research and Gather Materials 

If the class has been taught before, save yourself from re-inventing the wheel and gather previously used materials. If this is a new class, seek guidance from an experienced faculty member to create new materials. If you facilitate labs, meet with the instructor to discuss the syllabi for the lecture and lab. It makes facilitation of a lab easier if the topic has already been covered in lecture. If your responsibilities include grading, create a grading rubric to ensure fair grading practices.

Additionally, most universities have teaching centers that offer various workshops to help TAs and faculty with teaching. Identify areas that you struggle with or skills that you would like to develop, and participate in these workshops. This is also a great way of building your teaching support network.

Include Different Techniques for Student Learning

Traditional lecture-style teaching has been replaced by student-based learning in classrooms. If you have an international background that may be harder to master. As a TA strive to incorporate different techniques like class discussions, quizzes, lab reports, research papers, etc. to evaluate students’ progress and learning. TAs should encourage students to ask questions, engage in lively discussions, and promote exchange of ideas. To help students oversee their own independent learning, it is essential for TAs to not give away answers but guide the students towards the answers. 

Establish Cordial and Professional Student-TA Relationships

As a graduate student yourself, it can be difficult to understand your role as a TA. Instead, try to identify yourself as a facilitator of learning rather than a lecturer. This helps break down the traditional power-dynamics between teachers and students. Also, try to build professional student-TA relationships by remembering students’ names, being available for office hours, communicating regularly, and recognizing any personal conflicts with students. Be cognizant of treating all your students equally without bias by implementing the same policies for grading and communication regardless of the student. 
 
It can be daunting and frustrating to adapt to a student-based learning style if you come from a hierarchical structured learning environment, which happens in other countries. We hope our tips will lessen your anxiety and ensure that you are well prepared to be a TA!
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Read more on how to overcome challenges with inquiry-based teaching and increase inclusivity in the classroom in the Journal of Microbiology & Molecular Biology!

Author: Priyanka Kushwaha, Ph.D.

Priyanka Kushwaha, Ph.D.
Priyanka Kushwaha is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona. She studies nitrogen-cycling and plant-microbe-metal interactions.