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Helpful Hints for TAs

The Importance of TAs

The work of Teaching Assistants (TAs) is important to a successful instructional program. From the viewpoint of the Department it is very important that this task be done effectively. (Indeed, poor performance in this role can be one factor leading to loss of financial support.)

From the viewpoint of the individual TA, this is an opportunity to practice communication skills, which will be important in your future career whether you work in university teaching or in industry. Even at research universities such as Stanford, search committees look for candidates who combine outstanding scholarly credentials with evidence of teaching ability. It is not unusual for a job interview to include a presentation concerning your experience and philosophy of teaching. Here are some ways you can improve your teaching skills. Some of these are particularly relevant if you are involved in leading recitation sections, while others are useful hints for all TAs.

  1. Arrange for student evaluations of your teaching and make the most of them. They can help you learn more about yourself and become a better teacher. These evaluations also serve another purpose -- to allow other people to judge how good you are. Many TAs design their own evaluation forms, but you might use a standard form instead to provide meaningful numerical data for future letters of recommendation. TAs are normally not covered under the University's end-quarter student evaluation system. However, you can use questionnaires developed by the Center for Teaching and Learning for this purpose. You can do it in your section or encourage the professor to do it course-wide. Do it more than once each quarter. If you appear to be trying to improve, it leaves a favorable impression.
  2. Take advantage of the Center for Teaching and Learning's videotaping service. An increasing number of institutions request evidence of teaching ability; a tape of your class is one way to document your competence. Consider being taped more than once to judge your progress as an instructor and to be able to select an example of your teaching at its best. It is free, confidential, and can be done in the classroom where you teach.

Holding Office Hours and Grading

Important duties of all TAs are office hours and grading.

TAs are generally expected to hold two or three office hours each week. To avoid scheduling conflicts, you need to plan your office hours in advance. Try to choose a combination of times when your students are likely to be free, but also add that they can make an appointment for other times in order to accommodate a person who wants to come in but can't make your regular office hours. Be consistent about keeping the hours you schedule. Leave the office door open during the office hours, even if no students are currently in it. Above all, be courteous to students during office hours. No useful purpose is served by negative remarks about a question or a student's level of understanding.

TAs may be asked to hold extra office hours before an exam.

Make a plan for evaluating the students and stick to it. Evaluation procedures should be decided when the course is in the planning stages. Meet with your faculty member and other TAs to decide how many and what kinds of evaluation methods are to be used. Decide how the students' work should be graded and what proportion of the final mark each assignment, quiz, etc., will comprise. This is also the time to set out a policy for missed or failed midterms and late assignments. Once all of these things have been set out explicitly, make sure the students are aware of these policies. Tell the class what you expect from them and how you plan to measure their progress in achieving the goals of the course. Explain these goals and how you feel the evaluation procedures and policies will help to achieve these goals and allow you to evaluate their progress. Good planning and clear explanations will prevent student confusion --- and possibly anger --- later on. Sometimes, it may be necessary to alter the requirements during the quarter. Such a change is only permissible to make the requirements more lenient, not stricter.

Keep accurate records of your evaluation of each student's performance throughout the quarter. You should also keep your records around for several years since students may come back later to question a grade, finish an incomplete, or ask you to write a recommendation. Such records will make it easier for you to justify and/or reevaluate a student's final grade if necessary. Be sure to keep your records in a private directory or file so they remain confidential.

Occasionally students will dispute a grade. In that case, it is important to give the student a courteous hearing. You may have added incorrectly, or overlooked work, or not been able to decipher the writing. If, on the contrary, the grade should still hold, most students appreciate an explanation of how the grade accords with the policies you set forth and the manner you graded the other assignments or exams. Of course the clearer the records you keep, the easier it will be to reexamine and justify your grades. Students who ask for a reevaluation of their work should be informed that the reevaluation can lead to raising, lowering, or no change in the grade.

Although grading is important, you should emphasize learning rather than grades. Your class should have a strict policy on late homeworks, but be generous with that strict policy. It is more important that students ultimately learn, even if the homework is late. It serves no good purpose to ask for the homework on time when the student hasn't learned the material and then discourage the student by handing back a low grade on a homework.

Specific Suggestions

  • If possible, grade question by question, not paper by paper. This promotes consistency.
  • Do not post students' grades publicly. They are legally entitled to confidentiality in this matter.
  • Email is a very important way students can communicate with their TAs. Email can take quite a lot of time to answer, especially if it is a large class. If a student sends email often, one solution is to wait a day or two before replying. This will encourage students to both think about the problem more themselves and to come into your office hours.

Handling Recitation Sections

If you are teaching a recitation section, visit the room before the first meeting. Know how long it takes to get to your classroom, how to work the lights, shades, windows, etc. Check any equipment you will be using. Get comfortable speaking in the room and make sure your voice and your writing can be interpreted by the person sitting in the most distant seat.

Write the course name and number on the board. This message will alert any students who are in the wrong classroom to leave before you begin.

Introduce yourself. Tell your students your name, your interest in the subject, and some facts about yourself to break the ice. Tell them where you were born, where you went to college, why you became interested in the subject, etc.

Address administrative concerns. Announce homework policies, office hours, project requirements prerequisities, etc. Ask students if they have any administrative concerns or any other concerns they might have.

Remain calm. Pauses while you wait seem very long to you, but really are not. Try counting to 10 or 20. Pauses give students time to think too, and it is okay to say you are unsure. 

Improving Teaching

Use mid-quarter student evaluations. The evaluation can simply be a request for the students to take a few minutes to write suggestions about things you can do to improve, or it can be a more formal questionnaire. If you use a questionnaire, it should have two sections: a general section so you can spot general reactions to your teaching; another section so that you can focus on questions that are of most interest or concern to you. Be sure to try to follow up on some of the students' feedback. Announce in the next class which issues have appeared and how you propose to resolve them. This will give the students a sense that you take their opinions and feedback seriously.

Be videotaped by the Center for Teaching and Learning. This method allows you to see your own teaching. You may arrange free videotaping through the Center for Teaching and Learning by calling approximately a week in advance. You can have a personal copy made for a nominal fee, and then you can ask others to view and give comments on your teaching at their own convenience. It may also be good to have a copy for yourself for future reference to see how your teaching has improved and as evidence of effective teaching. 

Available Resources to Help You Improve Your Teaching

The Center for Teaching and Learning is in charge of keeping cutting edge resources at the hands of instructors of all types at Stanford. The following is a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, list of services available to you.

  • Teaching Orientations. A full day of presentations and workshops are sponsored each fall to prepare new instructors and teaching assistants for their duties and to suggest new ideas and methods for the already experienced. Mini-orientations are held at the beginning of winter and spring quarters.
  • Consultants. Consultants are available to advise you on your teaching by making classroom visits, reviewing videotapes, suggesting specific improvements, or pointing to the right resources for particular problems that arise. All consultations are confidential.
  • Videotaping. This can be arranged by making an appointment a week in advance. There is no service fee, but if you want a personal copy of your teaching, a copy can be purchased at reproduction costs.
  • Teaching Assistant Questionnaire. Consultants can give you a framework for designing your own TA questionnaire and help you refine specific questions.
  • In-Course Assessment. Materials and workshops on in-course assessment are available. You can also request assistance in designing assessment techniques.
  • Personalized Practice Sessions. If you are going to be giving a seminar or presenting a paper at a professional conference, you may want to perfect your presentation ahead of time. CTL can hold practice session with consultants, with a video camera, with a small group of peers. This service is free.
  • Workshops. Each year, CTL sponsors talks on various aspects of effective university teaching. CTL also designs workshops, at departmental requests, for specific groups of faculty or teaching assistants.
  • Teaching Portfolios. CTL can assist in putting together a teaching portfolio to use on the job market or for your own reflection and professional development.
  • Resource Center. A library of materials on teaching and teaching improvement is available. CTL staff also serve as liaisons to other resources on campus.
  • Technology in Teaching. CTL has instructional technology specialists to consult on the use of technology in teaching.