TA Tips and Tricks
Hi all, it's been a while, but I'm back! I was gone over the summer for an internship, which might be the subject of a later post, but for now, it's back to prompted post for my lab group. This week we're discussing advice, specifically skills and strategies, that we have used as a teaching assist. My thoughts on this have become more of a list of advice. I condensed some of them into a couple main points, but then there are more thoughts below that. I've divided it into things I've learned about teaching in a lab or a tutorial and then just general things about being a TA, followed by things about grading. Some of these points are specific to my school, but many are applicable to any TA situation.
Students can be shy, bother them (not harassment, just gentle prodding!) into asking questions, it only makes grading easier.
Know your material, get people to explain things to you, then if you like their methods, use that to improve the way you explain a topic to students. Explain things in more than one way, not everyone learns the way you do. This is most important for in-person TA-ships.
Keep on top of your TA work, know upcoming deadlines and plan for them. I often mark off time in my calendar at the beginning of term for any periods where I’ll be doing a lot of grading or leading a lab.
Be helpful, but don’t over reach yourself. You can refer students to the professor if something is outside the scope of your job. You do not have to hold office hours unless it is in your DSA.
Figure out what you need to do to get your TA work done - grading parties, a nice hot cup of tea, silence? chatter? A reward system? Tomato timing?
Ask your fellow TA’s lab mates for advice, help, or to find out if something is normal, etc.
Read the lab material - especially if you haven’t TA’d the lab before and it is CRITICAL if you are not familiar with the material by training.
Make sure you understand why the answers are the answers so that you can explain those answers to students. Don’t be afraid to ask you co-TAs, lab mates, or supervising professor for help if you don’t understand something
Print out a copy of the answer key/rubric to bring with you (or keep a copy open on your phone, but that’s only recommended if you are familiar with the material and answers and might only need to reference the answer key occasionally). MAKE SURE TO BRING THE ANSWER KEY OUT OF THE LAB WITH YOU. DONT LEAVE IT LYING AROUND.
Make sure you have acquired an AV key, or that your fellow TA’s have. On that note, all of the labs have computers built into the projectors, housed in the AV part of the room.
Often, you either create and present or just present a lab intro (short talk, max 8-10 min), cover the material in the lab handout or that is necessary for the lab. Feel free to ask me or others if you have questions about this, need help with this, or need to know if it is expected for your particular lab. This is also something your supervising professor should tell you, if they expect it of you.
If you are asking students to mask, have a box of masks out on the table (freely available in the library) right in front of the door and on the first day announce that you are asking students to wear masks in the lab. Continue to have the box out in plain view during every lab period and remind students who are not wearing them to put them on.
Walk around to the groups of students and ask each group/student if they have any questions, or use phrases like “How are you all doing on Question 3?” to get students to ask for help and to create openings for deeper learning or more instruction
Don’t tell students the answers, but you can ask leading questions to help them get there on their own. For example: A student asks you what the cleavage of orthoclase is. I would follow up with a series of questions like: "What is cleavage of a mineral measuring or examining?" "How do you identify a cleavage plane?" "How many pairs of shiny sides are on this mineral? Put your fingers on each pair." And as I'm asking these questions, when students are confused, I explain the information at each step. Like, if they don't know how to identify a cleavage plane, I show them an example. If they don't know how to identify a pair of shiny sides, I show them. If they don't understand that the cleavage of a mineral represents specific planes of weakness in a mineral's chemical structure where the mineral then breaks, leaving shiny flat planes, then I explain that. By the end, they have the answer, but they also understand how and why they got there.
Check in with your students when you're explaining something one-on-one. If they are confused about a point, you can go back and explain another way.
BEING A TA
Read your DSA, make sure it makes sense, ask for changes if you need them! See Ashka’s talk about this.
Make sure you know when your heaviest TA responsibility days/weeks will be and plan accordingly, ask around if you need a time estimate for how long certain tasks will actually take. Most people who have been here know someone who has TA'd whichever course you have been assigned and can tell you or ask a friend about the assignments in the class.
You don’t need to respond to emails after working hours. You are not obligated to unless it is specifically stated that you will be monitoring your email leading up to a deadline or similar. In that case, any time you spend on that counts toward your TA hours.
If you are told to print copies or a lab or similar, make sure to get a printing code from the professor to use on the copy machine that is up by the admin offices, and then print those copies a bit ahead of time in case there are issues.
Track your hours. See Ashka’s talk for more on this.
Grading parties and outings! There are lots of us, getting together to grade at a cafe or someone’s house or even just in the lab. It’s more fun that way.
Communicate clearly with your supervisor about expectations, particularly about when you need to have assignments returned to students, etc.
Give good feedback, but put a limit on how much time you will spend on one assignment/essay. Sometimes things need to be done rather than being done well/perfectly.
If you are grading essays, don’t leave it all for one or two days, do smaller chunks over more time or you will entirely burn out and that isn’t good for you or for the students.