How to prepare to be a TA

The idea for this post came about in response to a comment from thebeach2013 on TA – It’s your job. I decided it would be easier to write a post instead of try to fit my whole reply into a comment. 🙂

I know I’ll be repeating myself a bit in this list, but this information, in my opinion, is worth repeating.

  1. Talk to the professor/instructor. If the professor doesn’t plan a meeting before the course starts, then email/visit the prof and make one yourself. You want to sit down and go over what your responsibilities are going to be. Try to determine how much time the suggested work will take. If it’s going to be over your allotted hours (or close to) try and figure out how to fix this.
  2. Do the assignments. The easiest way to be able to help students with assignments, is to have done them first. Even if you’re provided with a solution for the assignment, take the time to solve it on your own. You may have a different (but equally correct) solution or you may find errors in the solution.
  3. Have a marking guide before releasing the assignment. While this often feels difficult to do, you’ll save a bunch of time if you have a plan on how to mark the assignment before you release it the students. And, even better, release the marking guide so students have an idea what you’re looking for.
  4. Know what’s going on in class. Keep on top of what the students are learning in class and how it relates to the assignment. We’ve all been in classes where the professor falls behind (things don’t always stick to the schedule) and then end up with an assignment requiring concepts we haven’t be taught yet. If you know this ahead of time, you can plan to start explaining those concepts, or talk to the professor about changing/modifying the assignment or due date until the material is taught.
  5. Make yourself approachable/accessible. Make sure the students know how to contact you. This might be through a forum on the course website, email or office hours. Be clear how you want them to contact you. Do you want a specific subject line? Do they need to email you from their campus email addresses? Will you only answer questions on the forum?
  6. But set boundaries. When you reply to that first email asking for help, realize that you’re setting a precedent. Just because you happened to be at your computer and saw when the email arrived (or forum post posted) doesn’t mean you need to reply asap. If you do, they’ll start expecting you to do that all the time. Be upfront and let them know what your policy is for replying to questions. Same day? Same week? Not on weekends?
  7. Be prepared for an uneven workload. I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t have the same amount of work every week through the semester. Some weeks you’ll be marking and some  you wont. When midterms and assignment deadlines loom, the volume of questions increases. And some weeks you might not have any labs. If you know your week is not TA heavy, work to get ahead on your own research or school work. Then, when you have a TA heavy week, you’re not scrambling to fit everything in.
I’m sure I’m missing stuff in the above list. So feel free to add to it in the comments.
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