Teaching Assistants Key to Classroom Support

At large universities, a teaching assistant (TA) plays a key role in the education process. TA is an umbrella title with varying responsibilities that may include grading papers, delivering lectures, and working in the lab.

At large universities, a teaching assistant (TA) plays a key role in the education process. TA is an umbrella title with varying responsibilities that may include grading papers, delivering lectures, and working in the lab.

Professor Gary Schuster said the TA relationship with students is often “peer to peer,” with TAs playing an important role in bridging the gap between students and the professor.

Schuster, the Vasser Woolley Professor and Regents’ Professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, believes that it is often challenging for an expert to teach a complex subject to a novice because the links between concepts seem obvious to the expert, but the novice can miss them entirely.  

“TAs are not quite experts in the subject, so they more often explain the links,” Schuster said.

Inspired Teachers

During the first of four TA orientation sessions this fall at Tech, Kate Williams and David Lawrence of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) welcomed more than 150 graduate and undergraduates who were selected by their departments to be TAs. The total number of attendees for all four orientation sessions was 399.  

Lawrence, associate director of CTL, asked the new TAs to recall their experiences in the classroom.

“Think about the class you just couldn’t wait to get to,” he said. “It was the class that you wished all of your classes would have been like. What happened in that class? What made that class your favorite class?”

The answers from TAs varied widely: the professor encouraged students to think critically and work independently; the professor made the content relevant by giving practical applications; the professor was available when students needed help; the professor provided interesting projects and did not adhere strictly to the text book; and the professor was approachable, engaging, passionate, patient, and/or humorous.

“In your role as a teaching assistant at Georgia Tech, you have the opportunity to create this environment for your students,” Lawrence said. “It’s in your hands. You can make it an experience that your students will remember.”

Anthony Bonifonte, a TA fellow and sixth-year doctoral student in industrial engineering, has thought a lot about how to make the experience a good one for students.

“Show respect for your students by acknowledging their ideas,” Bonifonte suggests. “Do not trivialize their questions.”

Bonifonte, who won the CTL Graduate Student Instructor Award last year, said that if the TA responds as if a student’s question is unintelligent or unimportant, he or she risks discouraging that student and others from fully engaging in the class.  

Roles and Responsibilities of TAs

Bonifonte was one of 10 TA fellows who led the new TAs through a session on roles and responsibilities and one on policies and procedures.

One of the most common roles people associate with TAs is grading. Most TA roles have some component of grading, including homework and exams.

“When grading, think about maintaining consistency and fairness across the board,” Bonifonte said. “For example, if two TAs are grading 100 tests, do not divide the tests in half. Let one TA grade the first half of the questions on all 100 tests, and let the other TA grade the second half of the questions.” This will help to eliminate bias in grading.

Another TA duty is maintaining office hours for students to access extra help. Bonifonte said it is important for TAs to clearly communicate the time and place for office hours, and ensure they are, in fact, available at those times.  

“If you have to step away from your office during office hours, put a message on T-square or at the very least leave a note on the door [indicating when you will return],” he said. In order to make sure his office hours are convenient for the majority of the class, Bonifonte surveys his students at the beginning of the semester and asks, “What times work for you?” After everyone responds, he selects two of the students’ most preferred time slots.  

But while Bonifonte works on the details of his TA role, he never loses sight of his bigger goal.

“It’s certainly my goal to inspire my students. More than telling them, more than explaining, more than demonstrating – I want to inspire them,” he said.