Working with Online Teaching Assistants

The presence of Teaching Assistants (TAs) in a college course benefits both instructor and students. An assistant’s responsibilities typically include grading, troubleshooting, and fielding student questions, and their role is evolving to meet the needs of the online classroom.

As seen through advertisements for positions such as academic or learning coaches, and student mentors, the list of duties of these online assistants is expanding to involve tracking student progress and providing encouragement toward course completion. The efforts of TAs can extend your reach as the instructor, particularly in large classes with multiple sections, to more efficiently serve the needs of your students.

My recent experience coaching one section of a large online course offered a new perspective on the possibilities and challenges of teaching at a distance, as well as the unique issues that arise when supporting online faculty and students. Effective communication and collaboration are essential. Here are a few recommendations for getting everyone on the same virtual page:

  • Consider a contract or memorandum of agreement. This can be informal, but captures in writing the expectations you have of your assistants — the specific tasks they will complete, synchronous or in person requirements —and communicates them before the term begins.
  • Coordinate in advance. Share your approach to teaching in general and the course specifically. Walk through the syllabus, class schedule, and assignment instructions, and review learning objectives and grading rubrics. Meetings, in person or virtual, are great, but this kind of coordination can also take place via email to make sure resources are available and questions are answered.
  • Be available for questions and clarification. Set aside time during the week to connect with or hold your virtual office hours for your TAs. And respond to email as quickly as possible. TAs are often trying to answer questions students have emailed to them, so shortening this cycle of response is helpful to all involved.
  • Provide access to information and resources. Your assistants don’t need to have full editing permissions, but it can be helpful for them to view any information related to student progress, especially if they are responsible for monitoring student activity and intervening when problems occur. TAs also benefit from having copies of textbooks and any other course materials students will be using to complete their assignments.
  • Ask for feedback after the course. Through informal conversation or structured survey, solicit your TAs’ ideas for the course and suggestions for instructor-assistant interaction and communication. Their experiences working with your students can inform the revision of materials and use of technology in future academic terms.

Be sure to review your institutions policies for any stipulations related to how you work with TAs and other types of assistants in your courses. Your school, program, or contracted service provider may have guidelines in place that dictate communication avenues, time frames, and access to materials and information.

Help teaching assistants help you, and your students, by providing clear guidance and expectations as early on as possible. Teaching assistants benefit from the experience as well, as they learn more about your academic discipline, working directly with students in a professional capacity, and teaching online courses. As the instructor, you are in a position to model positive communication and collaboration techniques they can take with them when they move on to become instructors themselves.

Melissa A. Venable, PhD is a contributor to the Inside Online Learning blog at where she writes from her experience as a course designer, online instructor, and career advisor in higher education. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.