September 25th, 2017

Creating a Culture of Excellence for Graduate Teaching Assistants

By:

TA lecturing small class.

A colleague at another institution, “Bill,” recently contacted me with a problem. Bill’s program is under fire for low exam scores and cognitive learning achievement in one of its largest general education courses. Campus administrators had generated a variety of theories: Test items were biased against non-white students, the reading level of the required textbook was too high for this school’s population, classes were too large. Most upsetting to Bill was the speculation that his department was unqualified to teach the course!

The department’s investigation uncovered data pointing to a culprit much easier to address than racial bias in testing or even selecting a new book and slashing class sizes, but still a daunting one for Bill and his chair. Most sections of this course were taught by teaching assistants (TAs) who had received little to no training on how to write a syllabus, structure a course for student learning, or employ sound pedagogy. As a result of this lack of oversight, some TAs, in an effort to be well-liked in the classroom, had made the textbook optional! No wonder their students were unprepared for exams.

A teaching assistantship program is a critical part of most vital graduate degree programs. Assistantships attract students and provide them with valuable experience, generate funding, and allow units to meet the demand for their courses. However, most students given assistantships have little or no formal teacher training. Many of you may recall being first time TAs. Shortly before the semester started, a senior faculty member told you what course you would be teaching or assisting in, handed you a book, and probably gave you a standard course syllabus. This individual may have imparted some experiential wisdom about what worked for him or her in the classroom. The rest was up to you. You might have based your teaching strategy and style on that advice, your recollections of one of your own favorite teachers, or simply struggled through the semester. Maybe you had fun with your students and capitalized on your similar ages—at the expense of your credibility. Many of us have similar stories (and a variety of coping strategies). All too often, inexperienced graduate students approach their first teaching assignment similarly—with inadequate training and preparation to function effectively as new teachers.

Without careful selection, training, supervision, evaluation, and coaching, TAs become a liability, rather than an asset to academic programs. Underprepared TAs generate student complaints, and may fail to facilitate course learning outcomes. The unit head or TA director, then, must manage the issues associated with poor TA teaching practices so as not to attract the attention of higher administrators. Like Bill, they are left to clean up problems that accumulate over semesters, or even years, of inadequate teaching. There has to be a better way to prepare TAs—one that is grounded in valid, reliable research on teaching and learning, rather than a single faculty member’s personal experiences and good wishes for TA success.

Any academic program relying on TAs in any capacity must dedicate resources to building a successful program. No unit can afford to leave the teaching of its undergraduates to chance. There are several steps a program can take to create a successful TA program (or improve an existing one).

  1. Identify a qualified and willing faculty member to direct the TA program. This person is responsible for assimilating TAs into the culture of the unit, providing training on the content and pedagogy specific to the courses TAs will be involved in, as well as offering a foundation in pedagogy and andragogy. He or she should be an excellent teacher with a commitment to building a culture of teaching excellence. In addition, the director is the primary evaluator and point of contact for TAs during the semester. This person must have adequate resources, including course releases, to perform basic duties relevant to a successful TA program: holding frequent administrative and training meetings, visiting TA classrooms, and providing feedback and coaching.
  2. Determine the role TAs will fill and the courses best suited for TAs. Some programs use graduate students in “lab” sections to support a faculty member’s large lecture course. In my field, for instance, a faculty member might teach a large public speaking course, where he or she lectures on the history and core and concepts of public speaking. TAs, then, teach small labs in which students have the chance to practice their speaking skills and give formal presentations for evaluation. Other programs give TAs independent courses (sometimes after a semester or year of lecture/lab work). Successful TA programs place TAs strategically in undergraduate courses that are appropriate for their own academic preparation, maturity, and teaching skill levels.
  3. Commit to providing the infrastructure for a TA program. Infrastructure requirements will be dependent on the size of the program and the nature of the courses TAs work in. In general, they may include office space, instructional supplies, meeting space and time, a library of resources relevant to teaching, computers, printers, and grading hardware/software. Also important is a standardized syllabus for any course staffed by TAs.
  4. Establish a training program. The first element of this program is a summer “boot camp” where new grad students are oriented to the teaching culture of the university and the department. This 2-5 day session should set the tone for the semester, minimize TA apprehension, and enable the director and TAs to build a good working team. TAs should leave boot camp understanding university and department teaching policies, the learning outcomes for their courses, how to prepare for the first week of class, and how to confidently/credibly facilitate that critical first week. The second element of TA training is the ongoing development that should occur in weekly meetings during the semester on topics such as communication in the classroom, lecture and discussion skills, grading and giving feedback, active learning strategies, dealing with student dissent and challenges, motivating and engaging students, and making the most out of office hours.
  5. Evaluate TA performance. The director must visit TA classrooms and provide feedback during the semester. TAs should receive a written report evaluating their teaching effectiveness along with recommendations for improvement at least once a semester. They also need a one-on-one meeting with the supervisor to discuss the feedback and set manageable goals.

Building a successful TA program that serves as an asset to your unit is a large, labor-intensive commitment, but the time and resources you put into creating and managing a quality TA program will yield a great return for your academic unit. This basic framework is adaptable across disciplines and emphasizes teamwork, content knowledge, teaching craft skill, accountability, and ongoing development. Over time, it aids TAs in their growth as instructors, and helps programs meet their learning outcomes.

Dr. Jennifer H. Waldeck is an associate professor in the School of Communication at Chapman University, where she is director of the Graduate Teaching Associate and Basic Communication Curriculum programs. She also serves on the Teaching Professor Conference advisory board.


  • Pete

    Dr. Waldeck makes some great points and I would add one more. If your university has a teaching center work with them.

    Here at Temple University our teaching center runs a TA orientation in August, offers workshops and one-on-one consultations to TAs throughout the year, links TAs to mentors, and even partners with the College of Education to offer a credit-bearing Teaching in Higher Education Certificate which is a nice credential for the TAs who graduate and wish to pursue careers in higher education. To learn more about Temple’s program see: https://teaching.temple.edu/teaching-certificates

  • Laura Shulman

    I recall my own graduate assistantship. Two options: research assistant or TA. Unfortunately, they gave me a research assistantship. While the research was interesting, I was really more interested in teaching. That is, in fact, what I ended up doing to the exclusion of research. It would have been nice if the graduate division had surveyed the grad students and tried to match our assistantship with our ultimate and primary academic goal: to do research and write or to teach.
    Though, since most folks who get graduate degrees end up teaching at some point, actual teacher training and experience should be part of the graduate degree program, just as phDs have to complete a research dissertation to complete their degrees. I ended up taking a further graduate education in a “college teaching” program.
    Another thing for schools to consider: are they using TAs to pick up the slack without having to hire an actual adjunct or full-time professor to do this? Or is the intent of TAs to actually train graduate students for a future as a teacher? I would hope it is the second but I am afraid it is the first (just a way to save money – though I am sure the grad students welcome whatever stipend they get from it as well as the experience).