The Teaching Assistant’s Role

Overview

The TA experience can be an outstanding way to learn the art of teaching and to have a positive influence on many students.

How to Have a Successful TA Experience

Three grad students standing outside talking

As a TA, you are the key link between professor and students. This gives you the opportunity to observe and influence higher-level decisions about course design and content, as well as the opportunity to maintain daily, close interactions with students. If you keep this perspective, you may find TAing to be one of the most rewarding experiences you have in your education at Stanford. In most cases, you will have to take some initiative to make sure that your TA experience provides both the mentorship you hope for and a set of responsibilities you can handle. Clear conversations with the professor you are TAing for can set the stage for both.

  • Meet with the professor and other TAs as soon as possible.
  • At this meeting, set clear expectations about both what you can contribute to the course (in time, responsibilities, and skills) and what you hope to get out of the opportunity (in training, experience, and mentorship).
  • Schedule regular weekly meetings with the professor and other TAs to maintain open communication and to iron out course details.
  • Get to know your department administrators. Admins are an important part of your extended teaching team, and they can help you address a variety of issues including student accommodations, room scheduling, technology needs, website management, and materials preparation and distribution. 
  • Reach out to fellow course TAs: brainstorm section activities, offer and receive feedback, and seek advice in difficult classroom situations. Learn from more experienced TAs, and mentor others when the time comes.  
  • Balance your TA work with other academic and professional obligations; consider this practice for a faculty position that combines teaching and research.
  • To help you manage your responsibilities, recommend university academic support and tutoring services to students who need more extra help than you can provide.
  • Invite the professor to watch you teach and give you feedback on your teaching performance.
  • Offer feedback to the professor about the course and initiate conversations about those aspects of teaching that interest you most.
  • Make use of VPTL services for evaluating and improving your teaching.

What Makes a Great TA?

  • Preparation. Whether you’re leading a discussion section, a review section, or a lab section, plan your materials in advance. Ask former TAs and the professor for materials developed for previous classes, and collaborate with fellow course TAs to update and expand those materials.
  • Knowledgeability. In addition to whatever advanced background training you have in your field, be sure to stay up to date with the content of the course you are TAing for. Nothing is as disappointing to students as finding out that their TA hasn’t read the textbook or doesn’t attend lecture.
  • Communication skills. In particular, you need to be able to explain complicated things clearly, develop interesting examples, and listen carefully as students ask questions or try to explain their confusion. In addition, basic public speaking skills can contribute enormously to your comfort and success as a TA. (Visit the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking to improve communication skills.)
  • Accessibility and availability. You need to be approachable. Achieve this by maintaining a friendly attitude, staying after class to talk with students, and encouraging students to visit your office hours or email you their questions. Then, make sure your office hours are at times your students can actually attend.
  • Concern for students’ learning. Students can tell the difference between a TA who considers TAing a waste of his or her time and a TA who enjoys teaching and interacting with students. Focus on the positive aspects of the course and your interactions with students.
  • A good relationship with the professor. A great TA provides the bridge between a professor’s goals and his or her day-to-day achievement. To do so, maintain regular, positive interactions with the professor and provide feedback about how the course is going, from the students’ perspectives as well as your own.
  • A good relationship with your fellow course TAs. A strong teaching team is a boon to student learning and course management. Communicate with fellow TAs on a regular basis: review and confirm responsibilities, share insights from interacting with students, and resolve any issues (scheduling, grading, student concerns) without getting personal. Remember, your behavior is a model for students and reflects on the course as a whole.
  • Organization. Anticipate ways that you can make the course run more smoothly for both the professor and the students. Look for ways to streamline, document, or improve course activities and teaching responsibilities.