How TAs become great teachers: faculty and students work together

How TAs become great teachers: faculty and students work together

2015 Faculty/TA Conference Overview

A group of teaching assistants (TAs) and those who train them--faculty, grad students, and staff--gathered recently for their annual conference on TA training.

A panel of speakers presented their departments’ best practices, and discussions at each table ranged from getting useful student feedback to department-based mentor programs.  

Peer learning useful in TA development

For TAs, who may be assigned late in the quarter or unfamiliar with the course, it’s critical to give them some connection with what’s gone before. TA peer mentoring can provide this connection, though its form varies widely from department to department.

Russell Berman, Professor of  Comparative Literature and German Studies, shared the success from that department's TA training program, initially supported by a Teagle grant. The grant provided opportunities for TAs to offer a seminar series along with conversations about current literature on teaching and learning.

In Chemical Engineering, Senior Lecturer Lisa Hwang described Ph.D. students who serve as mentors to first-time TAs and the two-way professional development that takes place during the partnership.

Novice TAs in languages work with Joan Molitoris, Associate Director of the Stanford Language Center, to do structured observations of experienced TAs teaching their section, as well as other types of teaching.  

How faculty can support TAs

Lucas Peeters, a graduate TA and peer mentor in physics, shared his experience teaching different sizes of courses and how this affected his communication with peer TAs and faculty.

In small-enrollment courses, such as seminars, where a grad student may be the only TA, the workload is variable and unpredictable. This makes it hard for the TA to build a good relationship with the instructor. Faculty can help solo TAs by checking in often and, if possible, hiring an additional grader to smooth the workload.

Also, even if a student TAs the same course over multiple quarters, the content and focus of the course may change, which can leave the TA feeling lost. In this case, faculty can help their TA by communicating frequently and confirming when the direction they are taking is good.

In large-enrollment courses, TAs can feel underutilized if materials are already prepared in advance and workload is spread over a large group of TAs. Sometimes TAs would like to assert more ownership. Faculty can help by being more involved with TAs and engaging them in understanding where they can take action and have an impact. For example, instructors can invite TAs to give a guest lecture, develop a new problem set, or create an online resource for the class.

A new opportunity for student feedback

A critical topic of discussion was the introduction of Stanford’s new course evaluation forms, due to be implemented in Autumn 2015, especially the form for TAs and sections. The evaluation form will focus on student learning and allow for customizable questions, which will give TAs a chance to get feedback on what’s important to them in their teaching.

Table groups formed to have discussions about what skills or qualities an effective TA displays, that is, what TAs would want student feedback on. Some of the ideas that were proposed were:

  • the ability to take both a student and faculty perspective
  • making connections between what students say and the material
  • understanding what students are struggling with
  • being explicit with students about why a pedagogical strategy is being used

How can you get involved in your TA professional development, either as faculty or as a TA yourself? Comment below.

Headshot, Gloriana Trujillo, PhD. Photo by Stephanie Muscat for Stanford VPTL.Gloriana Trujillo, Ph.D. is Associate Director for STEM Learning in VPTL, the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.



See also

Check out our new resource for navigating your graduate career and thinking about teaching: Grad Teaching @Stanford.

Let VPTL support you in your department's TA training: apply for a TA Training Grant.