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Teach Talk

Working With TAs
Supervising TAs Calls for Faculty to Be Managers,
Team Leaders, Role Models, and Mentors

Lori Breslow

There is more good news about programs to improve teaching at MIT: Every department with a subject in the science core (i.e., math, physics, biology, chemistry) now has a program in place to train its Teaching Assistants (TAs). (Not to overlook other efforts, it should be mentioned that many MIT departments – Course 6 and Course 9, for example – do TA training as well.) These training programs are usually held at the beginning of the semester for two to three days, and cover material on student learning, course management, ethics, grading, classroom dynamics, etc. All include microteaching in which the TAs plan and present a 10-minute sample lesson that is then critiqued by faculty, a teaching consultant, and fellow students. (To find out more about microteaching, consult the Teaching and Learning Website at <http://web.mit.edu/odsue/tll/www/>.) Several departments continue some kind of training throughout the semester.

But teaching workshops can only accomplish so much. The success of the TA experience – both for the faculty member and for the TA – depends upon a good working relationship between the two. And the success of that relationship, in turn, depends, in part, on how well the faculty member accomplishes his/her role as supervisor, mentor, and team leader. Managing even one TA, let alone a whole group, is not an easy task, as anyone who has done so knows. But there are ways you can maximize the TA experience, so that students gain valuable skills in teaching, and you are aided – not impeded – by working with teaching assistants. This Teach Talk presents some guidelines on how to manage the faculty/TA relationship well.


Set specific expectations and policies at the beginning of the semester

As any other new employee, the TA needs to be oriented to the job. The more concrete you can be about the responsibilities of the position and your expectations as his/her supervisor, the more likely it is that your TA will be able to meet your needs as well as those of your students.

Review the syllabus with your TAs before the semester begins so that everyone is on the same page. More importantly, talk about the subject’s overall goals; your specific objectives for recitations, problem sets, and exams; and how the TAs’ work will contribute to the success of the course.

Set some ground rules: Do you expect your TAs to have office hours? If so, how many per week? What happens if the TA can’t make his/her office hours? Will you hold regularly-scheduled meetings that you expect your TAs to attend? (More on this below.) How quickly do you expect problem sets and exams to be returned to the students? How much time do you expect the TA to work? (Be realistic.) Do you expect TAs to attend lecture?

I realize that attending lectures is often not one of the responsibilities of MIT TAs. I understand that the technical nature of the material we teach and the pressures on TA time lead to this policy. But I want to plead for a reversal of that norm. Requiring TA attendance at lectures leads to greater coherence in the subject. Even if the scientific principles covered in your class haven’t changed since Newton, no one teaches them quite like you do. Your students deserve uniformity in course content and course policies. TA attendance at lectures goes a long way to achieving that. Besides, as teachers-in-training, your TAs will benefit from watching you in action.


Define the TA’s role within the subject

TAs are members of the subject’s instructional team, and they should be presented that way to the class. If possible, put the TAs’ names on the syllabus. Introduce them to the students at the first class meeting and define their responsibilities. If the TAs will be leading recitations, explain the purpose of recitations in the course, and emphasize how attending them will help the students succeed in the subject. The way you relate to your TAs will signal to the students how they should relate to them. Use your credibility to help your TAs build their own.


Give TAs an understanding of the kind of students with whom they will be working

As we all know, MIT undergraduates are a unique bunch: smart, serious, typically shy (at least in class). Often, graduate students who have done their undergraduate work at other universities are not prepared for the kind of students they will meet as MIT TAs. This is particularly true for international students, who may be confused by everything from their students’ behavior in the classroom to their level of knowledge in a subject.

At the beginning of the semester, then, it’s a good idea to talk to your TAs about the kind of students they are likely to encounter, how to motivate MIT undergraduates, and the general skill level they will find in the class. Of course, the TAs should realize that you need to talk in generalities, and that any one generalization might not hold true for the students they have in their particular class.


Establish a flow of information

Many subjects hold regular weekly meetings for their TAs; in my opinion, this is an absolute necessity if the subject is a large, multi-section lecture. Weekly meetings allow TAs to discuss problems they’re having, brainstorm ways to teach material, give the lecturer the opportunity to interact with the TAs, and make sure that everyone is up-to-date about course schedules, policies, etc. If the subject has a Website attached to it, TAs should be expected to check in with it regularly. An e-mail list specifically for TAs also helps with communication.


Provide information on what to do in recitation sections

First-time TAs typically are anxious about their ability to teach. After all, it’s a huge leap from sitting in class as a student to standing in front of a class as an instructor. Yet lecturers often don’t provide TAs with much – if any – direction on what to do in recitations. This often results in sections that waste both the students’ and the TA’s time. In the proceedings of a Berkeley faculty seminar on "Teaching with Graduate Student Instructors in Large Enrollment Courses," the authors write, ". . . lab/discussion leaders, in the absence of clear pedagogical directives from the course instructor, will underprepare, overprepare, flounder, or thrive, achieving wildly disparate results." (p. 23).

The degree of flexibility and freedom that TAs are allowed in planning their own recitations will vary from subject to subject. Yet in talking to many MIT TAs over the past few years, the sense I get is they are usually looking for more, not less, direction about how to structure that hour class period. In giving TAs guidelines for leading sections, include such things as a summary of the main concepts presented in class that week, an overview of common errors students make or common misunderstandings they have, sample problems to work, or points for discussion. At the very least, you should clearly communicate to your TAs the goals of that week’s recitation section(s), and provide some suggestions for achieving those aims.


Discuss how to engage students

After watching hundreds of videotapes of MIT recitations, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things TAs have the most trouble with is getting students to participate in class (as we all do!).

There are several ways you can help your TAs to deal with this problem: organize meetings during the semester so they can share ideas about encouraging participation; give each of your TAs a copy of The Torch or the Firehose: A Guide to Section Teaching by Professor Arthur Mattuck, which has much good advice on fostering interaction; arrange to have a member of the Teaching and Learning Laboratory facilitate our workshop "Leading Recitations"; or organize a microteaching workshop where participants can experiment with different tactics to get students to become active learners.

The important point is to reassure your TAs that they are not the only ones who have this problem – it’s endemic at MIT. The TAs who are most successful in engaging students are those who are enthusiastic and energetic in class themselves, and who make the classroom a safe place for students to take risks. And it is the lecturer who can serve as a powerful role model in helping TAs adopt those behaviors in his/her own class.


Outline criteria for grading

Whether you have separate TAs who grade, or the TAs who lead your recitations also grade problem sets, exams, and/or papers, you need to provide detailed criteria for how assignments are to be evaluated. For example, in a TA workshop associated with "Introduction to Psychology" (9.00), Dean Leslie Perelman led a session on grading student papers. Dean Perelman brought in a group of essays for the TAs to grade. After each participant graded the samples individually, the group as a whole discussed the grade each paper should receive and why. In that way, the TAs could see what an "A" paper was as opposed to a "B" or "C" paper, and they were able to develop an appreciation for the criteria to use in evaluating undergraduates’ written work.


Prepare students for difficulties they may encounter

In a discussion on "how it is going" at a TA meeting midway through this past semester, one TA told us that a student had revealed to him that she was a lesbian. The TA wanted to talk about how he should have responded. The group discussed the situation, and finally decided there was no one right way to handle it. They concluded that any response would have to be determined by the student’s reason for sharing this information, the emotional state in which she revealed this about herself, and how the TA felt as he listened to her.

There is no way that you can prepare your TAs for every situation they will meet in the classroom. They will have to deal with students who want to turn in papers and/or problem sets late, students who disappear during the semester, students who challenge them in class, students who are in academic peril, students they may be physically attracted to, students who have personal problems. Teaching means dealing with the gamut of human situations.

What you can do is alert your TAs to the range of possible problems, make it clear that you are available to help them handle anything that arises, and make other resources available to them (including other TAs). A list of resources for TAs at MIT accompanies this article.


Monitor TA’s progress; solicit their feedback

Researcher Lisa Duba-Biedermann, in a 1993 study done at the University of Oregon, reported that only 41% of the TAs interviewed said they received regular feedback during the term. Instead, they relied on indirect feedback to get a sense of how they were doing. (I don’t think it is far fetched to assume a similar situation exists here.) As one TA explained, in a comment that Duba-Biedermann cites as representative of many others:

"It was sort of the eye contact ratio. And then there was the smile ratio . . . I mean [feedback] was pretty subtle. You had to sort of pick up on it. And, sometimes, if [the professor] had a fight with his wife, you thought you had screwed up the week before, and later you would find out that it wasn’t really you at all." (in The TA Experience: Preparing for Multiple Roles, edited by K. G. Lewis, p. 9).

Common sense dictates that the more feedback a person gets on his/her performance, the more he/she will be able to fine tune that performance. Teaching is no different; it is a skill that can be improved by receiving and using feedback.

How can you find out how your TAs are doing? Some obvious answers are attending recitations, having the TA videotaped and watching the tape with him/her, using student evaluations gathered over the course of the semester. All these are time consuming, but worth the effort. Another idea is to have TAs buddy up either with students who have TAed the subject before, or who are currently TAing the subject. Partners can be another important source of feedback, and can take some of the pressure off of you.

Finally, ask the TAs how you are doing, and how they think the subject is going. Talk with them about your strategies for teaching – why you’re presenting the material in a certain way, or choosing the kinds of problems you are. Because they are in the "trenches," TAs have an excellent perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the class. Make it safe for them to give you an honest appraisal of how the subject is progressing throughout the semester.

Think about ways to deal with underperforming TAs. You’ve heard through the grapevine that students are leaving one TA’s section in droves because he/she speaks with a thick accent. Or a student comes to you and complains that the TA is not respectful of the students in the class; he/she is often openly critical of them and their work. Or you have heard from other TAs that one of their colleagues is always unprepared when he/she comes to class.

What do you do?

As with many problems you face as a supervisor, there are no easy answers to that question.

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Communication is the beginning point. If you have already established a good relationship with your TAs, that will give you a basis from which to work if problems arise. Perhaps the person doesn’t realize he/she is responding negatively to students. Maybe his/her research is particularly problematic, and there just isn't time to prepare for class. In any case, exploring the roots and dimensions of the problem with the individual is the first step.

Check out other resources that could help, including other TAs in the group. (Often having one TA sit in on another’s class and pointing out problems in communication is all that is needed.) The Teaching and Learning Laboratory can work with TAs who are having problems getting material across in the classroom. And Foreign Languages and Literatures has resources for TAs whose first language is not English.


Anticipate TA concerns

Being a TA is fraught with anxieties. As Duba-Biedermann writes, "[TAs] must step gingerly through delicate relationships with faculty on whom they depend for their current livelihood as well as for gaining entry into the scholarly professions." (p. 7).

This situation can be particularly difficult if the faculty member for whom the TA is working is also his/her thesis advisor, because the need to perform superbly can be especially felt. On the other hand, TAs report being caught between two professors: the faculty member for whom they are TAing who is demanding excellent work in the classroom, and their thesis advisor who is unhappy about any time being taken away from research.

On top of that, TAs have particular concerns about their roles as "middlemen" between students and professor. What should they do if students come to complain to them about the professor’s teaching? How should they handle it if they suddenly find themselves with twice as many students as other TAs have? What if students feel an exam was unfair, or the workload is too burdensome – and they agree with the students?

I bring up these issues because I want to remind you of what it is like to be a TA in a major research university. It’s not an easy task; we can make it easier.

In the end, managing TAs well bears fruit: TAs grow in their professional development, faculty have a tremendous resource they can rely on to share their teaching responsibilities, and the students get the kind of personalized attention that contributes so much to their educational experience. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.

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