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Clarifying Expectations

Clarifying Faculty & TA Expectations

Most faculty meet with their TAs well before the course begins. TAs are usually eager to learn what and how they are expected to teach in section. However, faculty may assume that if TAs don't ask specific questions, they understand what is expected of them.This is usually a mistake. What follows are typical questions that TAs have about your course and about how you want sections conducted.

  • Are your TAs required to attend any or all lectures in the course?
  • What are your goals for the course and how do discussion sections fit into those goals?
  • Are TAs expected to conduct the sections as a review of lecture material, or should they use sections as a place for students to discuss the material and their thoughts about that material?
  • Should the TA present additional information not given in lecture or reading?
  • What kind of balance should be struck between depth and breadth of subject matter?
  • Should the session be based on student discussion? If so, what are the goals of discussion?
  • If the course as more than one TA, how are discussion sessions coordinated in terms of what is covered or how it's covered?
  • Will the TA be responsible for grading? Will there be grading protocols?
  • How much grading will there be and on what kinds of tests?
  • How should the TA handle cheating, should the TA suspect or witness it?

For some courses, it may be beneficial to develop a written job description for TAs. The 1987 University of California TA Training Task Force emphasized the need for clear communication between TAs and faculty. Departmental and course-specific written guidelines were strongly encouraged as a result of prevalent TA reports regarding their lack of understanding of their specific job duties. (1)

Along with clarity about job responsibilities, important topics of concern for TAs include uniformity among multiple sections for the same course, and uniform guidelines for grading lab reports, homework, and exams. Students may feel cheated if they think their TA is a harder grader than another TA whom they're heard about. TAs are uneasy about the possibility of receiving lower student ratings if another TA for the same course is an easier grader or requires less of students in sections.

In multi-section courses with several TAs, there are many ways to ensure some uniformity in content and of grading among sections. In some courses, Head TAs work with faculty to coordinate sections. In other cases, faculty meet weekly with their TAs to be sure sections are comparable. E-mail messages or weekly brown bag lunches are other ways to keep TAs in touch with faculty expectations and to keep faculty apprised of TA needs, concerns, and successes. As for grading exams, some faculty assign individual test questions or test sections to each TA to grade; others provide detailed grading instructions that anticipate and classify errors. To increase consistency on exams that are particularly difficult to grade, some faculty arrange for TAs to do the grading at the same time and place; this usually requires a large room and pizza.

Of course, the type of examination that will be given (simple multiple-choice, highly conceptual multiple-choice, short answer, essay, demonstration, performance, etc.) will have an impact on how the course is taught and how students need to study. Early knowledge about the types of examinations given in the course will help both faculty and their TAs prepare the students in the types of content and skills the exam is meant to test.

Many TAs are eager to discuss teaching issues and strategies. Faculty can have a strong impact on the way graduate students view teaching as well research. Just as faculty mentor their graduate students in terms of research skills, they can mentor their teaching assistants in terms of teaching complexities.

(1) Teaching Assistants and the University: Goals, Roles and Responsibilities. University-wide conference held at the University of California, Davis, April 1989.


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