Photo of TAs and students discussing course work.
UI engineering course.

In larger classes, TAs are often the “face” of the course, spending the most time with students and fielding difficult questions not only about course content but also grading. Rather than being supplemental to student success, a TA-led discussion section may make the difference between a student passing or failing a course.

During the semester, faculty members and TAs can seize a number of opportunities to build positive, productive relationships that will further support student success.

  • As much as possible, TAs should be engaged in teaching, in addition to the business of the class; even TAs hired as specifically as graders can make a contribution to the design and classroom delivery of a course.
  • Regular meetings with TAs provide instructors the opportunity to mentor those graduate students who then can share their teaching “wins” as well as teaching challenges.
  • Discussing best practices for leading discussion sections allows TAs to provide input into teaching decisions and also calibrates teaching styles and assessment strategies among the TAs. 
  • Faculty members who orient TAs to the “boundaries” of the course—including both the instructor’s expectations for the course and the professional conduct expected of all UI instructors—might solve minor issues before they become genuine problems.
  • TAs are often the first line of defense for a student who is in trouble.  If TAs notice “at-risk” students in the course, they should notify the course instructor.  Although the faculty member should take the lead on directing the student to appropriate resources (including the Office of Retention), discussing these options with the TA can help the graduate student better understand the array of institutional support available to students.
  • By observing TAs’ discussion sections, faculty members can provide invaluable feedback and encourage the teaching assistants to continue working on their teaching strategies and teaching portfolios.

A successful faculty/TA relationship requires an investment of time, patience, and empathy. The payoff can be a course that not only runs more smoothly but also is a positive learning experience for everyone involved.

The Center for Teaching offers an array of professional development workshops, reading groups, and micro-teaching opportunities specifically designed for teaching assistants.