Saturday, June 15, 2013

How to be an Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant

At Carnegie Mellon's ECE PhD program, all PhD students are required to be teaching assistants (TAs) twice. There are three main components to a TA assignment as shown in the diagram below: homework grading, officer hours (sometimes replaced with recitations), and guest lectures. It is necessary but not necessarily sufficient that you excel in these three areas to be an outstanding graduate TA. I will explain what you should do to be an outstanding TA in this post.

The Three Main Components of a Graduate Teaching Assistant Assignment
At the beginning of the semester, you need to speak with the teaching professor and figure out what your TA responsibilities will be. Make sure that you get a copy of the course syllabus, and you need to seek answers to several questions (that the syllabus doesn't answer):
  • Will I be responsible for writing homework assignments?
  • When should I return graded assignments?
  • What type of homework grading policy should I use: partial credit vs. no credit?
  • What should my policy be if students question my grading?
  • If there are recitation sessions, what should I cover during those sessions?
  • If there are no recitations, how often should I hold office hours?
  • Shall we have weekly meetings with you to discuss assignments, student progress, etc.?
  • Should I attend your lectures?
  • Will I need to proctor exams? (Sometimes professors travel.)
  • May I give guest lectures during class, and if so, how many?
Before you can be an outstanding TA, you must have clear communication with the teaching professor. Clearly explain to the teaching professor any goals you may have such as getting practice presentations in subjects relevant to your qualifying exam. You also need to understand how to handle student complaints with the professor, as students tend to find fault with partial credit grades, and they sometimes find mistakes in your solutions. Yes, the latter can and does happen, and you're better off re-issuing points than sticking with your original grades. Update your solutions accordingly.

Second, you need to make and keep to a timely schedule. This applies to all aspects of the TA assignment. You'll look bad if you're consistently late. It's OK if you're late once in a blue moon, but you must tell the professor and students if you can't make a deadline. Make sure you specify a new deadline as well. Don't skip out on your office hours and/or recitations. If something comes up, email the professors and students ahead of time and apologize for the inconvenience, and reschedule it at a different time if possible. When you signed up to be a TA, you took on responsibilities that include attending your own office hours and recitations. This includes scheduling a room ahead of time for your office hours. The professor can help you with this task.

Third, do your own homework and studying as well. You need to read the assigned materials and write homework solutions before the first recitation or office hour. Even if the teaching professor says you don't need to attend lectures, you should attend them anyway, so you know for certain what was covered during the last lecture. (Don't tell your students "It's in the syllabus" because professors can be lax on following their own syllabi.) The students will likely ask questions because they didn't understand something that the professor said, or they don't comprehend a topic covered by the assigned reading materials. Likewise, they'll have questions on the homework assignment. You can't give them the answers of course, but you can explain techniques they can use in solving homework problems. If you read the materials and write the solutions ahead of time, you'll be a great help to your students.

Of course, a student might ask you a question that you don't know. That's OK. Make it a point to tell the student that you don't know the answer, but you'll figure it out and get back to him/her by the next lecture. If several students have the same question, tell the professor, as this is an indication that there's a topic that needs re-explaining, and some students might not ask because they feel shy or embarrassed. The professor can quickly retouch the subject at the beginning of the next lecture. You want to help the teaching professor whenever you can.

Fourth, prepare your quest lectures ahead of time and ask the teaching professor if you can schedule a meeting with him/her to do practice presentations. The professor can help you in making your presentation clear, and he/she can give you tips on delivering your presentation. Make good use of this time, as it will be important if you're preparing for your quals or you want to become a professor after you graduate. You want to learn as much as you can and strive for continual improvement.

In closing, a TA assignment takes a lot of time, effort, and responsibility. you should expect to spend anywhere from 10 hours to 20 hours a week as a TA, so do not take a heavy class load during a semester that you're TAing a class. Your TA performance and grades will suffer if you do.


Jonathan Becker
ECE PhD Candidate
Carnegie Mellon University