Friday, August 2, 2013

Behind the Scenes Roles of a Graduate Student Teaching Assistant

A graduate student teaching assistant has several responsibilities, and I previously wrote a post explaining how one can be an outstanding TA. Today, I want to explain the roles that the TA has behind the scenes before, during, and after the semester. Yes, it is important that the TA do well in front of the students, and the TA has responsibilities to help the professor as well. I have made a diagram that shows the typical timeline for an undergraduate course. You will notice that the TA's responsibilities start before the semester begins, and the TA's responsibilities continue after the semester ends.

A Typical Timeline for an Undergraduate Course.

Actually, the TA's responsibilities start well before the semester begins with course preparation. Although the professor will prepare a syllabus, the TA will review it for mistakes and make sure that it clearly conveys the material that should and will be covered during the course. The amount of preparation required for a class depends on the course itself. However, all TAs should be prepared to follow requests made by the course's professor before the class begins. These responsibilities may include:

  • Writing course project summaries.
  • Writing solutions for the first homework assignment.
  • Preparing laboratory instructions and questions.
  • Making sure that laboratory test equipment is available and completely operational.
  • Ordering hardware through the department's lab director.
  • Bringing any issues to the teaching professor's attention.
As an example, I am TAing a RF / wireless capstone course. This is a laboratory and project based course that is designed to wrap up Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) courses that the undergraduate students took within the last several years. I already wrote a project summary per the professor's request, and I made sure that the lab vector network analyzer (VNA) is fully operational. In addition, I am currently updating the course lab instructions. Although these instructions were available from last year, previous students complained that the instructions were confusing. I've rewritten them to explain the subjects better, and I hope that my instructions will add value to the students' education.

In addition, I've previously written about the TA's responsibilities during the semester. Namely, the TA needs to write & grade homework assignments, maintain office hours, and give guest lectures. Of these responsibilities, the TA must keep a record of student grades. Some Universities give midterm grades or a mid-semester progress status to the students, so the teaching professor will need homework grades to prepare these items. 

Important: Remember to keep grades confidential. You will be removed from your TA assignment if you tell other students a particular students' grades. Universities and colleges value their students' privacy after all.

To maintain academic integrity, the teaching professor may ask the TA to aid in administering exams, as the TA serves as a second pair of eyes to prevent cheating. If the professor travels to present papers during the semester, the TA will also need to proctor exams.

Furthermore, the professor must assign grades to all of the students after the semester ends. Every professor in every department in every college/university has a deadline for submitting grades. Therefore, it is very important that the TA assist the professor in tallying the final grades. Again, the TA must keep track of all grades given during the semester. These grades always include homework / lab assignments that the TA graded. Sometimes the professor will give you a copy of the exam grades and ask that you keep a record for bookkeeping purposes. Always make a back up copy in case you (or the professor) make a mistake or a computer crashes.

Finally, remember that a TA assignment is a learning experience in and of itself. Dedicate yourself to doing an outstanding job, and meet with the teaching professor on a regular basis. Learn from your mistakes, strive to continually improve yourself, and be proud that you're helping undergraduate students learn new materials. You will do well, and I wish you best of luck in your TA assignment.


Jonathan Becker
ECE PhD Candidate
Carnegie Mellon University