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Tips for First-Time Teaching Assistants

Tips for First-Time Teaching Assistants

If you have never been in the role of a teacher before, your first college teaching assistantship (TA) can seem daunting. To increase your comfort level, you can apply skills mastered from your own past educational experiences or work experiences to help you manage and execute TA responsibilities. Professional skills and behaviors that you have developed, such as: organization, time-management, setting objectives, understanding

group dynamics, interpersonal communication skills, sensitivity to cultural differences, etc., will serve you well in your new role as TA.

Developing a Good Working Relationship with the Faculty Member

TA’s for public policy courses perform a wide variety of tasks, and no two TA assignments are exactly alike. The faculty member teaching the course to which you have been assigned determines their TA’s level of responsibility for performing key tasks. Most often, faculty members expect TA’s to assist them with grading, lead discussion sections, hold office hours, and attend class. Other administrative duties, such as maintaining records and posting materials on Sakai, preparing course materials for distribution, and creating library e-reserves, may also be required. Cultivating a good working relationship with your faculty member is essential to a successful teaching assistantship. Some tips to help you build this relationship are:

  • Meet/communicate with the instructor prior to the beginning of the semester to get a clear understanding of their expectations and define your role.
  • Obtain a copy of the syllabus and a detailed reading list, if applicable, as early as possible.
  • Ensure that you will have access to all texts/required readings/course materials.
  • Schedule regular (weekly) meetings with the instructor to discuss the course and any concerns. (Faculty often require these meetings.)
  • Prepare specific questions to ask the instructor to get clear answers about the course, content and teaching strategies, grading standards and feedback, etc.
  • Maintain an empathetic yet neutral position in responding to student

Frustrations/complaints and dispassionately convey student concerns to the instructor.


Grading responsibilities vary based upon course content and instructor expectations. Grading for quantitative courses, for example, often entails assessing regularly assigned problem sets. Grading for courses that emphasize writing skills may require students to read lengthier papers and provide feedback on content and quality of writing. Student writers benefit from receiving clear, specific feedback on written work; however, in an effort to do a thorough job, it is easy for TA’s to spend excessive time grading papers. Some tips to help you balance grading responsibilities with your own schedule needs are:

  • Meet with the instructor and other TA’s to generate a mutually agreed upon set of grading standards (global versus holistic, etc.) and policies (how to handle late/missed assignments, etc.)
  • Be clear on the instructor’s grading expectations. Are TA’s expected to provide written feedback on student papers and “recommend” grades to the instructor, or will the TA “assign” grades directly?
  • Request a sample graded assignment from the instructor.
  • Provide concise, constructive written feedback on content and style that shows the student how to improve future drafts or assignments. Avoid rewriting the material for the student.
  • If you find yourself making the same suggestions for revision multiple times for a particular student, it might be more effective to meet him/her briefly during office hours and explain your feedback in-person.
  • Early in the semester, you may point out mechanical errors in student writing and recommend a good grammar/style manual (such as The Chicago Manual of Style) for student reference. Do not continue to devote excessive time to correcting and explaining mechanical errors as the semester progresses. It is the student’s responsibility to address this weakness and improve their technical proficiency.
  • Refer undergraduate students struggling with writing skills to The Writing Studio ( for a free 50-minute writing consultation.
  • Be consistent throughout an entire set of papers you are grading. Using a rubric may help you do this. Take a break if you sense yourself becoming bored (and, therefore, more lenient) while grading.
  • Sort the papers into quality ranges or piles before scoring them. Then revisit the papers in each pile and rank them.
  • Ask the instructor for suggestions or feedback if you have questions about grading a particular assignment or paper.
  • Report concerns about potential violations of the academic honesty code to the instructor. Remember that Family Education Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) rules require teaching assistants to maintain confidentiality in all academic matters involving students.

Leading Discussions

Discussion sections allow students to participate actively in learning course content. A well-planned discussion allows for synergies among students that extend learning beyond what can be conveyed via lecture. A poorly organized discussion section can devolve into an unproductive session. To stay on target during discussion sections, the following tips may be of value:

  • Establish a clear, manageable goal for the discussion based upon your assessment of the students’ understanding of course materials being covered in class and/or content of the readings to be discussed.
  • Decide what you and/or the instructor feel the students should learn from the discussion, and use this benchmark to keep the discussion on track.
  • Hand out/email study questions before the discussion, so students can think about and plan their responses/comments.
  • Cultivate an environment that promotes inclusion in the discussion. Students need to feel valued and secure to express their ideas. Be mindful of cultural and learning differences in assessing the dynamics of the group.
  • Serve as a moderator who clarifies and summarizes main points of the discussion and segues or refocuses the discussion as needed.
  • Insist that personal concerns not related to the topic at hand be discussed one-on-one during office hours.

Holding Office Hours

Office hours give students a chance to meet one-on-one or in small groups with TA’s to ask questions or clarify content points that need not be addressed with the full class. Most TA’s are required to hold two office hours each week. The hours should be scheduled at a regular time and location, if possible. To make the most of your limited office hours, consider doing the following:

  • Establish early in the conversation the reason for the student visit and focus the conversation on this topic.
  • Take notes of recommendations you make to give to the student or keep for your own reference.
  • Ask questions to lead students to reason through answers to their own content questions.
  • Avoid becoming defensive if a student expresses frustration or has a complaint. Be empathetic and ask probing questions to get a better understanding of the problem. Refrain from making a snap judgment/decision. Give yourself time to think about and/or discuss the concern with the instructor before responding.
  • Consider grouping students with similar concerns/issues.
  • Consider designating some office hours as “review sessions,” so students can determine the best time to schedule a visit with you based upon their needs.
  • Invite students who are having difficulty with specific course material to visit you during office hours.
  • Keep track of students you see during office hours, and encourage those who have not come to do so.

Tips for First-Time Research and Graduate Assistants

  • Meet/communicate with your research project or administrative office supervisor prior to the beginning of the semester to get an overview of the project on which you will be working and to agree upon expectations and objectives of your position.
  • Provide your faculty or staff supervisor with a copy of your academic schedule, so he/she knows your general availability.
  • To the extent possible, plan a regular schedule for your 10-12 hours per week and make every effort to follow it.
  • Be realistic and encourage your supervisor to be realistic about the scope/depth of research support you can provide (as compared to a PhD research assistant).
  • Approach your research or administrative office assistantship as seriously as you would any job from which you would expect to receive a favorable recommendation from your supervisor.
  • Use the assistantship to expand your skill set and/or network with faculty or staff you may not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet.