A teaching assistantship program is a critical part of most graduate degree programs. Assistantships attract students and provide them with valuable experience, generate funding, and allow units to meet the demand for their courses. However, most students given assistantships have little or no formal teacher training. Any academic program relying on TAs in any capacity must dedicate resources to building a successful program. There are several steps a program can take to create a successful TA program (or improve an existing one).
- Identify a qualified and willing faculty member to direct the TA program. This person is responsible for assimilating TAs into the culture of the unit, providing training on the content and pedagogy specific to the courses TAs will be involved in, as well as offering a foundation in pedagogy and andragogy. He or she should be an excellent teacher with a commitment to building a culture of teaching excellence. In addition, the director is the primary evaluator and point of contact for TAs during the semester. This person must have adequate resources, including course releases, to perform basic duties relevant to a successful TA program: holding frequent administrative and training meetings, visiting TA classrooms, and providing feedback and coaching.
- Determine the role TAs will fill and the courses best suited for TAs. Some programs use graduate students in “lab” sections to support a faculty member’s large lecture course. Other programs give TAs independent courses (sometimes after a semester or year of lecture/lab work). Successful TA programs place TAs strategically in undergraduate courses that are appropriate for their own academic preparation, maturity, and teaching skill levels.
- Commit to providing the infrastructure for a TA program. Infrastructure requirements will be dependent on the size of the program and the nature of the courses TAs work in. In general, they may include office space, instructional supplies, meeting space and time, a library of resources relevant to teaching, computers, printers, and grading hardware/software. Also important is a standardized syllabus for any course staffed by TAs.
- Establish a training program. The first element of this program is a summer “boot camp” where new grad students are oriented to the teaching culture of the university and the department. This 2-5 day session should set the tone for the semester, minimize TA apprehension, and enable the director and TAs to build a good working team. The second element of TA training is the ongoing development that should occur in weekly meetings during the semester on topics such as communication in the classroom, lecture and discussion skills, grading and giving feedback, active learning strategies, dealing with student dissent and challenges, motivating and engaging students, and making the most out of office hours.
- Evaluate TA performance. The director must visit TA classrooms and provide feedback during the semester. TAs should receive a written report evaluating their teaching effectiveness along with recommendations for improvement at least once a semester. They also need a one-on-one meeting with the supervisor to discuss the feedback and set manageable goals.
Building a successful TA program that serves as an asset to your unit is a large, labor-intensive commitment, but the time and resources you put into creating and managing a quality TA program will yield a great return for your academic unit. This basic framework is adaptable across disciplines and emphasizes teamwork, content knowledge, teaching craft skill, accountability, and ongoing development. For a deeper look at these ideas, please consider joining my Magna Online Seminar entitled “How to Create a Successful Graduate Teaching Assistant Training and Development Program” on October 12. I look forward to working with you!
Dr. Jennifer H. Waldeck is an associate professor in the School of Communication at Chapman University, where she is director of the Graduate Teaching Associate and Basic Communication Curriculum programs. She also serves on the Teaching Professor Conference advisory board.