Teaching undergraduate students is one of the most exciting and important things we do as academics—and also potentially the most nerve-wracking. Here are six great tips for new Graduate TAs – may your first assignment go as smoothly as possible:
1. Get to know all your students:
This one should be obvious…but it’s all too easy to let half the semester slide by before realizing you don’t know anyone’s name. Make an effort to learn names and other basic information about your students (what are their majors? Why are they taking this class?) during the first couple of weeks.
2. Prepare to learn…a lot:
I’ve been assigned to teach on everything from Alexander the Great to modern neuroscience. Hopefully you’ll get to teach within your area of expertise at least once during your graduate teaching career, but odds are you’ll also spend some time way out of your comfort zone. Get ready to do at least as much reading as your students to stay one step ahead!
3. Have a plan:
Discussion sections usually last around an hour. Decide beforehand how you plan to fill that time. Some people like to wing it, but that’s risky. Although you don’t need to adhere rigidly to a set script, you may want to outline major topics you intend to discuss and potential activities (in other words, what you want students to learn and how). Personally, I like to break each section into two or three parts, each with its own thematic focus and activity. Debates, student presentations, work in small groups or pairs, two-minute writing exercises, paper workshops, and of course traditional large-group discussions all appear in various sections throughout the semester. I leave time at the end of section to tie together everything we’ve discussed and take any final questions.
4. Use available resources:
Many college writing centers have created handouts to teach various aspects of writing, explain subject-specific topics, and offer ideas for classroom activities. If your students struggle with a particular issue—whether it’s developing an argument or writing concisely—there’s probably already a handout on it! One of my favorites is this handout with examples of Marge Simpson-related thesis statements.
5. Develop a “spidey sense” for plagiarism:
Sometimes, you’ll receive a student paper that just seems off. Maybe it contains a paragraph written in a completely different tone from the rest of the paper. Maybe it references sources that go beyond the scope of the assignment. And maybe you’ve run a few sentences through a plagiarism checker and found some striking similarities with, say, Wikipedia. Of course, the best-case scenario is to preempt plagiarism altogether by discussing proper citation methods. But if, despite your instructions, you receive a possibly-plagiarized piece of work, it’s generally best to bring your concerns to the professor. Your institution might subscribe to a plagiarism checker like Quetext PRO, which will make it simple to identify whether the paper is plagiarized or not. The professor can then escalate the case if needed.
6. Check in with midterm evaluations:
Universities typically use end-of-semester evaluations so that students can provide feedback on your teaching once the term is over. This feedback is often valuable, especially for new gratuatTAs. So, why not solicit a preview of it earlier in the semester while you can still do something about it? Make your own feedback form (or find one online). Distribute it to students after you’ve had a few sections, asking them to take five minutes to fill it out honestly and anonymously. You might learn that your students hate group work, think there’s too much assigned reading, love writing workshops—or the exact opposite. Regardless, at least you’ll know how your section is going and how you can improve as you move forward.