How to Succeed as a Teaching Assistant

Hello Planetary Pals,

This week I will be talking about my experiences as a teaching assistant. As a graduate student one of the duties tasked to me is to be a TA, aiding in the running of undergraduate courses. TAs are assigned to make a class run smoother and split the duties for a course. The work that a TA must do is generally different for each course, depending on the expectations and level of involvement. For instance, a TA may run labs, grade assignments, provide assistance outside class hours, and act as a guest lecturer.

I was excited to start TAing as I have always enjoyed tutoring and teaching. My first tutoring experience was during high school, where I ran help sessions for French and history. Then again in my fourth year of undergrad I founded the Geology Help Center, in which I formally helped first and second year students with difficult geology courses. The main target audience of the Help Center was first- and second-year students, and both those who are interested in geology and those with no experience with it or even science. The Help Center was a success, and I transferred power to another geology undergrad so that the group continues to help students. What I enjoy most as a teacher is seeing students engage positively with the material and hearing them finally understanding the tough material. These experiences have prepared me for my role as a TA this year as I teach invertebrate paleontology.

Invertebrate paleontology is taught by Dr. Jisuo Jin and the course has one other TA. Due to the change to an online format, the course structure has changed this year. The workload for the students involves only labs and after-class assignments; unlike previous years there are no tests. As the TA my duties are to run the labs for the course.

TAing online courses is completely different from how I intended things to go. I personally prefer face-to-face interactions in all regards. Therefore, going into my TAship, I was anxious about my abilities to teach in this new format. I attended the TA Day colloquium in September which consisted of a lecture on how to effectively TA over Zoom. I learned the proper Zoom etiquette for teaching, and how to provide a stable and engaging classroom environment online.

One of my tactics to be the best TA that I can be is to reflect on what my favorite TAs from my own time as an undergrad did. First, I try to attend every lecture that I can. By doing this, I can see exactly what the students are learning which allows me to know the expectations and to gauge the fairness of assignment questions. I have office hours set up, but also gladly help student outside of those hours. Having a set time for students to reach me allows them to set aside a known date and time that they can ask questions. Keeping my help flexible outside of my office hours is also important because students may be otherwise occupied during the time or may have questions come to them at odd times that can be answered quickly. In order to demystify grading, I create rubrics which explicitly state how the marking is divided and provides helpful feedback. I also write my own class notes which I provide for the students. The notes are not exhaustive nor is it a cheat sheet; I do this to provide another avenue for students to engage with the material in preparation for the labs. With these, I also include thought questions. These are questions that I think of during the lecture for students to practice and were originally going to be compiled as practice tests for the now-cancelled midterm and final.

I have faced some problems as a TA that I have been trying to solve with varying success. When I first began TAing, I was concerned with time management. I found myself sometimes spending too much time TAing and leaving my research work to suffer, and vice versa. I was able to overcome this problem by adopting a daily schedule that allots time for both tasks appropriately. Another issue that I have faced that I have had more trouble addressing is how to be both helpful but hands-off enough to let students come to their own conclusions. As a TA, I obviously do not intend to give away answers, but I need to also guide students to the correct way to evaluate and interpret the task at hand. Ultimately, I am still trying to find this middle ground. I have also come to terms with the fact that I do not and can not know all of the answers. When I am faced with a question that I cannot answer, I either guide students to ask the question to the professor or do some quick research and investigation in order to get an answer to the student at another time.

Ultimately my goal as TA in this new setting is to make sure the students get the same quality education as if it were a normal year. I try to be the best TA that I can be every time I am in the classroom, which will become better for the students in the long run. 

Published by Anthony Dicecca

Hello and welcome to my blog. I am Anthony Dicecca, and I am currently pursuing a thesis-based Masters degree in Geology with a Specialization in Planetary Science and Exploration. I am a native of Rochester, New York but moved to London, Ontario to attend the University of Western Ontario. From 2016 to 2020 I worked to complete my undergraduate degree, finishing with a BSc in Physics and a BSc in Geology. During this time I developed a passion for geology, and in particular, planetary science. I've had the pleasure of working with Dr. Gordon Osinski and his team during this time aiding in research ranging from Arctic peri-glaciology to global impact cratering, and from Lunar spectroscopy to Martian mapping. In Autumn 2020 I continued my education at the U.W.O., working towards a MSc in Geology with a Specialization in Planetary Science and Exploration. My research will likely involve insights obtained from the Holuhraun Lava Field in Iceland and their applications to other bodies in the Solar System. This blog serves as an archive of my progression over the next few semesters.

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