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Tips for TAs

Figuring out how to be a successful teaching assistant while balancing the different elements of graduate school can be tricky. To assist new TAs in this process, we asked current students for their most helpful tips and compiled those tips below.

For more resources, visit the summary of teaching-related resources and policies prepared by the Dean of Faculty, the Teaching Resources page of the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) website, or the Teaching and Mentoring page on the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL at Cornell) website.


Arts & Humanities

“Each semester, I require each student to come to my office hours at least one time as part of their section grade. It offers a great opportunity to get to know students personally. Another graduate student that I shared an office with required students to come to her office within the first few weeks of the semester, but I found that it was more useful for students to come later in the semester–when they have questions about writing a paper or they missed a lecture. I allow students to decide when they want to come in, but I ask them to email me in advance to schedule the meeting within my office hour block. “In advance” can be 10 minutes before office hours starts if needed, but they can also schedule it a few weeks before. This means that students don’t waste time in the hallway waiting for me to finish with another student, and it also allows me to structure my own office hour block as I wish. Of course, you have to be in your office and available during the entire office hour period, but you will structure your time differently if you don’t think anyone is coming in, versus knowing that the entire next two hours will be occupied by four 30-minute meetings. It’s just nice to know what you can or can’t get done in the next two hours. Some teaching assistants like to meet students in cafes around campus, but I find that meeting in my office is more convenient for me and also allows students to get a better sense of who I am (when they see how I’ve decorated my desk and what books I have on my shelves). The first semester that I was a teaching assistant, I required students to meet with me for office hours twice, including meeting whenever they missed a lecture. I found that that was too much for them and me both, so now I just require them to come to my office hours once. Your supervisor may have other expectations, but if he/she doesn’t say anything about it, I would require students to meet for office hours once. This probably varies by field as well.”

“Create a short syllabus just for section with your expectations for section, your contact information, and your office hours. Bring it on the first day of section. Use the Johnson Museum for one section if it is relevant to your subject! They love having sections at the museum and can create a custom session that fits the topic of your course.”

“On the first day of section, I act very professional and organized. It inspires confidence in the TA, even if the TA does not internally feel much confidence. Later on in the semester, you can loosen up a bit. Asking students how many prelims they have around mid-term, right before section starts, or empathizing with how tired or stressed they might be, is a good way to start a section later on in the semester. But in the first two sections or so, students need to see that you are trustworthy as a professor–that you have it together. In order to like you (not that this is the first priority, but it is important for relationship-building), they need to know first that you are professional, while also being warm and approachable. I think a lot of students have low expectations of teaching assistants, either from past experience or what they’ve heard from others. Having a lesson plan typed out in front of you during the first session (just a list of exactly what you will do and when), a sign-in sheet prepared to pass around for attendance, and copies of a one-page section syllabus will help inspire this confidence in your professionalism and organizational skills.”

Amanda


“Encourage discussion about questions, rather than lecture or try to get “correct” answers.”

“Avoid sarcasm. Do not tell them if you do not study or specialize in the subject you are teaching. If possible, sit down in a group with students, rather than stand behind a lectern. Get advice from professor or other TAs about grading and what is the appropriate level of writing skills for your students.”

Anonymous


“Learn your students’ names as fast as possible! Download the picture roster Cornell supplies and a spaced-repetition flashcard program, like Anki. Use “Snip” on Windows or Command-Shift-4 on Mac to copy/paste small screenshots of each picture onto flashcards. Study once daily. By Day 2 or 3, you’ll be set. And your students will be thrilled. Because of this initial show of respect and investment in them, they will respect you and invest all the more in your class.”

Louis


Life Science

“A lot of new TAs find that grading duties sneak up on them. Treat grading time as if it were another non-negotiable event on your schedule; choose consistent blocks of time to do grading, put them on your calendar, and don’t convince yourself that you can do it later. You will be much less stressed when there’s an hour before the grades are due and everything is already finished.”

Andrew


“Make sure to double check the grading system and draw boundaries in the syllabus. I had a student come in for 7 minutes of a 70-minute class and say there was no cut off detailed in the syllabus for when participation stopped counting due to lateness.”

Anonymous


“If you are working with a faculty member for the class, make sure you are on the same page with responsibilities, teaching style, teaching content, etc. A lot of faculty have specific standards of how they want the course run, but not all of them will tell you clearly or up front!”

“I’ve found acting really enthusiastic in class the first few sessions can help my students feel ok opening up and answering questions in class!”

“Time yourself for all tasks related to teaching, including grading and prepping for lectures. When the timer hits the max amount of hours you signed up for, stop for that week!”

“Teaching is fun and rewarding but can really take a lot of time away from your research if you are not careful with how much time you allow yourself to put in. “

Elena


“Students can get pretty stressed about grades. Keep reminding them that help is available through office hours with the TAs, professor, etc. One reminder at the beginning of the semester is not enough.”

Michelle


Physical Sciences & Engineering

“Be humble enough to know that you are still a student yourself, and realize that over your first semester as a TA you will probably learn just as much as your students do. You will be challenged to think about things from someone else’s perspective, which in my opinion is the best way to mature your understanding of any study.”

“Don’t talk to the board!”

Jason


“Be honest with your TA supervisor. If you’re struggling with your workload plus your TA responsibilities, let them know. There may not be anything they can do, but they may also give you some slack.”

“Hold yourself to grading your students’ assignments and having it back to them no later than a week after they turn it in. It’ll save you in the long run.”

Rachael


“Some students will underperform, sometimes a section as a whole might underperform in an exam. Then too, try not to lose your temper – I did so in my first semester, while in subsequent ones I restrained myself a lot – correcting rather than chastising. That made me far more effective as a tutor. ”

“Students in big courses treat the homework like a chore. No point expecting them to spend too much time on it. A lot of students who do their homework quickly still perform very well in exams. And they get very upset if you make too big issue about homework performance.”

“Interaction – well I have a direct style, I always tell the students where they stand what are their strengths, what are their weaknesses. This earns both praise and criticism.”

Shayak


Social Sciences

“Go to the lectures if possible! A lot of students will want to discuss contents covered during the lecture with you, and it won’t be helpful if you have no idea what they are talking about. “

“Just be honest if you don’t know the answers – students prefer it much more than you’re just making something up. “

“Students will really appreciate it if you can be patient and understanding. Some of them just prefer talking to TAs instead of going to the professor’s office hour, and your help is the crucial for them.”

Rachel