Tag Archives: Teaching Assistant

Adventures of a Tufts Teaching Assistant

Written by Alia Wulff, Cognitive Psychology Ph.D.

When I first was admitted into Tufts, I barely thought about the fact that I would need to be a teaching assistant. It was an abstract concept, something that graduate students naturally knew how to do or were taught how to do during some mythical three-month intensive course. I knew I would have to take on the role of a TA, but I didn’t know what it would mean.

Fast forward five months, and I was attending the teaching assistant orientation during my first week at Tufts. I sat down with my notebook and pencil in hand, ready to have all of the necessary knowledge to be a teaching assistant implanted into my brain. Two hours, at least a dozen speakers, and a whirlwind discussion with a current psychology TA later, I still had no idea what I would have to do. The Tufts orientation taught me everything I would know about the ethical obligations and workload expectations of a Tufts TA, but it would be impossible to have an orientation that would teach every individual TA their responsibilities for every class they would ever TA for. I left, full of questions and worry. The TAs I had in undergrad taught full classes, knew the answers to every single question, and graded papers. I didn’t know how to do any of that.

Then I went to my first class. I introduced myself to the class and saw the faces of 40 undergraduates staring back at me, full of excitement and concern and boredom in equal measures. I realized that I was going to be fine. I didn’t know every answer, but that wasn’t my responsibility. My only responsibility was to the 40 people in that room. I was not there to teach them everything about the subject, I was there to help them understand what had already been taught. Being worried would not help me help the students.

I created quizzes for that class, taking notes and writing questions from those notes. I pulled questions from the test bank and edited them to better align with the lecture. I graded activities. I had students come into my office confused about terms and definitions. I offered basic study topics and techniques if people expressed concern about testing abilities. I learned the name of almost every student in that class.

The semester seemed like it flew by if I marked the time according to the syllabus. The midterm came and went. Finals loomed, and suddenly my first semester as a teaching assistant was done. It was rewarding and educational and I appreciated everything I had learned about teaching and organizing a class. I even got positive teaching evaluations. One student referenced how much they appreciated that I took the time to learn their name. At the time, it seemed like just another task I had to do, but it actually made a difference in this student’s perception of me as a teacher. I took that to heart and still do my best to learn the name of everyone in my class.

The next semester I was assigned to a course that is generally taken further on in the program. I had to grade papers this time, which worried me at first. I quickly learned how to create a rubric and stick to it. My comments were short and to the point, but I always encouraged my students to come to me and talk about how to improve next time. I got evaluations that thanked me for my quick grading (and one that complained that I took too long), my feedback, and my helpful email responses. I also was told that I was too harsh of a grader and didn’t explain the requirements before I graded. I now make sure that I grade easier the first time a student makes a mistake and set expectations early.

This semester I am a teaching assistant to a course that requires me to teach a lab section once a week. I’ll admit that it still seems weird to be in front of the class, rather than sitting in the front row taking notes, but it’s a good weird. I’m learning even more about what I should be doing to help the students get the knowledge they need. Next semester I am not taking a TA position, as I have research assistant funding available. It will be nice to focus on my research, but it will also be strange not to be preparing for class every week. Being a teaching assistant was once a hugely foreign concept to me. Now I am not sure what grad school will be like without it.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Being a TA

Written by Priyanjana Pramanik, Economics M.S. 2018

I’ve been a TA now for a little more than a year, which means that I have wisdom to share (not really, but I’ll try). Being a teaching assistant has been exhausting, rewarding, and, much to my surprise, quite enjoyable. Now, this might be a little disorganized, but I’ll try to make it as educational as possible. I’ll skip the basics: you know the absolute no-no’s! I’m going to go straight to the stuff that I think is making me a better TA than I was before.

When I started out last year, I was absolutely terrified. I remembered every tiny bit of advice that I’d been given, including ‘never apologize’, ‘don’t let them know you’re afraid’, ‘never give out your cell phone number’, and loads more, but honestly, all that stuff just scared me more. My first recitation didn’t go well. Nor did the second. In fact, I don’t remember feeling like I’d done justice to a single recitation session the entire semester.

Which brings me to my first don’t. Don’t make the recitation about yourself. It’s very easy to do that because you’re in front of a classroom, and you have performance anxiety, and you feel continuously judged. But it isn’t about how you do. Your job is to get through the material that you’ve been told to cover, because the students in your recitation need help with it. They’re struggling with concepts that you, the grad student, already know, and you can help them! It’s all about them. While it may seem pretty basic, making my recitations about the students and what they needed, instead of focusing on how I was doing, improved my performance in recitations a great deal.

However, all the best intentions in the world aren’t going to help you if you aren’t familiar with the material. This is especially true for concepts that you’ve known for a very long time. For me, as an economics grad student, that includes things related to probability, random variables and other statistical matters that I’ve been working with now for about five years. (Yes, five years.) And the problem with being over-familiar with concepts is that they seem simple to you, and you don’t simplify them enough when explaining them. You skip steps because in your mind, they’re obvious. The way out is simple. Prepare for recitations! Especially if it’s stuff you know. Sometimes I practice my spiel for lab sessions on my classmates. Occasionally I’ve practiced over Skype on my long-suffering boyfriend.

There are two other very good reasons for preparing for recitations. One is that it makes you feel less nervous. The other is that you can focus less on the material and more on how students are responding to it. You become more aware when they understand something you just said, and when it wasn’t clear enough. Making eye contact also helps. For someone like me, that can be a challenge, but it’s extremely useful.

Try and make things interactive. This year, for example, when I’m doing practice problems with my recitation section, I’ve had them make little groups. I give them a few minutes to work on it, and then we go through it together. Students feel more comfortable sharing their work when they’re not alone. They get nervous too!

Last pieces of advice. Don’t sweat the grading. Put some music on, be as consistent as you can, and don’t think too much about it. Set boundaries. Don’t set a precedent for always responding to emails in half an hour, or having extra meetings for students who can’t make it to office hours. I try to be as accommodating as I can, but it’s important to get the message across that you have a lot on your plate too. A lot. Don’t look at other TAs and think, I wish I could do such a good job. Be yourself, and you’re going to find a teaching style that makes you absolutely awesome. Finally, ask for help whenever you’re unsure. The professor you work with will be happy to clear up any doubts you have.

Anyway, remember those horrible recitations I was having last fall? When I got back to school for the Spring semester, I found a card in my mailbox from one of my students, thanking me and telling me that they really appreciated what I’d done in recitations. Guess I wasn’t such a bad TA after all.

Updates: Winter Break Travels and New Semester Adventures

Written by Jiali Liu, Philosophy M.A. 2017

Hello fellow readers! Hope you had a great winter break with family and friends! Now that the new semester has already started, are you all geared up for some new knowledge and experiences?! Or you just want to stay in bed and wait for this winter season to pass?

I had a great winter break. As an international student, I spent my first Christmas in America at a friend’s house—some great Barbadian food and Latin American culture exposure were involved! I then went down to New Orleans to visit my boyfriend and his family right before New Year. Beignets at Café du Monde, gumbo at Mandina’s, crab cake at St. Roch market, jazz and booze in the French Quarter, post-Katrina reconstruction in Lower Ninth Ward, gentrification, monuments preservation, the Big Easy is a different experience. It’s so much defined and shaped by rich history, incredible food, strong community spirits, old wounds, and new challenges. I was fascinated by this city!! I also went up to a small town in Mississippi for a few days, taking excursions in the woods (and asking myself existential questions and failing to answer most of them). 😁

Jiali Liu 2-12-16 blog post pic 3

St. Roch Market

Jackson Square with my boyfriend!

Jackson Square with my boyfriend!

Jiali Liu 2-12-16 blog post pic 1

French Quarter Night Market

I came back to Boston for the Area of Strength Test required for graduation at Tufts’ Philosophy program. The test is also called Comprehensive Test. Students in the philosophy program are to choose one from ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics as their test topic and are given 48 hours ahead of time to prepare for 12 questions, 9 out of which will be on the test and only 3 out of which will require an answer. Each answer should be 1500 words where students examine the philosophical issue at stake and offer cogent arguments to support her position. The test is four hours, an hour for each question and the last hour for grammar correction and wording refinement. Once I finished the test, the semester began! In terms of academic work, I have great expectations for this semester: I’m taking metaphysics, philosophy of science, Plato and Aristotle’s Ethics, and German. The program also assigned me as a TA to an undergraduate logic class. This is my first time TAing and I’m already learning a lot from holding office hours and grading students’ work. It’s a great privilege to be an educator (in a minimum sense as an assistant in learning and teaching), to explain away conceptual confusions concerning usage of terms, to help construct a deeper understanding of philosophical problems couched in logic puzzles, to help form a habit of critical thinking and skills of problem solving. I absolutely enjoy doing my TA work and spending time with students who come to me with questions!

I’m hoping to have a substantial semester—there is just so much to learn and think about! I want to better my German and get ready for some summer language practice in Europe. I also have been thinking about plans after graduation. Philosophy is a shrinking and selective market, but I want to test my potentials and pursue philosophy further down the road. This past semester at Tufts has helped me greatly and I definitely look forward to more philosophical exposure here!