Inexperienced TAs

This Q&A was adapted with permission from the book Chalk Talk: E-advice from Jonas Chalk, Legendary College Teacher, edited by Donna M. Qualters and Miriam Rosalyn Diamond –


Dear Jonas,

I just collected mid-term feedback on my class. It turns out that students are frustrated with the fact that the TA’s often do not know how to solve specific problems, or that they provide advice that is contrary to what I have taught. I don’t have the time to provide remedial training for TA’s on the class material, but I don’t want a misinformed class. What can I do?

Signed: Seeking Damage Control


Dear Seeking Damage Control,

Sometimes Teaching Assistants are assigned to classes that they didn’t take as undergraduates, or that address different course topics. In some situations, they’ve seen the material before, but never truly mastered it. It is important that you encourage them to take the responsibility to find out what they don’t know and learn it BEFORE it comes up in class.

To address this problem, I give the TAs additional resource material to read and prepare ahead of time. I make it clear that I expect them to stay ahead of the students in terms of knowing and understanding the material. I also watch them carefully, sometimes even sitting in on parts of their recitation sections, and ask the TAs to talk with me if they are unsure about an operation or concept. I’d much prefer to spend some time reviewing information with my TAs than to have to back-track in my classes with large numbers of confused students. I also make it clear that the TAs are expected to attend course lectures. Setting up a regular meeting time with the TA can provide encouragement and accountability for the TA to learn the material.

TAs are often afraid to admit to students when they don’t have answers, as they think it undermines their effectiveness and authority. The truth is that the reverse is actually the case! You can help TAs understand that it is better to tell students “I’ll have to look that up (or work it out) and get back to you” when asked a question, than to give an answer of which they are unsure. You could model this, by describing a time when you had to do that yourself, or by doing it, if the occasion arises in class. Also, if they find they said something incorrectly, direct them to provide accurate information to their students ASAP.

In the future, if you have any control over what TAs are appointed to work in your class, you might want to focus on selecting those with the specific educational background necessary for success with your class. If someone else does the assigning, it’s a good idea to communicate with that person early in the process. Make them aware of what they should be looking for when placing someone in your class.


Quick Tip

Ask your TA to prepare a homework, quiz or test problem along with its solution. By doing so, your TA will increase his or her understanding of the material. This process will also allow you to gage whether your TA has an appropriate level of understanding of the course material, or has some extra studying to do.


This content was adapted with permission from the book Chalk Talk: E-advice from Jonas Chalk, Legendary College Teacher, edited by Donna M. Qualters and Miriam Rosalyn Diamond.

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