Tips for teaching assistants – a student’s perspective

A how-to guide to getting glowing end-of-semester evaluations from your students

A woman placing sticky notes on a white wall while on a meeting.
PHOTO: Jason Goodman / Unsplash

By: Saije Rusimovici, Staff Writer

To be honest, attending a 50-minute tutorial on top of a two hour lecture can feel painful, and even useless. Whether or not you find tutorials useful, it’s frustrating to be stuffed into a miniature classroom with a bunch of students who refuse to participate. It’s no doubt frustrating for the TA, who wants to help their students but cannot figure out how to engage with them. They are just trying to do their job, but it can be difficult to do so when students are not always focused on class discussion. For this reason, I’ve come up with a list of tips for teaching assistants who want their students to gain the most out of their classes and feel like tutorials are valuable rather than a waste of their time. 

Be friendly and approachable 

This may seem like it goes without saying, but navigating a classroom of students requires that you are a pleasant person to be around. Go out of your way to get to know the students and address their needs. Each student should feel valued and comfortable in the classroom. With that being said, you are there to be their teacher, not their friend — any relationships you form with your students should be kept professional. However, this doesn’t mean you have to completely isolate yourself from your students and maintain a rigid, authoritarian style of teaching in the classroom; students want to feel like their TA actually wants to be there. Make a good first impression by appearing energetic and enthusiastic about not only the course material, but your students as well. 

Share your personal experiences 

Students want to hear about your academic journey! The TAs with whom I built the best connections were those who shared small tidbits from their personal lives and academic journeys. When I found out one of my TAs was interested in similar fields as myself in undergrad, it made me feel more motivated in class. Learning from someone who obtained a degree in the discipline I’m studying makes me aspire to delve deeper into my studies, and incites motivation. Beyond teaching course material, the role of a TA should also be about inspiring your students to make the most of their time in tutorial. This can be done through open conversation with students, structured time for assignment workblocks, and periods where students can freely ask questions beyond the course materials. We want to know how to be successful students, not just memorize course work.

Focus on materials that will be tested 

While it’s good to take a break and talk about topics other than course materials, we still have tests to study for, so emphasis should be placed on what will be on exams. There are so many ways of doing this beyond having a random in-class assignment that counts for a measly participation grade. In my communication courses, I’ve found that I benefitted the most from tutorials when activities included hands-on computer labs that allowed me to practice technical skills under guidance. In my criminology courses, low-stakes pop quizzes in the form of trivia games or mock debates have been a great way to get to know course concepts in a low-pressure environment. By focusing on the concepts that will likely be on midterms, finals, or assignments, students will feel as though they are gaining something out of attending tutorials and will be more likely to participate in class discussions.

Incorporate work periods for essay writing or group projects 

For those commuting to campus, it can be easy to zone out in class after a long drive or bus ride. During midterms and finals, your students may feel like they are being stretched super thin. They’re likely worrying about their assignments, plus they also need to study for their exams while still attending and participating in lectures and tutorials. Making tutorials a space where students can freely study or work on assignments is such a beneficial way for them to make the most of their time in your class. This way, you can be there for students to ask questions or explain difficult concepts. Being present and approachable during more “study block” structured classes is an essential component that will get students to use this time wisely. 

Ask your students how they want tutorials to be structured

Every group of students will be different, and not all students have the same needs or relate to the same methods of teaching. Personally, I find it helpful when my TA asks the class how they prefer tutorials to be structured and what style of teaching works best for them. It’s important that your students are getting the most out of being in your class. Start off the semester by surveying your students, asking what they’re studying, and trying to get a sense of their backgrounds so you can adjust accordingly. Understanding what they’ve liked or disliked about teaching styles of past TAs will not only make tutorials more enjoyable for them, but will also give you an idea about ways you could shift your teaching methods to accommodate this particular group of students. 

Don’t implement “mandatory” activities

Tutorials are all about practice, and giving your students the opportunity to do this without being penalized will provide them with a safe space to learn. Instead of introducing mandatory activities that students must submit by the end of class, place more emphasis on discussion and interactive learning “games” like trivia. Many students will try to rush through mandatory assignments just to get that mark towards their participation grade, but they may not actually be gaining anything valuable from that task. Certain aspects of in-class discussion may be more likely to stay rooted in their memory as opposed to an assignment they were required to submit and promptly forgot about.

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