Mentoring and Working with Teaching Assistants

Working with Graduate Teaching Assistants

Teaching Assistants conversing at a workshop.Supervising and collaborating with graduate teaching assistants affords faculty an especially important teaching opportunity. Just as faculty mentor graduate students as scholars, they are able to guide these (often) newer teachers to become more reflective, purposeful, and effective. Graduate students work to assist instructional faculty and departments in several capacities, and so whether your GTAs teach their own courses under your supervision, lead labs or discussion sections for your course, offer occasional lectures, or grade student work, consider this an opportunity to collaborate with future faculty. We provide here a few principles for the faculty-GTA pedagogical relationship.

  • GTAs support faculty teaching, enhance their own learning, and contribute to student learning.
  • GTAs are a systematic part of the course and Faculty-GTA communication should be clear and ongoing.
  • GTAs should be provided a written agreement listing their responsibilities for the course.
  • Expectations should be articulated early. GTAs should be given the opportunity to ask for clarification.
  • Whenever appropriate rely on a community of GTAs for each course who share insights and problems and mentor each other. This sort of group is well suited for inventing improvements for courses and for sharing findings on teaching with larger groups, including the department, campus, and beyond.
  • In student-GTA disputes, discuss problems with GTAs and work toward transparent solutions. This is especially important in matters of grade complaints; changing a grade (determined by a GTA’s review of student work) without consulting the GTA may lead students to believe that faculty and students are working against the GTAs.
  • Provide rubrics or grade-norming policies to set general grading expectations and limit inconsistent grading across sections or labs.
  • Meet with GTAs before and during the semester to assess the course, students and to work on improving the course.
  • Create a mid-term course evaluation and review it with your GTAs

Working with Undergraduate Teaching Assistants

There are many instances at the University where undergraduates serve to assist faculty members with teaching. Generally these students are referred to as Undergraduate Teaching Assistants or UTAs. At other universities’ terms such as peer guides and learning assistants are also used. The range of activities where UTAs are involved in teaching is wide and varies across colleges and departments, with many having established programs for UTAs. UTAs may be involved in assisting or working in tandem with a faculty member or a graduate teaching assistant or UTAs may lead a discussion session or oversee a laboratory section. UTAs may receive formal training parallel to their teaching experience, or guidance may come from less structured meetings with faculty instructors or program directors. UTAs also have various levels of responsibility and autonomy in their roles. In some cases, UTAs are charged with designing and implementing learning activities for a small section of students. UTAs may have very specific duties within a course such as assisting with technology. They may be involved in grading and reporting grades of undergraduates to faculty sponsors or program directors.

The College of Education offers an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) program that is available to individual instructors. It exposes UTAs to the practices of teaching, and the many issues involved in working with students (grading, multiculturalism and diversity, academic dishonesty, sexual harassment). 

Selection

Generally selection criteria for a UTA involves a review of the student’s academic success and parallel commitments. To be selected as a UTA is both an opportunity for significant personal growth and an honor. To qualify, students must meet the following criteria:

  • Have junior standing by the beginning of the semester
  • Have a cumulative grade point average of at least 3.0
  • Have earned a grade of A in the course in which she or he is assisting

Beyond these requirements, the only thing necessary is mutual agreement of the faculty mentor and the prospective UTA. Contact the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center for more information.

There are many good reasons for adding UTAs to your program.

  • An increasing body of research shows that undergraduates benefit from interactions with peers who help mentor their learning. Students may feel more comfortable approaching UTAs than they do approaching either graduate teaching assistants or faculty instructors. UTAs have a wealth of information that can help younger, less experienced peers: they have successfully completed the course for which they serve as a UTA; they are a convincing emissary that the course work is doable and worthy of time spent; they are well acclimated to campus and campus life and can serve as a resource to answer a wide variety of questions that neither faculty instructors nor graduate teaching assistants have any knowledge about.
     
  • Undergraduates can share the labor of the course and because they have completed the course, UTAs also provide insight not otherwise available. UTAs can provide constructive feedback on the design of the course and how it relates to other courses in the discipline, and they can be a strong liaison to the undergraduate students giving faculty important feedback as the course progresses.

There is a significant benefit to the undergraduates who serve as UTAs. Depending upon your college and department course situation, students may earn credit and/or salary for their UTA role. Beyond this, students acting as UTAs have been shown to develop in areas of communication and leadership skills, knowledge in the discipline of the course, and self-confidence. The UTA role provides the student an opportunity to work closely with a faculty member, to learn aspects of teaching, and to develop an understanding of the teaching and the learning process. Many students who act as UTAs are surprised to learn the diversity of learning styles of their peers and also of the significant work and care faculty contribute to their teaching. To accentuate the value of the experience to the UTAs, some reflective assignments such as weekly journals or an end of semester portfolio process are recommended. Faculty may consider UTAs as teaching apprentices worthy of mentoring in the art of teaching. Undergraduates acting as UTAs may consider this experience an ultimate and authentic active learning opportunity.

Confidentiality

In all cases where sensitive student data is handled in grading or recording grades, it is important that, like all University personnel, UTAs are versed in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) guidelines. UTAs must take this tutorial before they are allowed to enter grades.