If you have some free time, search the Internet for student reviews of the University of Waterloo. The results may be shocking. While some of the negative reviews are obviously biased, there are some common pieces of advice for the University, contributed by alumni or senior students. Most of these recommendations are related to teaching. Education is what students pay for, and in return they expect a proper environment to develop their hard skills and intellectual capacity. Students also expect to learn how to deal with daily challenges, and want guidance in mastering problem-solving skills as well as soft skills.
Undergraduate students from different disciplines indicated challenges relating to working with Teaching Assistants (TAs), international TAs in particular. Many blog posts touched on this issue before. The Centre for Teaching Excellence offers a range of workshops and seminars for the graduate TAs, but the best place to start the improvement process is the Instructor-TA relationship. The Instructor is the primary teaching role model of a graduate TA. If the Instructor-TA relationship is problematic, it affects classroom climate and evaluations submitted by students. We will briefly discuss possible sources of challenges and suggest strategies to resolve them. The TA opinions presented here are based on a TA-Instructor rapport workshop I co-developed with Marcie Chaudet and facilitated in the Winter and Spring terms of 2015.
Role of the TA
The TA provides additional resources which should complement those of the professor. Duties and responsibilities may be discipline specific: in some disciplines the TA will be expected to teach tutorials or supervise laboratory experiments, in other disciplines – mark assignments and facilitate debates. The TA is a link between the students and faculty members, who often receives direct feedback and establishes rapport on a peer level rather than on a sometimes distant, faculty-to-student level. Effective collaboration with the TA and the TA’s perspective and experience can be very beneficial for the Instructor.
Positives and challenges
Graduate TAs have mixed experiences of their collaboration with course Instructors. The positive ones indicated a lot of support from the Instructor – defending marks that the TA gave to a student, motivating, encouraging, offering guest lectures and feedback. TAs appreciate Instructors who give freedom but intervene when necessary.
Most of the challenges that graduate TAs identified were related to marking. TAs reported that some Instructors, disappointed with students’ performance, suggest too strict or inconsistent marking by a TA. TAs are confused when there is no marking scheme provided, when the exam is poorly designed or it is unclear how to assign marks. Distant teachers, who are difficult to reach, are also a challenge, especially for the beginner TAs. However, informal relationships where the Instructor wants to become TA’s friend, are also confusing. TAs are expecting a professional working environment and ask for clear boundaries.
Sources of challenges
The key word in the Instructor-TA collaboration is: expectations. Expectations are related both to the technical aspects such as: hours, duties, office hour, attendance at lectures, dealing with disruptive tutorials or lack of participation, and to soft skills – communication, judgment and diplomacy.
Differences in expectations generate challenges that we identified above. Sources of the challenges could be individual – related to personality, experience and attitude of a person, disciplinary – related to certain discipline or course taught, and cultural – related to different teaching systems that the TA and Instructor are familiar with (Table 1).
|Table 1: Sources of challenges in the Instructor-TA collaboration|
|Preparedness (background knowledge, soft skills); motivation, attitude; time commitment (willing to provide feedback, meet regularly, etc.)||Different responsibilities between disciplines: marking in engineering, lab work in science and biology, written assignments in arts and humanities, etc.||Experiences from other teaching systems: role of the TA and role of the Instructor. Expectations regarding feedback: positive, negative, or both expected?|
During the workshops, TAs identified numerous barriers to effective collaboration between the TA and the Instructor. It is not surprising that most of them are related to misunderstandings and lack of communication. Some TAs have an “it’s just a job” attitude and are not interested in receiving or giving feedback. Other TAs need support, but they are too intimidated to ask or they do not know where to begin. Some Instructors are busy and unable or not willing to dedicate time to assist their TAs in resolving teaching, administrative or personal issues. Some TAs are busy with their academic commitments – research and taking courses – and they are unable to accept additional, “emergency” workload that may be expected by the Instructor (proctoring additional exams, re-marking, designing parts of the course, guest lectures, etc.). Once again, all these issues point towards mutual expectations.
Granitz et al. identified key attributes of a positive relationship: respect, approachability, caring, positive attitude, and open communication (Granitz, 2009). Respect means mutual respect between the Instructor and the TA, and respecting the students, the learning process, and the University. Approachability stands for availability to work with the TA to improve their performance and creating challenging goals, adjusted to TA’s capability. Caring is related to seeing TAs as individuals and taking personal issues into account. Positive attitude covers openness to other points of view and a sense of humor. Finally, open communication focuses on clear, regular exchange of information, honesty in policies, and assignment of duties (Granitz, 2009).
While some of these aspects need to be resolved through individual work of the TA or the Instructor, it is possible to list recommendations for the effective and professional communication. Most of the TA-Instructor collaboration recommendations are regulated through University Policies and Guidelines: 19, 33, 34, 69, 70, 71, 72, and 73. The effective communication tips listed below are based on these guidelines. They are oriented towards the graduate TAs, but they may be also beneficial for the Instructors.
Effective communication tips – before the course:
- Discuss task and objectives with the instructor
- Learn: review syllabus, course policies and guidelines
- Review available teaching files, ask senior colleagues or previous TAs for the course
- Understand and confirm that you agree to your responsibilities
- Discuss work division
- Discuss grading guidelines
- Make sure you discussed your role, the Instructor’s expectations, and your expectations clearly
- Evaluate your teaching skills, background knowledge, and fix areas that require improvement: delivery, language, other skills
Effective communication tips – during the course:
- Remain available and approachable
- Hold regular check-in meetings with the teaching team
- Bring serious issues to the instructor’s attention
- Discuss adjusting tasks and expectations, if needed
- Ask for feedback – peers, students, Instructor
- Ask for support if necessary (Instructor, supervisor, Centre for Teaching Excellence, Counselling Services, Conflict Management and Human rights)
Establishing a positive rapport between the TA and Instructor may be challenging for many reasons and the recommendations listed above may not work every time. Regardless of the case, issues related to TA-Instructor collaboration should remain within the teaching team. Other graduate students with similar experience may offer the TA their advice or support, but it is recommended to choose a confidential environment to discuss possible solutions of a problem. If a dispute cannot be resolved individually, the TA and Instructor can refer to University Policy 30.
How to become a successful TA?
Effective communication and building positive working relationships is one of the milestones on the way to becoming a successful TA and future faculty member. The University gives graduate students opportunities to build their teaching skills: starting from the ExpecTAtions workshop that covers basic TA responsibilities and classroom delivery skills, through specialized Centre for Teaching Excellence Workshops, to certificate programs: Fundamentals in University Teaching for all graduate students, and Certificate in University Teaching program for PhD students who wish to become course Instructors. The Instructor-TA rapport workshop (CTE 247) is offered at least once per term and helps TAs develop strategies to deal with potential barriers in communication.
Importance of the TA-Instructor rapport
Instructors and TAs who have similar goals, values, and attitude create a positive “united front” that enhances communication and trust between the teaching team and students. It affects students’ motivation, involvement and effectiveness of learning, and improves comfort of the entire educational process. All these aspects could influence students’ overall experience with the University and – in the long run – both the official and unofficial evaluations.
CTE TA Training Manual
Granitz NA, Koernig SK, Harich KR, 2009. „Now It’s Personal. Antecedents and Outcomes of Rapport Between Business Faculty and Their Students”. Journal of Marketing Education, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 52-65.