As an undergraduate student currently in my third year of ERS at the University of Waterloo, I have had the chance to interact with various types of Teaching Assistants (TAs) over the course of my studies, whether it be in labs, tutorials, in class, via email, or having assignments marked by them. There are plenty of great stories about TAs whom I have had in the past, and unfortunately, a few stories of some questionable TAs as well. Being a successful TA consists of many different aspects, but the three characteristics that I appreciate in a TA is their ability to relate to students, knowledge of the course content, and an ability to communicate effectively and efficiently.
Relating to your students helps build trust between the TA and the student which helps to manage the classroom effectively, as the students will have respect for the TA. Quick but effective activities which I have personally seen in my classes include icebreakers during the first day of meeting your students, as well as having a sense of humour and giving out a positive vibe. A few new things I learnt during the Building Rapport with Students workshop earlier this week was that maintaining positive body language throughout the session gives the students a positive impression about yourself, and learning the student’s names as soon as possible to help develop trust and understanding between the TA and the student.
Knowledge of course content is also key. Most people think that their TAs are those who have taken the course before and have done fairly well in it. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes the TA may never have taken the course, or sometimes they didn’t complete their undergraduate degree in the same faculty as the course they are TAs for. If this is the case, doing the readings and making detailed notes would help a lot. The students understand that a TA is a student as well, and if you as a TA can’t answer a question but are willing to do some research to find the right answer, students find that extremely helpful and are willing to wait to get a right answer, instead of getting a wrong or incomplete answer immediately.
Being able to communicate successfully can make or break the trust and respect that students have for a TA. Setting basic rules on the first day can help a TA significantly. I have had TAs in the past tell us a couple of ground rules: for example, they only will respond to emails during business hours (9 am to 5pm), and that students should not email questions about a major assignment the night before it is due as it will be too late to get a response of any value. Prompt responses and setting ground rules can help alleviate pressure from students, and can significantly help boost a TA and student’s relationship. Sometimes TAs respond weeks, even months after receiving an email and it destroys any rapport that they have built with the student.
Lastly, my pet peeve: it is frustrating when students compare grades after an evaluation, and have written two very similar things on their paper, but get two completely different marks. The TA has now lost a lot of the positive feelings that they may have gained over the semester by being inconsistent. Both students are now alienated and concerned, and will go through every little detail of their evaluation to make sure nothing else was missed. Both students will come to the TA with many concerns about their marks. Being consistent, whether it be giving both those students an 85% or a 55%, will save a TA a massive headache.