Megan Tusler, Department of English and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching
Course Assistant roles can vary widely across the disciplines, and can include lecturing, discussion leading, assignment and paper grading, assignment design, syllabus design, administrative responsibilities, and a number of other minor and major responsibilities. The CA will probably find her assignment most rewarding if she is willing to think of herself as accountable both to the professor and to the students — CAs sometimes think of themselves as accountable primarily to the professor, but considering yourself an apprentice teacher and not an “assistant” will help you to learn more from the CA experience.
In some disciplines, the CA is the first line of communication, the link between teacher and students. He grades assignments and meets with students, leads labs, and conducts discussions and study groups. In others, the CA reads students’ papers and suggests a grade; their responsibilities are limited to knowing students exclusively through their writing. Both of these kinds of CAs, however, can be instrumental in helping students learn more and better. In any event, some of the first things to do as a CA include:
- Meet with the professor and other CAs as early as possible.
- At this meeting, set clear expectations about both what you can contribute to the course (in time, responsibilities, and skills) and what you hope to get out of the opportunity (in training, experience, and mentorship). Ask the professor what they expect from you, and how you can meet these expectations. Professors have an enormously varied set of expectations from their CAs, so if you will (for example) be expected to design an assignment, better to know from the outset.
- Schedule a follow-up with the professor and other CAs to maintain open communication and to iron out course details.
- Reach out to fellow course CAs: brainstorm section activities, offer and receive feedback, and seek advice in difficult classroom situations. Learn from more experienced CAs, and mentor others when the time comes.
- Balance your CA work with other academic and professional obligations; consider this practice for a faculty position that combines teaching and research.
- To help you manage your responsibilities, recommend university academic support and tutoring services to students who need more extra help than you can provide. CAs can also recommend that students form study groups or use peer editing (helpful if a student has lots of mechanical errors in her writing.)
- Invite the professor to watch you teach (if you have a section) and request feedback on your teaching performance. In future, if you should require an extra letter, ask this professor for his or her feedback.
- Make use of CTL services for evaluating and improving your teaching.
You should use this opportunity to be self-reflective about the aspects of teaching that you personally find easier or more difficult. For example, if you find that a professor consistently changes the grades that you give students, you might ask him or her if there are methods in your feedback practice that you can adjust. If you find yourself adapting easily to teaching a discussion group, consider what dynamics of discussion are going well and why.
There are a number of factors that affect your efficacy as a CA; these are some of the things that make a good CA.
- Preparation. Whether you’re leading a discussion section, a review section, or a lab section, plan your materials in advance. Ask former CAs and the professor for materials developed for previous classes, and collaborate with fellow course CAs to update and expand those materials.
- Course knowledge. In addition to whatever background training you have in your field, be sure to stay up to date with the content of the course you are CAing for. Nothing is as disappointing to students as finding out that their CA hasn’t read the textbook or doesn’t attend lecture. That said, CAs frequently teach in courses that are outside of their fields: you are not required to be the expert that the professor is, but you should be current with the course readings and assignments.
- Communication skills. In particular, you need to be able to explain complicated things clearly, develop interesting examples, and listen carefully as students ask questions or try to explain their confusion. You should be able to communicate to students via email and in person in effective ways.
- Accessibility and availability. You need to seem approachable to your students; achieve this by maintaining a friendly attitude and encouraging students to visit your office hours or email you their questions. Then, make sure your office hours are at times and in locations your students can actually attend.
- Concern for students’ learning. Students can tell the difference between a CA who considers CAing a waste of his or her time and a CA who enjoys teaching and interacting with students.
- A good relationship with the professor. Maintain regular, positive interactions with the professor and provide feedback about how the course is going, from the students’ perspectives as well as your own.
- A good relationship with your fellow course CAs. A strong teaching team is a boon to student learning and course management. Communicate with fellow CAs on a regular basis: review and confirm responsibilities, share insights from interacting with students, and resolve any issues (scheduling, grading, student concerns) without getting personal. Your behavior is a model for students and reflects on the course as a whole.
- Organization. Anticipate ways that you can make the course run more smoothly for both the professor and the students. Look for ways to streamline, document, or improve course activities and teaching responsibilities. You can begin honing administrative skills (spreadsheets, assignment and attendance tracking, etc.) as a CA and these will benefit you enormously once you have your own class.
- Stanford Teaching Commons, “The Teaching Assistant’s Role”
- Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation, "Working with Teaching Assistants"