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February 12, 2008

E-Coaching Core Message #2 Spring 2008 (Tip #56)

Sharing the Teaching and Learning - Working with a Teaching Assistant

Do you have a teaching assistant now or is there one in your future? As online class sizes grow, administrators often bargain increasing the size of a class with assigning or offering a teaching assistant.

Your first response may be, "I would rather do it myself." Faculty are generally accustomed to doing it all: designing and developing the class, sometimes modifying it along the way; getting to know all the students and where they are coming from; monitoring and guiding the students' learning.

How do you share these complex tasks with someone else with a different perspective on the content and with less experience, usually, with the teaching process? Some faculty find that they like the idea of having a teaching assistant more than actually having one! It's a bit like a dog chasing a car. What do you do with one if you catch one! We often find that teaching assistants really want to do something meaningful!

On the other hand, sharing the teaching with a teaching assistant is generally a win-win scenario and can be a very rewarding way of teaching. It is true that sharing the teaching with a teaching assistant can initially require more time and energy than not having one. But the time/benefit ratio is usually positive!

A Job Description for a Teaching Assistant's Role

One of the most important tasks is developing a "job description" for the teaching assistant. This job description lays out both what you each will do and also not do. It is also useful to include personal goals and expectations from each party. It doesn't hurt to lay out times that each would like or need a break from the course responsibilities.

Here are some of the elements of a course to consider sharing with a teaching assistant. In fact, a good approach is to discuss which elements a teaching assistant might take primary responsibility for and which elements you and the teaching assistant might do together. Many of the tasks involving grading and assessing of students work best if the rubrics and the scoring are determined before the course begins. Determining new rubrics and reviewing existing rubrics can also be a shared task.

  • Discussion forums - monitoring participation and flow of the dialogue
  • Quizzes - monitoring the completion of these and any items that require grading or evaluation
  • Support and formation of teams and collaborative work
  • Grading and review of course assessments such as discussions, project milestones, etc.
  • Tutoring and facilitating regular Q & A sessions
  • Support of course management such as interacting with "needy" students

The task that many faculty delegate to the teaching assistant is the daily monitoring of the discussion board and forums, ensuring that all students are participating and interacting and making thoughtful contributions. As the discussion area is the primary site where community develops, daily or almost daily notes and observations by a member of the teaching team gives the sense of a vibrant online classroom where interesting things are happening and where people care about each other's ideas. At the same time, the students want to regularly hear the 'voice' of the faculty member, so it is important that the faculty member make postings, observations, encouragement and answer questions as well. The good news is that it is not as "daily" a task! Also, one of the goals for the teaching assistant will be to increase his or her level of content expertise and working collaboratively in the discussion forum is a good way that this goal can be met.

By monitoring the discussion areas a teaching assistant can also be the first one to identify individuals who might benefit from outreach at key points in the course. Students may be having technology problems that they feel embarrassed about or life balance issues and careful observation with outreach as needed send the message that the teaching team cares about them and their progress. A teaching assistant can also help guide the conversations so that all students' comments can be acknowledged and that rich links, relationships and connections can be facilitated.

Other tasks that the teaching assistant can assume responsibility for include working with smaller groups for discussions or leading Q & A sessions within the live classrooms. Outcomes from these sessions might include innovative problem solutions or alternatives or challenges for the other groups. In fact, the faculty member may choose to participate in these sessions as well, but is released from the work of coordinating or leading the sessions.

A teaching assistant can also support individual or team assignments. Many online classes routinely rotate the responsibility for preparing weekly summaries and insights from the discussion boards. Teaching assistants can help as appropriately with these tasks. Another approach that makes it possible for teaching assistants to develop broad-ranging skills is for the faculty and the teaching assistant to rotate some of these responsibilities.

Note: With all of these suggestions for a teaching assistant, those of you who don't have one may be wishing you did. If this is the case, consider whether you can design strategies for some of your students to share some of the tasks!

The Win-Win of the Teaching Assistant Model

What are some of the benefits for the faculty member of taking the time and responsibility for a teaching assistant?

  • An obvious benefit is that it is easier for the faculty member to be away -- at a conference, meeting, or family event for a few days and the teaching assistant can be the "interim faculty." Physicians and lawyers team to have practices; academics can team and have "teaching practices."
  • Another benefit is that the teaching assistant can take over those elements or components of a class that a faculty might enjoy the least or for which the faculty might simply not have the inclination. This might vary from faculty to faculty.
  • Another benefit is that the faculty member might develop additional teaching strategies from those of the teaching assistant or develop more comfort and skills with the emerging technologies from a teaching assistant.

What about the benefits for others in the scenario?

  • A primary benefit for all is that the learners will likely enjoy the class more, learn more, develop more skills, and recommend the class to others
  • Administrators have more flexibility in managing programs, scheduling courses, and enrolling students
  • Students have a teaching team rather than just one faculty person. They have increased access to expertise when they have questions. They also benefit from more perspectives on the course content.

Closing Thoughts

We'll have another tip on instructional teaming with teaching assistants in the future. Send in your questions and suggestions and we'll try to incorporate them!

One of the Duquesne websites at the Center for Teaching Excellence -- www.cte.duq.edu/resources/factas/index.html -- has a listing of many resources on and for teaching assistants. To go directly to a list of handbooks and manuals, www.cte.duq.edu/resources/factas/eResources/tamanuals.html.



Day, M L, Orvis, K S, Latour, M A. Analysis of Virtual and Traditional Teaching Assistants Used in Introductory to Animal Science Courses. NACTA Journal. Sep 2005 Accessed February 12, 2008 at www.nactateachers.org/Journals/Sept2005JournalCond.pdf

Instructional Roles: Working With Teaching Assistants by Staff at The Center for Teaching and Learning University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Accessed February 12, 2008 at http://ctl.unc.edu/hir2.html

Streichler, Rosalind. Graduate Teaching Assistant Handbook. Revised ed. September 2005. University of California, San Diego, Office of Graduate Studies and research, Center for Teaching Development. Accessed February 12, 2008 at www-ctd.ucsd.edu/resources/tahandbook.pdf.


Sharing the Teaching and Learning - Working with a Teaching Assistant



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013