Carnegie Mellon University
TA/Grader-Student Interaction

TA/Grader-Student Interaction

As a graduate student TA/Grader, you occupy a distinctive position in the University hierarchy. You are neither solely a student, nor solely a teacher, but a little bit of each. Since it was probably not so long ago that you were an undergraduate student yourself, you are in a good position to empathize with student problems, and build a good rapport with them.

You will be teaching primarily in sections in which the smaller and more personal setting gives the students the opportunity to ask questions about the course, discuss the content of the course, and learn how to express themselves verbally and in writing. There is no recipe for teaching sections successfully, and each TA/Grader must develop his or her own style. Nonetheless, we can offer some specific suggestions.

Planning

In most cases, the section should not be another lecture, but rather a setting for the students to interact with each other and you while discussing material presented by the professor. However, this does not mean that the section should merely be a question-and-answer session. Even though you won’t be giving a formal lecture, you should be prepared with some sort of lesson plan formulated with an eye towards the goals of the course.

Office Hours

The TA/Grader’s office hours are an important extension of the classroom that can help personalize a student’s educational experience. You should discuss with the professor how many office hours you should hold per week. Generally, it is not required for students to attend office hours, so you might think of ways to encourage them to do so.

Discussion

There are several strategies that facilitate a good discussion. First, it is important to think about using the classroom space wisely. For example, having the students sit in a circle may help differentiate this setting from the lecture setting, as well as encouraging the students to talk to each other and not just to you. Second, learning the students’ names quickly helps establish rapport. The easiest way to learn student names is to take digital pictures (we will provide a camera), and attach names to the faces. Third, on the first day of class, set some ground rules for discussion, preferably with the help of the students. Finally, is important to strike a balance between encouraging students to contribute and providing corrective feedback.

Suggestions for rewarding student contributions:

  • Talk directly and explicitly to the student who contributes.
  • Put student comments on the chalk/whiteboard.
  • Make eye contact and use the student’s name.
  • Listen carefully and ask follow up questions and for paraphrasing.
  • Ask the student to restate complex or inaudible comments for the whole class, or do so yourself when necessary.
  • Point out specifically what you thought was valuable in the contribution.
  • If you see potential in a comment, ask the student for elaboration, application, or continuation of the point.
  • Incorporate student points in later material.
  • Invite other students to add their reactions to build further on the original point.
  • Comment on the thinking process the student has used, as well as the point made.
  • If a comment is unclear or confused, help the student express the original intent.
  • Use non-verbal messages to reward students for the act of participating, regardless of the substance.

Suggestions for providing corrective feedback without discouraging students:

  • Be clear about the difference between what is incorrect and what you as an individual can disagree with.
  • Before you disagree with or correct a student, restate the point to test your understanding.
  • Admit your ignorance. If you don’t know something, say so. Refer the student to other sources or offer to get the information.
  • When you criticize a comment, ask for reactions. This keeps a dialogue going and makes students less likely to withdraw.
  • Be specific in both positive and negative comments.
  • When making criticisms, explain your reasons.
  • Encourage students to respond to each other’s ideas.
  • Be sensitive to student pride and fears. In putting forward an idea, a student is also putting self-esteem on the line.
  • Avoid any tone of condescension. A student who is working on an idea, however, elementary, deserves respect.
  • Recognize the realities of a high-pressure, competitive campus. All students have to worry about grades.
  • Leave your ego outside the classroom. Do not try to look good at the expense of a student.

Classroom Management

Establishing rapport with students is important for facilitating the process of education, and it is often easier for you to do this than professors because you are closer in age and experience to the students. As such you are often considered more of an "experienced peer" than an authority figure, making your job both easier and more difficult. You need to fnd the level of rapport that is the most comfortable and workable for you.

One of the most serious problems that can arise is a challenge to your authority, either in or out of class. Challenges in class might take the form of a student making demands or trying to intimidate you in front of the class. The key here is to defuse the situation by offering to deal with the issue after class or in office hours. Challenges outside of class might take the form of an accusation that you are not qualifed to teach and/or evaluate students. Perhaps the best response to this is to refer the student to the professor.