TA Hand-Guide

Joel Varley, May 2007

This is a short guide to help out for those of you finding yourselves in teaching assistant positions. This guide will illustrate a few obvious and maybe not-so-obvious dogmas to follow to make your responsibility easier. Since TA positions can basically be broken into 3 categories, I will touch on each of these areas:

For the lab and discussion sections, it is an understatement to say it helps to have a game plan before you go in. Either a few problems worked out in reasonable (or gory) detail or an idea what the lab is about and the steps involved, else you may quickly find yourself up the creek without a paddle. Especially with the labs that involve some sort of apparatus setup, be it one that operates mechanically or one you need to plug in and the classes that involve technical problems with many important details. We all know the consequences of a teacher being unprepared, it can be a painful experience for both parties involved.

Your TA responsibilities are supposed to take up no more than 20 hours/week for a 50% TA or 10 hours/week for a 25% TA. This includes teaching time, office hours, grading, preparation, etc. If you feel that you are being asked to spend more time that this fulfilling your TA duties, see the conflict resolution webpage for information on how to address the problem.

Teaching Lab Sections

  1. Read the lab manual before you go in, or at the very least have an idea how to operate the centerpiece of the lab. This includes knowing how to "reset" your device and return it to standard operating conditions. The lab should be sufficient to explain the subsequent steps from there.
  2. Give a general overview of the lab before you start, tying the individual concepts to the bigger picture. It helps to relate the lab to material studied in class, or material they will study (sometimes there can be a frustrating time discrepancy between lab material and class material).
  3. When you go through the lab, make a note of parts that you think everyone may have questions about, and explain them to the whole class at one time. This will make things go more smoothly and you won't have to repeat yourself 1000 times.
  4. Try to keep on top of grading lab reports. This can be hard to do, but it is much more rewarding for the students and it makes your life easier down the road. They like to have some sort of feedback in a grade form, and it lets you know what they repeatedly don't understand and which students need a little more help than others. Develop a strict rubric for grading that will give you a nice guideline.

Teaching Discussion Sections

  1. Choose a few problems in the relevant sections and carefully work them out several hours before discussion. Under shorter notice it sometimes helps to choose problems of the nature "Show that . . ." so you at least have a check on whether you do get the right answer.
  2. Before launching into the problems, give a review of the background and ask for feedback from the class for the future. This helps at the end of class too, since it lets you know where the professor and yourself may be lacking in explanations of concepts and techniques and what you can make up for.
  3. Work out every step and explain it, even if it seems obvious to you. It helps to reiterate the logical progression of the problems as well, so that not just each step is made clear, but the entire path leading there.
  4. Choose problems that are fun, interesting, and illustrate concepts as clearly as possible. Choose problems more for the sake of the students interest than for the sake of personal interest.


  1. The primary issue with grading is to just make sure you stay organized and have a clear idea of how the syllabus meshes with your schedule. This includes when assignments are due, when you are expected to grade them and turn them back, and how these dates fit in with your schedule.
  2. The first priority in grading should be writing very clear and detailed solutions and submitting them to the professor relatively quickly after the assignment is due.
  3. Some professors don't mind as much if you get behind or very behind in grading (as long as your solutions are still being provided), but the students do need feedback, especially with sufficient notice before midterms, finals, etc. Graded homework can be the red flag telling a student that they need to do serious preparation to ensure they know the material and can pass the class.
  4. Be consistent in your grading. It helps to write the solutions and simultaneously write a rubric that weights each section accordingly. Then just follow that prescription to the end. If it turns out that all or most students missed a certain part, it will be reflected in the average, or you could choose to drop a few points from the maximum weight of the assignment.
  5. Make your late policy known AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. It is up to you and the professor to determine how late homework will be treated. If you are going to heavily dock points, make that known at the beginning of the quarter in the syllabus. Students are quick to exploit any perceived weakness they can, so if you are lax on late assignment policies, it will make your grading life much more difficult.