Graduate Teaching Assistant (TA) Guide
Geology & Geological Engineering – 2021
Department Chair: Dr. Gregg Davidson, 915-5824
Administrative Coordinator: Sherra Jones, 915-7498
Welcome to the team! As a teaching assistant (TA), you are serving in a critical capacity for the department and the students we serve. The position comes with many opportunities and responsibilities. This document is intended to be a resource for tips on effective teaching, class management, departmental expectations, and safety.
TERMS OF HIRE
1/2-time TA: The maximum appointment for a graduate student is 1/2 time, equivalent to a work load of 20 hours per week. The department considers 20 hours a week to be the approximate time required to manage teaching, grading, and office hours for three 100-level non-majors lab sections. Majors’ lab sections often require more time, such that a 1/2 time assignment may be two, or even one lab section. For courses with multiple lab sections, a “lead TA” will be assigned. Lead TAs will have a reduction in teaching load of one lab section, in order to provide time for other duties.
Payment: Checks are issued twice per month.
– Plan on one missed pay check during the Winter Break. (Pay rate is based on continuous employment, but disbursement for TAs is compressed to the time of active teaching.)
– MS students are set up for “academic year” appointments, which run from late August to mid-May. Summer funding opportunities for MS students is limited, so plan accordingly for summer expenses.
– PhD students are set up for academic year plus full summer, which does not include the May and August intersessions. This means PhD students will miss two paychecks each year. Plan accordingly. (We have fought against this policy to no avail.) Summer TA assignments are often preparing for classes taught during the Fall or Spring.
Tuition waivers and health insurance:
All 1/2 time TAs come with full tuition waivers (minor fees may still apply) and student health insurance. Students with less than a half-time appointment who are paid at least $2,500/semester receive a 75% tuition waiver and student health insurance.
Note you may receive a tuition bill when you first start. It sometimes takes a couple weeks for the waivers to register.
Potential tasks as a TA
– preparing lecture and lab materials
– organizing and cleaning up teaching-lab storage space
– proctoring exams
– driving or participating in field trips
– making new problem sets or revising labs
– overseeing other TAs teaching sections of the same lab
– holding office hours
– substitute for a lecture when a professor is absent
– teaching a non-major class (PhD students only)
WHO DOES A TA WORK FOR?
Though a TA does work for the university and the department, the primary supervisor of a TA is typically the Instructor of Record (IoR). This is the faculty member whose name is officially listed as the course instructor. TAs should never feel they are working alone with no input, assistance, or direction. Questions that a TA should ask if the IoR has not already answered include:
– Is there a syllabus template used by all sections of a class/lab?
– Are there answer keys for assignments, labs, etc.?
– Is there a lab-specific handout for TA responsibilities and expectations?
Things that should be communicated with the IoR during the semester (more discussion on each is included later in this document).
– All occurrences of academic misconduct.
– All instances of classroom disruption.
– Any student interaction that makes you feel threatened or concerned for someone’s safety.
– All occasions, in advance, when you need to miss a lab or class.
TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE TEACHING
Teaching is much more than just standing in front of a classroom and presenting information. Effective teaching – teaching that results in real learning – requires considerable preparation and practice, and a willingness to experiment with different approaches.
1. Engaging students
No one looks forward to being in a class where the instructor is boring or hard to pay attention to. Think about the lectures that put you to sleep. They may have included
– speaking in monotone or too quietly
– speaking indistinctly or with a heavy accent
– writing at the board and talking with back turned to class
– lack of enthusiasm for the class or subject
– lots of text on slide after slide after slide – “death by Power Point”
– no class interaction
Avoid such behaviors.
Tips for positive engagement are provided below.
A. Voice and Mannerism
– Use voice inflection (changing the pitch and tone of your voice).
– Make eye contact with students.
– Speak loudly enough to be heard in the back (ask students in the back if they can hear).
– Move about (but don’t pace back and forth).
– Be expressive with your face, hands, or arms (but avoid excessive arm waving).
– Demonstrate enjoyment or enthusiasm for the subject.
B. Engagement Techniques
– Ask students questions about reading assignments, or how they might solve a problem, or what they think would happen given a particular scenario (e.g. would watering the grass on a steep slope increase or decrease slope stability?).
– Have students pair up to discuss a question for 30 seconds or a few minutes before calling on individuals to answer.
– Do not be condescending or sarcastic when you think a question is dumb.
– Provide verbal validation for thoughtful answers even if not entirely correct or what you were looking for in an answer.
– Wherever possible, tie subject material to current events (e.g. a recent earthquake), practical applications (e.g. how a dam failure could have been prevented), or stories with personal interest (e.g. a sole survivor of a pyroclastic flow was in a basement jail cell with no windows).
– Encourage understanding why or how something works, not just what the answer is
– If class size allows, learn names – name cards on table is ok!
– Be aware of different learning styles. Different people learn better under different modes of communication. Some are more auditory (hearing), some more visual (seeing), some more tactile (hands-on). Combining modes of communication increases retention of information.
C. Avoiding “Death by Power Point”
– DO NOT fill slides with lines of small text. Limit text to three bullet points, and use at least 18 pt font.
– DO NOT just read text from a slide, use the text more as ques for what needs to be said
– The best use of slides is for photographs, figures, illustrations, graphs, or animations.
– DO NOT stare at the screen while you talk. Identify something on the screen you want them to see, then turn to the class to discuss.
– DO NOT use a laser pointing to underline text or “circle” things. Simply point with the laser to where you want students to look, then turn it off, turn toward the class, and discuss.
– DO NOT use gimmicky built-in animations (e.g. bells, swinging text, spinning pages, etc)
– DO use simple animations such as a moving arrow or a drawn circle – things that intentionally draw the eye to a particular place on the screen.
D. Lab Instruction
– There is a “sweet spot” for how long a lab introduction should be. It should be long enough to give students enough information to understand what they are doing, what you hope they will learn, and how to navigate the assignment. It should not be so long and detailed that they don’t need to think through the steps required, or don’t have to figure out anything on their own. It should also not be so long that it robs time from hands-on experience. In most cases, a good introduction will take only 10 to 15 minutes.
– Do not just give students answers when they ask questions. Use leading questions to help them come up with the answers themselves (e.g. Does it make sense that your scale numbers get bigger when the map is enlarged?)
2. Assessment / Grading
– Students need frequent assessment to know if they need to adjust to meet your expectations. This means returning graded work in a timely fashion. If you give weekly assignments, grade and return weekly.
– Provide enough explanation that students understand what they did wrong. Points off with no indication why does not aid learning.
– Grade one problem at a time, working through all student submissions, before starting the next problem. This results in greater consistency in scoring between students.
3. Class Management
The first rule of thumb: if you want students to respect you and behave professionally, demonstrate respectful and professional behavior.
– Dress professionally (avoid shorts, short skirts, skin-tight or torn/stained/tattered garments)
– Honor what you say students can expect of you (e.g. office hours, timely return of graded work).
– Come to class/lab prepared (test media equipment ahead of time, run through lab or example exercise in advance of the class).
– Never flirt with students or encourage flirtatious behavior. Do not ask if a student has a boyfriend/girlfriend.
– Do not accept a TA course assignment if you are dating a student enrolled.
– Do not use sarcasm or condescension when answered questions you think are dumb.
– Avoid extremes of comradery (overly friendly) or authoritarian (overly stern or distant)
B. Communicate Expectations
– Provide a detailed syllabus with expectations for class attendance, grade weighting, use of personal electronics, group work, etc.
– Include the points each question is worth on assignments, labs, and exams.
– Let students know when a particular assignment or lab is likely to take more time to complete.
C. Be Helpful
– Honor office hours
– Be clear (in advance) about what material is covered by any quiz or exam.
– Be prepared to offer study suggestions when asked (e.g. Suggest they do not just memorize answers, but explain why a correct answer is right; cover a slide or page after reading and see if they can repeat or explain without looking).
– Offer suggestions to improve scores. (e.g. The most common reasons for needless loss of points are (1) not keeping track of units, and (2) not asking if your answer makes physical sense.)
– Accept official absences without penalty, provided that reasonable arrangements are made to make up missed work.
– Practices DO NOT take precedence over classes. Official competitions DO take precedence.
– Let athletes know it is their responsibility to notify you the week before each absence. A schedule handed to you at the beginning of the semester does not end their responsibility.
– Let athletes know they need to take ownership of ensuring that missed work is made up. They need to be proactive in scheduling an alternate time for a lab or exam.
– No coach should ever contact you about an athlete. Staff in athletics assigned to academic success handle all class related interactions.
E. Disruptive behavior
– When confronting inappropriate behavior, never yell, curse, or insult. Politely ask a disrespectful or unruly student to behave in a professional manner. Ask them to leave if they continue to misbehave. In the event that a student becomes threatening or refuses to leave when asked, step out of the room and call UPD (662-915-4911).
– Communicate with the IoR ANY time you encounter disruptive behavior.
– The IoR and department chair will be your advocate. Do not try to manage on your own if you feel threatened.
Consult with the IoR before confronting students or assigning penalties.
– Walk around the room (do not use your phone or laptop while proctoring).
– Ask students wearing ball caps to remove them or turn them around backward (so you can see their eyes).
– Ask students to place all notebooks or papers in their bags out of sight before a test begins.
– Invite students to use the restroom before the test starts, not during.
– Do not use the exact questions in the exact order for multiple sections. At the least, have versions that change the order of answers or order of questions.
– Encourage students to be “free with their verbal assistance; protective of their written work.” When all or part of an assignment is copied from another student, zeros will be given to BOTH the copied and the copier. (The one whose work was copied provided the written material without safeguarding against copying.)
– When grading, pay attention to solutions that appear oddly similar (e.g. excessive use of the same significant digits, identical extra or unique mathematical steps, graphs that are formatted identically).
DEPARTMENTAL EXPECTATIONS AND INTERESTS
1. All labs/classes
– Never cancel a lab/class without approval from the IoR.
– Let IoR know if swapping assignments with another TA.
– If large numbers of students are consistently making perfect scores, or making the same scores, something is wrong (they are cheating, you are providing too many answers, you are not giving sufficient attention to grading, etc.).
2. Non-majors labs/classes
– Never allow students to leave with an assignment – all work should be turned in at the end of each lab.
– Do not allow cell phones in the classroom – students must step outside to use the phone (zeros may be assigned for failure to comply).
– All sections of the same lab should have the same grading policies (drop quizzes/labs, grading scales, etc.).
– Do not give extra credit assignments or quiz/test questions.
– Do not allow groups of more than two (if enrollment is an odd number, one group of three is allowed each week, but should be rotated through the roll).
– Requests to miss a lab can be accommodated by attending another lab section the same week – use the form!
3. Office hours
– Be available when you say you will.
– Allow a student with class-conflicts to arrange a special time if necessary.
– Do not allow one student to dominate time if others are waiting.
– If students are waiting, ask if they have similar questions that can be answered as a group rather than one at a time
– Never be alone with a student with the door closed. If they ask to close the door, tell them it has to stay at least a few inches open.
– If you ever feel uncomfortable with the behavior of a student, invite them to come back another time or leave the office if necessary. Communicate your concern with the IoR.
You have access to the department photocopy machine for printing materials associated with your TA assignment. It is not for personal use.
– The best insurance against panic in a crisis is to make sure that the first time you have considered your response is not in the middle of the crisis (think about what you would do in a variety of situations, and ask if uncertain).
– Lab safety: Know where eye wash stations are. Warn students when using acids or other potentially harmful materials.
– Weather: If the tornado siren goes off (other than noon on Wednesdays), invite the class to go to a basement hallway with no exterior windows. (Note: Tornado Watch means the weather could produce a tornado / Tornado Warning means there has been a reported sighting of an actual tornado in the vicinity)
– Fire alarm: Immediately dismiss class and be the last person out of the room.
– Active shooter: If gunshots are heard, close and barricade the door. If the door opens outward and cannot be locked, stand to the side and hold the handle (or ask a strong student if willing to do so). You cannot forbid a student to leave, but do not offer to let them leave. Where possible, turn desks on their sides and have students crouch behind. If a frantic voice is heard outside the door asking admission and you believe it is not the shooter, do not throw open the door or stand directly in the opening. Take precautions against becoming a target, or giving a shooter access to your classroom.
– UM Emergency Website: https://olemiss.edu/emergency/
– Please familiarize yourself with the emergency procedures at the following link: https://www.olemiss.edu/emergency/todo.html
– It is also recommended that you sign-up for REBALERT: https://olemiss.edu/helpdesk/faq.php?cat=61
6. Student health
– If you become concerned that a student is suffering an emotional breakdown, or at risk of harming themselves or others, inform the IoR.
– Your own mental and emotional health is important to us – please inform the IoR if you are struggling, and take advantage of free university services.
University Counseling Center
320 Lester Hall
email@example.com / 662-915-3784
Ombudsman (when uncertain whether the IoR should be informed)
318 Trent Lott Leadership Institute
firstname.lastname@example.org / 662-915-1537
7. International TAs
A.Develop your English skills
The importance of developing your English language skills cannot be overestimated. It is critical for your success as a TA, and can improve your job prospects after graduation even back in your home country. A few tips –
– Go to a lab section taught by a native-English speaker to observe.
– Do not isolate yourself socially with only speakers of your native language.
– Make friends with English speakers, ask them to explain words you are unfamiliar with.
– Ask how to pronounce unfamiliar words, or go to dictionary web sites with pronunciation tools.
– Ask about free English-learner lunches or events offered by local churches or organizations.
– DO NOT pretend to understand. If you are uncertain what someone says to you, ask. (Especially if it is the IoR.)
B. Know what is considered academic misconduct.
Some cultures have different expectations about what constitutes cheating. Review the Cheating section above. If uncertain, ask the IoR. General rules:
– Copying written work from the web, a published work, or another student is not acceptable unless those words are put in quotations and the source is cited.
– Gaining answers to a quiz or test from another student, either in the same class or in another section, is NEVER acceptable.
C. Different cultures have different expectations for personal hygiene.
As a rule of thumb (in the US), shower at least every other day and change undergarments daily. Americans also expect people to use deodorant. If uncertain what an “American norm” is, ask the IoR or an American student. For a fairly exhaustive coverage of American culture for internationals, see https://harrisburg.psu.edu/international-student-support-services/guide-american-culture-etiquette
D. Take ownership of your class.
While it is important to know what the IoR expects, YOU are the teacher for your section. You are not just “filling in” for the real instructor.
If you find any errors, or think something should be added or changed in this guide, please send a note to the department chair.