Teaching goes both ways

TAs aren’t just teaching in the classroom; they’re learning too

TAs not only mark papers, they facilitate tutorials and labs and serve as a first point of contact for students
TAs not only mark papers, they facilitate tutorials and labs and serve as a first point of contact for students

These days, your undergraduate experience isn’t complete without Teaching Assistants.

This semester, there are 1,435 Teaching Assistants (TAs) working in undergraduate classrooms at Queen’s. They help in facilitating student learning and act as a first point of contact in ever-growing classes.

Stephanie Doucette, ArtSci ’15, has had underwhelming experiences with the many TAs she’s come across in her undergraduate career. However, she sees the benefit to having them.

“I think they are a very useful resource, especially in this age of technology. TAs are generally closer to our age than professors,” she told the Journal via email.

Doucette said she had one positive experience with a particularly helpful TA in her first-year English class.

“She'd answer questions to the best of her ability by email, and if it was something more confusing she'd be willing to set up a time to meet and discuss changes to assignments in a way that kept the writer happy with their work but also conformed to her and the professor's expectations,” she said.

While this TA invoked a positive experience in Doucette’s course, the rest, she said, “weren't that great”.

“TAs sometimes seem like they don't care about how you do or how your writing/work actually is, and they just want to mark your work and get on with it. Or they're more interested in having your work conform to what they think is correct, rather than having you actually improve in your field,” she said.

“I think they should be there as a resource for students but are often just a body to mark work.”

Despite these challenges, Doucette said she sees the value in TAs, considering it would be unreasonable to have one professor mark hundreds of essays.

Indeed, class sizes are the culprit.

“In a perfect world I think it would be better to have smaller class sizes so students could have an expert in their field at their disposal on a more regular basis,” she said. “In that case TAs wouldn't be necessary.”

Marcus Taylor, associate professor and chair of Graduate Studies in the department of global development, believes TAs are essential for undergraduate learning. He also feels the positions are essential for funding graduate students’ living expenses and giving them an invaluable experience for personal growth.

Development studies has about a 50:1 student to TA ratio, which works out to about 16 TAs working in the department this term. Many other departments, but not all, follow a similar ratio, according to Taylor.

Funding packages are given to Masters and PhD students when they are accepted to Queen’s as an allowance to supplement their living costs. Some of this money coming in is funding, but part of the money offered is in return for working as a TA, Taylor said.

While each department varies their packages, for a university to stay competitive with good graduate students, it needs to offer a good package and offer TAing opportunities as part of it, Taylor said.

TAs work for 130 hours for each 13-week term, according to Taylor.

The current hourly rate for all TAs at Queen’s is set at $37.88 this year.

While Taylor does all the hiring within the department, he makes sure all TA spots are filled, first looking for students within the department, and then outsourcing from related fields.

“There’s no face-to-face interviews,” he said. “We look at their files ... the graduate committee as a whole would consider not only are these students good academically but they’re going to be able to do TAing.”

Training is also offered at the beginning of a term to help out those students who aren’t as comfortable being a TA, Taylor said.

“Often, in the bigger classes, they’re the first point of contact,” he said. “They [are] a conduit for information flows in both ways. It’s absolutely essential they’re on the ball with passing information along.”

Part of assessing the number of incoming graduate students is related to the amount of possible TA positions, he added. Taylor also teaches a full set of courses and has TAs working under him in his bigger lectures.

Marking is often a concern for students, especially when it comes to uniformity and fairness.

“It’s really imperative we give [TAs] clear instruction and guidance,” he said.

“Obviously they’re learning on the job in most cases as well.”

Professors work closely with TAs to make sure there’s standardization in marking, he said. Professors also go through the marked assignments after to make sure everything is up to their standards.

“Is it foolproof? No. But I’m not sure it could be,” he said. “The issue of grading itself is already somewhat subjective, but that’s intrinsic to grading in social science.”

And this issue isn’t specific to TAs.

“Even from professor one to professor two you’re going to get differences,” he said.

Overall, Taylor said he’s impressed with the TAs working in his department.

“I’d say that for MA students, particularly coming into DEVS, the TAing process is really a formative part of their own education,” he said.

Many students have told him that TAing was one of the most important things they’ve done, he added.

John Pierce, a professor in the department of English, manages seven TAs as part of his ENGL 100 course, and believes they’re a benefit to his students.

“It’s inevitable that we have large courses,” he said. “[Having TAs facilitate tutorials] is some way of giving back a time for students to have a period of discussion and exchange with TAs and among themselves.”

Pierce said the TAs in ENGL 100 are second or third-year PhD students with plenty of experience.

Each of his TAs runs a tutorial of about 25 to 30 students, giving them an opportunity to work closely with the students, supplementing lectures twice a week and simultaneously marking the work of that group.

“The one challenge is that I don’t get to know the students personally, so that’s unfortunate,” he said.

Because TAs see students on a more personal level through the course, Pierce and other professors in ENGL 100 try to visit the tutorials and meet students, evaluating the TA and the tutorial.

“Obviously with a smaller, fourth-year seminar, you’re able to know the students much better,” he said.

Coordination can be difficult, but it also helps bring together a team dynamic, said Pierce.

“Working as a team and hearing ideas is really the best part.”

Ryley Beddoe, a current PhD student in civil engineering, is teaching two classes this semester while managing TAs. Having been a TA herself, she has lots of experience working with students and professors in this capacity.

“Certainly for me it showed me how much I enjoy teaching,” she said. “It’s led me to now teaching courses and following that career path.”

One of the most rewarding things about being a TA for Beddoe is helping students understand the material and offering support to them.

The department tries to match up graduate students with their top class choices the best they can.

“Whether it’s what they’re interested in, or what their research is or a course they’ve taken before, it certainly helps when a student is excited about TAing that course,” she said.

She added that most students who want to TA get a position doing so. Beddoe doesn’t think TAs take away from the interaction between the student and the professor.

“For students, sometimes it’s easier when they feel like they should get the concept but sometimes they’re not there yet to ask a TA and then the prof is certainly there to answer those questions, but you certainly fear to approach them a little bit more on something you should already know,” she said.

“Having TAs doesn’t take away, it only adds to a student’s educational experience.”

Beddoe believes marking can be affected by having many different TAs, but in Engineering especially, answers are more objective.

“If we have a quiz, one TA is going to mark the quiz instead of splitting that up between TAs so that if one TA is really hard, they’re really hard on everybody so I would say it’s fair for all the students,” she said.

While some students may have a bad experience with TAs, Beddoe said that many factors could affect a student’s enjoyment of a course.

“Certainly in our department I don’t think any TAs are out to make an undergraduate’s time in that course a bad experience; everyone is working hard to make it a positive experience.”

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