How to Be a Teaching Assistant

by Jason Eisner (2010)

This page is mainly directed at TAs and CAs for my classes. See also these excellent training slides from our department.

General TA matters

There are lots of facets of being an effective TA/CA. At the start of term, we should discuss:

Weekly discussion sessions

Please emphasize discussion. If the students are just listening, they may not be learning. If you don't believe me, watch these videos.

These are not primarily homework help sessions. They are your chance to shine as a teacher and as a moderator of student-driven learning. Here are some things you can do:

The students should think of this as a small time investment. So please end after an hour: they should know that if they come at 5:30, you really are going to let them go at 6:30. Of course, if you wish, you can talk further to any interested students after the hour is over.

If you choose to solve past exam problems, here is one way to structure the hour. Hand out a printed copy of the questions (double-sided, stapled). For each question:

  1. Read the question aloud, or ask a student to read the question aloud.
  2. Ask if the question is clear.
  3. Have them discuss the answer in small groups.
  4. Ask for votes, or ask someone to explain their answer.
  5. If the class doesn't all agree on the correct answer, then you can have them discuss further, or you can try to clarify a difficult point.

You can cover the questions out of order if that seems useful. If you don't have time to cover all the questions, that's ok. At the end of the hour, hand out a printed copy of the answers, so students can review the official answers and can try any questions that you didn't have time to get to.

A simple review activity is to project some of the recent Powerpoint lecture slides (they are on the course webpage, although occasionally that version is slightly out of date). Flip through them slowly (at least 5 seconds per slide), and tell people to stop you when they see something they want to ask about.

Note: Try using a Doodle poll to pick the times—perhaps restrict to weekday evenings, or other ranges that the students say seem workable.

Feedback to students

Deadlines

All assignments are due back to students by 1 week after the due date, or 1 week after submission in the case of a late assignment. This is incredibly important—I will be very unhappy if you let this slip. Schedule your other work accordingly, coordinating with other graders.

Why it's so important: Feedback is important for learning, but its value decays quickly as the students start to forget the details of the assignment. In fact, they are less likely to even read late feedback. Students also use the feedback to shape what they do on the next assignment. They would complain (legitimately) if they didn't get homeworks back promptly.

Notifications

Please email students when the assignment is graded, so that they don't have to keep checking the website. Ask them to contact you promptly if they have questions about your grading (this will simplify your life, and also gives the students extra incentive to read the feedback).

If there'll be much difference in the finishing times, please send individual emails to each student as you finish with them, so that they hear sooner rather than later.

If you have graded the first half of all assignments (for example), then it would be nice to drop a note to the class list so that people can go check those comments early, while the problem is still fresh in their mind.

When you've graded all assignments (including late assignments), please email the class some statistics about the grades, so that they can realize that they're in trouble or feel proud of doing well. It is probably enough to send mean, standard deviation, and max, but sometimes I just send a sorted list of all grades.

Sending that final email also lets me know that the assignment is graded. This would also be a good time to tell me how it went (see below).

If a student has not handed in the assignment (even late), please ask them whether they have officially dropped the class, and cc me. Unless they have officially dropped, not handing in the assignment is a sign that they are screwing up one way or another. They need to hear this from an adult before it is too late to recover.

If there is something wrong with a student's submission (e.g., some file is missing or doesn't run), email them as soon as possible to find out what is going on, and cc the staff list.

Specific feedback

Give a total grade as well as the sub-grades for individual questions, e.g., "20/25 + 3EC." You don't necessarily have to write out that you are giving "-1" for this and "-2" for that if it's too much trouble, but you should usually point out those problems.

Alongside the total grade, remind them: "You have used a total of 3 late days (including 1 on this assignment)." (Don't say "you have 7 late days left," which would sound like encouragement to go ahead and use them.)

If a student has not handed in the assignment, please send them a personal email asking what's up. If a student has handed in the assignment but has used up their last late day in doing so, please send them a personal email warning them that they have no late days left for future use.

Specific comments are expected. You'll be able to write longer, more explantory comments if you reuse them across students. Reusable comments about particular errors can be included in the grading rubric for easy cut-and-paste.

Offer praise as well as criticism.

Don't try to discuss every tiny bug. There is a limit to how much detailed feedback any student can mentally digest on one assignment. If there are many problems with the assignment, focus on the most important things. Give high-level advice, including "come see me to clear up these confusions."

It is sometimes appropriate to email the class list to debug common confusions.

Feedback to professor

After the assignment is graded, I'd like to hear how it went (in person or by email). What did students have trouble with? What were the most common comments that you put on the assignment? How should we improve or replace this assignment next year?

Please tell me about any assignments that suggest that a student might be having trouble and need extra help. We need to catch this early and get the student back on the track to success.

Please also tell me about any particularly strong or interesting assignments. Students deserve to have their professor know when they are doing neat stuff—they'd want me to know even if they never ask me for a recommendation. And from my side, seeing good work and creativity is one of the rewards of teaching.

If grading the assignment gives you any ideas for exam problems, please send them to me.

Assignment management

Submission account

Recording grades

Record grades on a special spreadsheet that you can get from me. Please pay careful attention to the following:

Be alert for errors. Spreadsheets are error-prone. It's easy to get a range messed up, or to accidentally hit a key and mangle just one of hundreds of copies of the same formula. (Eventually the spreadsheet will be replaced by a Dyna program that just states the rules in one place ...)

Grading Rubrics

Often I have written my own solution to the homework. So please ask me to share my own answers, code, and output with you. Please also check your grading rubric with me.

A grading rubric might look something like this:

  10 points: Question 1

     3 points: Widget design
        -1 wrong number of prongs (but four-prong design ok if they explain flipping trick)
        -0 assume earth is perfectly spherical (no points off, but give comment)

     4 points: Widget implementation
        Give at least 1 point if the program compiles.
        Give at least 2 points if it gets correct output on all test cases.

        Syntax errors (limit to -2 total):
          -1 semicolon errors
          -2 curly brace errors 
        Bugs (limit to -2 total):
          -1 inverted logic
          -1 skewed logic
          -1 rotated logic
        Poor practice (limit to -2 total):
          -1 no range checks
          -1 or -2 inadequate comments  

     3 points: Analysis and discussion
        3 = great thoughtful discussion, almost perfect
        2 = good answer but misses a few points
        1 = only shallow understanding, or careless
        0 = badly confused or missing answer
  ...

As noted above, the rubric can also include suggested written comments for particular errors. As you grade, the rubric may grow with new errors and comments. Obviously, some changes may require that you revisit already-graded assignments to ensure consistency. You will probably want to look at a sampling of student answers to design the rubric before you start assigning grades.

If a question has been used before, there may be an existing rubric for it available in the grading account. However, don't assume that this rubric is a good one. You may want to edit it or discuss it with me ...

Some fairness principles:

Feel free to ask me for advice on any of this.

ABET Documentation

Every 5 years or so, for a few consecutive semesters, we have to collect samples of student work for ABET accreditation. For each assignment, quiz, and exam, the accreditors will need to see grading rubrics along with 9 graded samples of student work (3 excellent, 3 average, 3 poor). If we are in ABET mode (ask me!), you will need to collect and organize these materials throughout the semester.

Handling Grading Errors

We do want to fix clear grading errors, of course, especially systematic ones that affect multiple students or multiple problems for the same student.

When there is a grading dispute that is not clearly on one side or the other, I usually just call a truce and promise to revisit it in the unlikely event that the final course grade is on the borderline. This should be noted in the comments field at the right of the spreadsheet.

Plagiarism

It is obviously important to detect this. Discuss countermeasures with me in person.

Thank you!

Thanks in advance for your work educating the next generation of students! You play a really important role in the course.

"Learning has to occur in the students. You can do anything you like in the classroom or elsewhere—you can stand on your head—and it doesn't make a whit of difference unless it causes a change in behavior of your students. Learning takes place in the minds of students and nowhere else, and the effectiveness of teachers lies in what they can induce students to do."
—Herbert A. Simon, "What We Know About Learning" (1997)

This page online: http://cs.jhu.edu/~jason/advice/how-to-ta.html
Jason Eisner - jason@cs.jhu.edu (suggestions welcome) Last Mod $Date: 2016/09/16 14:42:31 $