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Peer Blog: Tips for Online TAing Success!

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Happy March everyone! At the beginning of the fall semester, a whopping six months ago, I remember feeling some apprehension about how my TAing experiences would be affected by the pandemic. I even mentioned it in my very first SASS blog. The most fulfilling aspect of TAing for me comes from the interactions with the students, especially during labs and tutorials. Luckily, I had only ever TAed courses with labs or tutorials before this year.

Moving to an entirely virtual learning environment has meant the demise of these interactive course components. The labs have been cut out of both psychology courses I’ve taught this year. In their place, I’ve been asked to run office hours and post a few lab videos here and there. While my experience as a TA has been different this year, my goal has still focused on the quality of teaching: I have tried to ensure the students are provided with the same opportunities as if we were in a classroom together.

Here is how I do it. Maybe you can try some of these tips too!

  1. Be proactive

Most TAs are also full-time students with jam-packed schedules. That means it’s easy for us to accidentally overlook tasks that may not directly apply to our own research or coursework, including their TA duties. But I implore other graduate students to fight this urge! Whenever I am preparing to TA a course, I go through the syllabus with a fine-tooth comb and add the dates of any quizzes, assignments, and tests to my personal calendar. That way, I can keep track of students’ progress and know what sort of emails will be collecting in my inbox.

If I am tasked with introducing a new assignment, I will often pre-emptively complete the assignment myself so that I have a good understanding of the types of concerns the students might have.  

Finally, I make an effort to keep in touch with my co-TAs (when I have them) throughout the term and especially before I begin marking an assignment or test. Maintaining consistency in grading is crucial, so before big marking tasks, I always check in with my fellow TAs to discuss any ambiguities in the grading scheme. This way, we reduce the potential for discrepancies in grading across students. Try these three tips and you will, hopefully, find yourself ahead of the game rather than constantly playing “catch-up.”

Luckily, the skills Kate has learned as a TA also make her a good bread-making instructor!
  1. Be approachable

Conveying approachability has been a tricky thing to master in this new, online world. With everyone so far apart, the chances of face-to-face interactions are minimal. As such, I have employed every trick in my book to engage with the students and present myself as an ally and educational resource.

I have been tracking my emails with vigour. No student email is ever left unread or unacknowledged. Typically, I respond to the students’ emails within 2 hours of receipt. One of my personal pet peeves as a student is when a TA does not respond. To me, it sends the message that the TA is either uninterested in helping or simply does not know the answer. I never want students to think the former, so I always hit the “reply” button. Secondly, I strive to keep an open mind when I am introduced to new perspectives. For example, every so often, a student will approach me to ask why they did not get full marks for a question on an assignment/ test.  In these situations, rather than just reciting the rubric and dismissing their concerns, I invite them to explain their perspective. Students often introduce me to a new perspective I had not considered. I’ll happily concede the marks when students explain their perspective and fair reasoning! The key here is to avoid getting defensive—and to learn more about other Queen’s community members by reading more about their needs (start by reading my fellow blogger Rahul’s take on decolonising the classroom). We all make mistakes: I know it. Students know it. We all know it. Handling these situations with grace and humility reaffirms the students’ trust in me as a mentor.

Of course, even with these tips, there are bound to be a few hiccups throughout the term anyway. Try as I might, I know it is impossible to predict or prevent every debacle. However, I also know that by taking these measures, I mitigate my potential for error as well as simultaneously enhance the learning environment of the students. As long as I am an educator, I will continue to put the students’ needs first and create an interactive space where they can feel confident asking questions and striving for success.