Training teaching assistants

Photo by Will Huang
Photo by Will Huang

It’s no question that teaching assistants play a pivotal role in university students’ lives. For many, they are the instructor they interact with the most, who predominantly marks their work and the person they go to if they’re struggling with school or personal issues.

In late October, an e-mail went out to the employees of Wilfrid Laurier University, including TAs, stating that each employee would need to complete training on the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation and on the Ontario Human Rights Code, in accordance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, by Dec. 1.

For many TAs, this is the only training in terms of sensitivity they have received and for some, this is the only training they have received at all.

Fourth-year health science student Maddison Bibby is a lab TA for CH110. Before the school year began, she was required to complete some training.

“We had about a two-hour training session … about all the safety requirements you have to remember for all of the labs. They give you a notebook that lists all the different safety requirements for each specific lab you’re going to be doing with the classes,” she said.

Bibby also had to redo the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System training. However, aside from the required AODA training, there was no sensitivity or diversity training.

Ginny Pecjak is a graduate student in the cultural analysis and social theory program and a TA for a women and gender studies class. Aside from an orientation at the beginning of the year, she said there hasn’t been much in terms of training.

“They do host workshops throughout the year as well for TAs, which is nice, but first-time TAing as a masters student, I was really unsure of what I was expected [to do],” she said.

Bibby’s hiring process was much different than Pecjak’s.

She was required to submit an application to the lab coordinator, whereas Pecjak was offered the position when she was accepted into her masters program.

However, some TAs reported that their only requirement was a minimum GPA, with no formal interview or training.

Sofy Carayannopoulos hires and trains TAs for BU111 and BU121. She said in order for students to be hired, they must meet a GPA requirement, submit an application and be interviewed. Once hired, the training process is quite comprehensive.

“The training is an entire weekend that takes place usually the weekend before classes start. They’re given work to prepare in advance, so the training is not just what happens on that weekend,” she said. “With respect to business 111, they’re assigned a particular course concept that I know students struggle with and they were asked to come up with a way to demonstrate or teach it or explain it that is innovative and memorable.”

“They’re mini instructors … those are all things that are not taught in lecture, they’re taught in lab so we need to make sure the TAs are appropriately trained to do that teaching.”

According to Carayannopoulos, they also complete sensitivity training at this time.

“We do talk about what are the different reasons that a student might not be fully contributing to a group project or why aren’t they participating in lab, what might be the reasons for not seeming engaged with their peers,” she said. “Don’t automatically assume that it’s a student that’s unmotivated, lazy, couldn’t care less, doesn’t want to be there. That there are many reasons that could be underlying.”

One example she gave is the difficulty of working with international students with possible language barriers, while ensuring TAs are “providing appropriate support so they can develop the skills or deliver at the level expected.”

Pecjak encountered this situation, as one of her students is from Chile and speaks Spanish as her first language.

“We unfortunately weren’t able to help her out in the way we would have wanted because unfortunately neither myself or the prof speaks Spanish as a language,” she explained.

“They don’t teach us that specifically … you’re not given that cultural sensitivity.”

Some TAs report to their coordinators, but some don’t have a person they can turn to with questions and concerns.

“It’s hard to know things like do I proctor exams, how long am I expected to TA for, do I have to help with the final exam, things like that … I don’t feel like there are general guidelines,” Pecjak said. “I have absolutely no issue with my prof … but what happens if you do? How do you discuss conflict of interest, things like that?”

One recurring issue students and TAs encounter is consistency with marking and teaching. Because there often isn’t a coordinator organizing all of the TAs, some students may feel that they’re getting a different experience in one section versus another.

“Laura [Allan, the BU111 and BU121 co-coordinator] and I work really hard to ensure consistency in the lab experience to make sure that regardless of the lab that you’re in as a student, you get the same quality, the same attention, the same support, and I think the TAs are very good.,” Carayannopoulos said.

She continued that they have even tested group marking on exams, meaning that groups of TAs would work together to mark a final. One student is assigned to a specific question on the exam, so each one is marked the same to ensure consistency.

“Students want to feel like they’re being fairly, consistently evaluated in comparison to their peers.”

Similarly, chemistry TAs receive a handbook on marking to ensure lab reports are marked equally, according to Bibby.

“There’s not a lot of leeway because a lot of the marks for first-year are for calculations,” she said.

However, Pecjak found marking much more difficult because there were no guidelines for her.

“I had never marked before, so it would have been nice for there to be a resource on working with rubrics, how to effectively mark,” she said. “Especially with first-year students, its really, really hard to know what students know, how they know how to do it.”

Though being a TA looks great on a resume and provides students with many skills, it should be a positive experience for them. This is something Carayannopoulos truly believes in.

“I think it’s important that as instructors when we use TAs, we need to think of the experience not just from the students perspective … but also what we as instructors give to the TA as experience and what they take from it,” she said.

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