Asking Questions as a Part of a Teaching Team

Welcome back to ASK a TA! As Teaching Assistants, we are part of teaching teams with our Course Instructors and TA colleagues. Working toward shared teaching goals and objectives requires thoughtful communication among everyone in the teaching team, but sometimes it is hard to anticipate which questions to ask and when. The introductory meeting at the start of the term with the Course Instructor (CI) is an ideal time to discuss the specifics of your contract, course policies, and teaching roles and responsibilities. But some questions may not come up until after you have started your TAship and performed some of the work, and others can be hard to know when to ask and how. A second midterm review meeting can be helpful for addressing issues that take some time to parse out. Often a quick email or phone call can be sufficient for questions with simple answers.

This installment of ASK a TA! features some questions to ask your CI that will help you to work in a teaching team throughout the term. All the questions below are framed from the point of view of a TA asking the CI. What you’ll find below isn’t an exhaustive list of every question that you may want to ask, but rather a sampling of some common and commonly unanticipated questions that may be useful for your first meeting with the CI.

To learn more about building a good teaching relationship with your CI, you can attend the TATP workshop Navigating the TA-Course Instructor Relationship: Considerations and Strategies on 14 April 2016. Between now and then, here’s a TATP resource about Your Relationship with the Course Instructor that identifies general categories that you should consult with your CI about.

We would also like to thank our collaborators from the TATP teaching team, your graduate student peers for their contributions to this post: Lia Frederiksen, Elliot Storm, Ahmed Kandil, and Darius Rackus.

COURSE ADMINISTRATION

Do I have to give my email address to students?
Not every CI will expect you to be available via email to students outside of class time, and some courses just don’t have the hours for it. You can save yourself from getting swamped with emails from students if the CI clarifies the course communication policy for students and for TAs when the term begins. Such a policy might include what students can expect from TAs in terms of availability via email and the depth/frequency/length of email responses.

How can I set my students’ expectations for communication and availability?
Policies in the course syllabus may apply to everyone in the teaching team, but other times you may need to directly inform your students how long they should wait for an email response, what kinds of questions are better addressed in-person versus via email, or what your availability for office hours or one-on-one appointments will be. Setting these expectations at the start of the term protects your time and helps to build a good relationship with students.

How should I communicate with you about my workload and hours during the term?
Sometimes the hours allocated for specific tasks – grading, emails, office hours – can fluctuate depending on course enrolment and the time of the term. You should inform your CI if you run out of hours, but some appreciate communicating about how long things take throughout the term so adjustments can be made. Asking the CI early on how they want to be informed gives you a sense of how to approach them about this.

Should we schedule a second meeting now?
Scheduling a follow-up meeting with the CI before schedules are tight is exceedingly useful.

GRADING

When do you expect the final essay marks to be ready?
Asking about grading deadlines aids your own planning – and you can inform your students when they should expect to see their grades.

Would you like me to report the grades to students as soon as I’m done or would you like to look at the grades first [and when]?
It is important to know whether the CI wants to receive your grades and marked assignments before they are released to students.

How should grades be returned to students?
Knowing the logistics of how assignments and grades are returned to students makes your time management more efficient and gives consistency across the teaching team. For example, you may be asked to return assignments to students at the end of tutorial and post grades electronically after class.

So far I’ve graded three papers; could you please take a look at them and let me know your thoughts before I complete the rest of the assignments?
It is very important to get feedback on your grading before you complete the entire grading task, especially if the grading criteria have been set by the CI.

More students than I expected failed their first lab report. Is this normal? Can we meet to discuss your experiences and expectations with marking lab reports?
Ideally, communication around expectations for student performance on course assignments should happen early in the course or in a pre-course meeting. However, once the term is underway and completed assignments start coming in, it is an especially good practice to clarify the assignment expectations with the CI when there are striking grade distributions. This also prepares you for updating the CI about students’ progress during the course and gives you a basis for supporting students’ improvement in subsequent assignments.

COURSE CONTENT

What can I expect students to already know about the topics we’ll cover in class?
Knowing whether or not it is reasonable to assume that a second-year student has a basic definition of citizenship, for example, makes a great deal of difference for your tutorial lesson planning on that same topic. This question also helps you to see how individual courses fit into the broader curriculum, which can be difficult to see if you TA the same course repeatedly or if there is little coordination between different instructors about basic benchmarks.

How can I access the lecture materials?
Many CIs automatically add TAs to the course Portal site where lecture slides can be downloaded, but others may not. Being able to keep track of the specific content covered in lectures throughout the term significantly helps with lesson planning and grading.

CONSISTENCY IN THE MULTIPLE TA TEACHING TEAM

Since there are multiple TAs for this course, how can we make sure there is consistency among the tutorial sections?
This is a crucial question when you are in a group teaching community, and asking about this can surface other important issues, such as: developing congruent learning objectives, setting consistent lesson plans, and clarifying administrative matters – everything from who grants assignment extensions to evaluating and recording participation marks.

If there are other TAs grading the same assignment, can we hold a grading session to make sure we’re all grading the same way?
It is very important to get job training in grading out of the way early in the academic year. Especially when the grading criteria is set by the CI, all TAs need to be familiar with these criteria and find ways of ensuring they are grading at the same level – holding a benchmarking session is a common way to do this within a course. TAs may coordinate such sessions themselves, with the prior knowledge and consent of the CI. It is important in such group marking sessions, however, to maintain student confidentiality when working with student documents.

INTERACTING WITH STUDENTS

What do I do if a student is persistent about something I can’t do for them, like one-on-one appointments or granting an extension?
Asking the CI to clarify what your role is as a TA helps to avoid misunderstandings because you can inform students what to expect from you at the start of the term. Knowing how and when to refer students to the CI can help to address issues effectively and efficiently. For example, if a student asks for a resource or assistance that you haven’t been directed to provide or you aren’t sure is appropriate, knowing that you can direct them to the CI is helpful for everyone. And, it is important to remember that you should not forward a student’s email to the CI but rather reply to the student asking them to contact the CI themselves.

Can I solicit feedback from students in my tutorial at the middle and/or end of the term?
Gaining concrete feedback from your students about your teaching is useful for improving your teaching as well as documenting your teaching. Some departments have formal procedures or policies for this, but in other cases discussing how to do this with the course instructor can give you ideas for how to ask students for mid-course feedback as well as how to manage the process. Note that you should only seek mid-course feedback from your students with the consent and knowledge of the CI. It is also strongly advisable to seek guidance on what kinds of questions can be asked of students mid-way through a course.

How should students in the course address you in person/in emails?
You should always tell students how you prefer to be called, and referring to the CI in the way they want to be called by students is a generally good practice. It is easy to forget that students don’t always know what our positions are at the university, and many hesitate to use first names out of respect or formality.