Teaching Assistant Guide

Teaching assistants (or TAs) have become a common feature of the uni­versity landscape. In large undergraduate classes consisting of any­where from fifty to four-hundred students, professors lecture while graduate students conduct smaller-sized tutorials. Depending upon the university, faculty, or department, the term "assistant" can be mislead­ing: teaching assistants often hold weekly seminars, mark assignments, grade participation, set essay topics, evaluate and correct essays, invigilate exams, and/or set and mark final exams. In francophone universities in Quebec, correcting exams is the most common responsibility of TAs, while in anglophone universities running seminars is more common. At some francophone universities, TAs are also responsible for general student support (five days a week). Find out from your department what “teaching assistant” actually means. Although professors and teaching assistants are a team with a common goal, the TA is not a miniature or inexperienced professor or assistant. Typically, professors devise the structure of the course, prepare the syllabus, and lecture, while TAs teach the mechanics of studying history. Through seminars and tutori­als, office consultations and marking, teaching assistants teach students how to research and interpret historical facts, to read and synthesize information found in texts and lectures, and to develop critical writing and thinking skills.

Beyond their role as teachers, TAs also serve as a bridge between first- and second-year students and the university faculty. They function as advisors and role models for new students and lower-level students will occasionally base their decision on whether to continue at a particular university or discipline on their experience with teaching assistants.

Despite the pivotal role that TAs play at the undergraduate level, universities spend little time preparing them for their teaching duties. On many campuses, one-day generic seminars often constitute the only training a teaching assistant will receive before he or she steps into a lecture theatre or seminar. In recent years, however, universities, professional organisations, and individual instructors have sought to build upon the teaching experience of graduate students by offering workshops, pamphlets, websites, and seminars that seek to impart pedagogical skills to future faculty.

To enhance their skills as teachers, lecturers, and seminar instructors, this guide will lead teaching assistants through the various stages of their employment from signing a work agreement and meeting with the course instructor, to first class "jitters," marking papers and exams, and initiating seminar discussions. Individual departments and faculty interested in initiating teaching assistant workshops and seminars will find sample training programs and additional resource materials. For quick and easy reference, the pamphlet has been divided into four distinct parts. While Part One details teaching assistants' rights and responsibilities, Part Two imparts the skills, knowledge, and expertise required in the classroom. Part Three provides an extensive description of how to mark student papers and exams and encourages TAs to evaluate their own progress as teachers. Part Four concludes the booklet by providing the information, resources, and suggestions necessary to conduct teaching assistant training programmes at the department or university level.

© 1992, Second Edition 2002, Third Edition 2009
Graduate Students' Committee of the Canadian Historical Association
Comité des étudiant/es diplômé/es de La Société historique du Canada