My experience as a Teaching Assistant to 160 students

Going back in time, I can see myself as a student interacting with many teachers without ever imagining that I could find myself in that same role. As a Ph.D. candidate, you have the opportunity to work as a Teaching Assistant and train yourself to become a teacher in addition to pursuing your research.

For two years in a row, I was granted a fantastic opportunity for a TA position from Prof. Gavin Doherty for the Computer Science course ‘Programming project using Processing’ taught to 160 students. This course concentrates on the development of practical programming ability through example-based lecturing coupled with intensive laboratory sessions. The emphasis throughout is on producing working programs, starting with interactive graphical applications, and moving on to the construction of a larger group project involving a data visualization task.

As a TA I was responsible for supervising lab sessions, grading student assignments, and assisting around 38 teams for the final project. When I was assigned to the role of the TA, I was excited and determined to do my best, but at the same time, I knew I would have much to learn. Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way, which you may be able to incorporate into your own teaching practice:

  1. Understand just how diverse students really are

The course runs through Semester 2 of the Junior Freshman academic year and interacting with first-year undergraduate students implies communication with students from a variety of backgrounds and educational experiences. It is therefore important to avoid making assumptions that students will possess prior knowledge of the subject they will be studying.

  1. Ask the right questions

During the lab sessions, students work towards achieving their weekly milestones and demonstrate their solutions for assessment. One of the most common struggles for students is dealing with errors in their code. Students expect you to understand after a few seconds looking at their code what the error is about and to be able to help to debug their code. One important skill I improved is the ability to ask questions that will help me understand the possible causes of the error. Finding ways in which to help students during the lab sessions efficiently is quite important.  

  1. Communicate effectively

Communicating with students during the lab sessions helped me to become better at explaining things to students and at answering their questions. I also improved at listening to students’ different approaches to their solutions.

  1. Remain flexible

Unexpected situations led to the decision to deliver the course online. As a TA, I learned how important it is to adjust my approach to suit the new situation, deliver the lab sessions online, and use online tools to communicate with students.

  1. Reflect on your own teaching practice

Constantly reflecting on my work and remaining willing to learn was undoubtedly a very crucial part of my experience. Communicating with students and seeking their feedback helped me to understand which were the best practices that I could apply to help them succeed in achieving the learning outcomes of each lab session.

Overall, the experience as a TA can, as it has for me, influence your approach to teaching, help you to develop your teaching philosophy statement and a sense of the kind of teacher you want to be.