University faculty members have long been expected to engage in the supervision and mentorship of upper year undergraduate and graduate student research (Dedrick & Watson, 2002). However, such supervision and mentorship are lacking with respect to helping undergraduate (TAs) and graduate teaching assistants (GAs) develop and refine their teaching and interpersonal skills (Nyquist & Wullf, 1996). As a result, TAs and GAs often feel ill-equipped and yearn for greater support from course instructors as they carry out their course responsibilities (e.g., grading, holding office hours, leading labs and discussions, lecturing; Calkins & Kelley, 2005).
GAs and TAs play an important role in undergraduate courses as they are often the link between undergraduate students and the course instructor (Cupido & Norodien-Fataar, 2018). The extent to which GAs and TAs are trained and supported in their role can impact the quality of education received by undergraduate students (Murdoch et al., 2021). Therefore, it is vital for course instructors to assist GAs and TAs in fulfilling their course responsibilities effectively. Providing mentorship to GAs and TAs is a viable approach, as it creates “…a built-in support system and promotes a collaborative environment” (Gardner & Jones, p. 119). Consequently, here are seven tips for course instructors with respect to mentoring GAs and TAs.
- Maintain an open line of communication (Kelly et al., 1992; Priesto et al., 2001; Hickson & Fishburne, 2006)
Communicate your expectations. Be explicit. Make sure GAs/TAs know their role for your course and what you expect them to do throughout the semester (e.g., leading tutorials, gradings, etc.). The more specific you can be with tasks and timelines, the better. Additionally, it’s important to provide GAs/TAs opportunities for feedback, sharing, discussion, and questioning in an environment that is collegial and welcoming.
- Create a network of psychological and emotional support (Hickson & Fishburne, 2006; Katz & Colemen; Merriam, 1983; Moor & Salimbene, 1981)
Be supportive and encouraging. Whether intentionally or not, your interactions with your GAs/TAs are contributing to their personal and professional development. When GAs/TAs feel supportive and valued, they are more likely to thrive in their role and see their assistantship as a positive and worthwhile experience.
- Provide academic subject knowledge support (Hickson & Fishburne, 2006; Nora & Crisp, 2007)
Ideally, GAs and TAs would all have the requisite subject knowledge for the class they are assigned to. In reality though, this is likely not the case. As such, it is up to the instructor to find ways to get them up to speed (e.g., have them attend class, provide them with readings). Additionally, if you plan on assigning your GAs and TAs grading tasks, it will be imperative that they are given ample instruction (e.g., discuss marking before it begins, mark a few assessments together, provide a detailed marking key).
- Lift the curtain on pedagogy (Hickson & Fishburne, 2006; Park, 2004)
Many GAs and TAs are apprehensive about their role. Statements like “I don’t know how to teach” or “I’m not qualified to do this” are common. As such, it is important for instructors to helps GAs and TAs develop their teaching practice. For example, instructors can explain to GAs and TAs how they’ve set up their course (hopefully through constructive alignment) and the strategies they use while teaching (e.g., active learning activities). Additionally, having GAs and TAs attend class to observe the instructors teaching and debriefing on it afterwards can also be worthwhile.
- Offer opportunities for teaching development (Joyce & Hassenfeldt, 2020)
Provide various opportunities for GAs and TAs for teaching development. They may lack such experiences prior to their employment or finding time for such activities outside of their GA/TA role may be challenging. For instance, ask them to deliver a guest lecture or create a lesson plan on a relevant topic of interest, as well as assist with developing a rubric for an upcoming assignment. Offering such scheduled opportunities increases the likelihood that GAs and TAs will partake in these activities, which will enhance their teaching practice as a result.
- Encourage self-reflection and reflective practice (Park, 2004)
Practicing self-reflection and reflective practice can contribute to GA/TA effectiveness. For instance, encourage them to compare their current teaching practices to their hypothetical teaching practices to identify discrepancies and approaches to bridge this gap. Additionally, encourage GAs and TAs to set goals related to their role and redefine such goals as their experience and skills evolve.
- Discuss conflict resolution and communication (Park, 2004)
Given GAs and TAs frequently interact with students, they will likely be students’ first point of contact in expressing course-related conflict. For instance, a student may be unsatisfied with a grade they received or their assigned group members for a project. Ensure GAs and TAs are prepared to appropriately address student conflicts as they arise as well as how to effectively communicate with students. Discussing such topics into an orientation session would be beneficial, in addition to providing sample conflict scenarios to allow GAs and TAs to brainstorm effective ways to handle them.
To supplement the tips provided in this blog post, the GATA Network has adapted a checklist from the University of Manitoba of policies and guidelines for GAs and TAs. The checklist aims to guide discussion among GAs/TAs and their course instructor to clarify the expectations and responsibilities of their role. The checklist can be accessed via the following link:
Calkins, S., & Kelley, M. R. (2005). Mentoring and the faculty–TA relationship: faculty perceptions and practices. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 13(2), 259-280.
Cupido, X., & Norodien-Fataar, N. (2018). Teaching assistants – A hit or a miss: The development of a teaching assistant programme to support academic staff at a university. Perspectives in Education, 36(1), 14–29.
Dedrick, R. F., & Watson, F. (2002). Mentoring needs of female, minority, and international graduate students: A content analysis of academic research guides and related print material. Mentoring and Tutoring, 10(3), 275-289.
Gardner, G. E., & Jones, M. G. (2011). Pedagogical preparation of the science graduate teaching assistant: Challenges and implications. Science Educator, 20(2), 31–41.
Hickson, C., & Fishburne, G. J. (2006). Can we help? Mentoring graduate teaching assistants. Australian Association for Research in Education. Adelaide.
Joyce, A., & Hassenfeldt, T. A. (2020). Utility of a peer teaching mentor to graduate teaching assistants. College Teaching, 68(1), 12-19.
Katz, E. & Coleman, M. (2001). Induction and mentoring of beginning researchers at academic colleges of education in Israel. Mentoring and Tutoring, 9(3), 223-239.
Kelly, M., Beck, T., & Thomans, J. (1992). Mentoring as a staff development activity. In M. Wilkin (Ed.) Mentoring in Schools (pp. 173-174). London: Kogan Page.
Merriam, S. (1983). Mentors and protégés: A critical review of literature. Adult Education Quarterly, 33, 161-173.
Moore, K. M. & Salimbene, A. M. (1981). The dynamics of the mentor-protégé relationship in developing women as academic leaders. Journal of Educational Equity and Leadership, 2, 51-64.
Murdoch, D. J., O’Doherty, T., & Todd, H. (2021). Preparing and supporting graduate students in their role as teaching assistants: An exploration of TA training in a school of criminology. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 32(1), 42-59.
Nora, A., & Crisp, G. (2007). Mentoring students: Conceptualizing and validating the multi-dimensions of a support system. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 9(3), 337-356.
Nyquist, J. D., & Wulff, D. H. (1996). Working effectively with graduate assistants. Sage Publications, Inc., 2455 Teller Rd., Thousand Oaks, CA 91320.
Chris Park (2004) The graduate teaching assistant (GTA): lessons from North American experience, Teaching in Higher Education, 9:3, 349-361, DOI: 10.1080/1356251042000216660
Paige Coyne is a GATA Network Coordinator at the University of Windsor. She is responsible for supporting graduate assistants and teaching assistants in their roles and assisting with professional development. Paige is a graduate of the University of Windsor’s MHK program and is currently a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Human Kinetics.
As a GATA Network Coordinator at the University of Windsor, Irene provides support, mentorship, and professional development opportunities to GAs and TAs. Irene is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Human Kinetics, specializing in sport and exercise psychology. She has experience as both a graduate assistant and sessional instructor.