Thursday, May 14, 2009

Using teaching assistants effectively

Recently, due to a new policy in our school connecting Teaching Assistant-eligibility with class size (specifically for online courses), I am asked by colleagues if I have any advice for effectively using teaching assistants (TAs). My record of effectively using TAs, however, is hardly stellar. I have had just as many failures as successes. For me, "effectiveness" has come down to two things:

  • Hiring a great TA who can take on responsibility that actually helps with workload, and who needs little management after initial explanation. My preference is to hire a TA who has previously taken the course with me because she or he knows the content, course structure and requirements, and my style.

  • Clearcut, time-consuming assignments that the TA can be responsible for. The issue is workload, so if there are specific activities that the TA can do that reduces workload, yippee!

What I look for is a TA who is able to help without my constant guidance...if I have to manage everything, then a TA doesn't help the workload issue. Once hired, I meet ASAP with the teaching assistant and provide needed training to ensure she or he is comfortable with the course format and structure. I try to be very clear about roles and responsibilities -- mine and the TA's, not only for the two of us but for the students (e.g., I am available for these types of questions, issues, and so on; and the TA is available for these types of questions, issues, and so on). I try to be clear about the amount of time expected, if possible, and exactly what to do when; I set up both a master schedule and weekly schedule that we both reference to direct our efforts and time. I also set up a regular weekly time when we check in with each other, to make sure we are on track and that expectations are clear.

If possible and appropriate, I will use a TA to support some of my grading activities. When I do this, I provide my TA with “models” of graded work from a prior semester. I also make sure that the TA understands the assignment students have been asked to complete, why they've been asked to complete it, and how it is to be assessed; rubrics and similar assessment tools really help to make the assessment criteria clear to the students and the TA, making the grading process easier. To ensure consistency, I have both of us grade 1-3 randomly selected assignments and then meet with the TA to compare results. This helps the TA, and me, feel more confident about the grading.

In terms of who grades what, I tend to lean more towards having assignments that the TA grades completely, as opposed to splitting the grading of each assignment between the two of us. My reasoning has to due with grading consistency and equity. Although we can achieve some interrater reliability (especially when using a well-developed rubric or assessment tool), this takes time. For me it is more efficient to hand over a grading assignment to the TA. I base my selection of grading assignment on the requirements and complexity of the assignment -- saving the higher-stakes, more complex grading assignments for myself -- and the constraints of my own schedule (having the TA grade assignments during busy times).

I have also found it helpful in terms of workload to have the TA involved in help sessions and discussions (especially threaded discussions, if an online or blended course). For example, for more technical courses, I ask the TA to hold weekly help sessions where students can get specific technical assistance. Similarly, because I tend to set up my online course schedule so that assignments are due end of day on Sundays, I will ask the TA to be available to answer assignment questions throughout the weekend since there tends to be more questions right before the deadline.

The right TA can be a fantastic addition to a course. Spending the up-front time necessary to find the right TA and determine how you will use the TA in a way that really helps you teach the course -- enhancing your experience as well as the students' experience -- makes all the difference in the world.