Being a Better Teaching Assistant: Five Concrete Tips

The purpose of this post is to provide concrete pointers to becoming a better undergraduate teaching fellow (Harvard lingo for student instructor, course assistant, etc.).

Being an undergraduate instructor can be tricky. First, the students are the same age as you. Second, it can be hard to know how to improve. In my experience as both a student writing feedback and an instructor receiving feedback, students usually won’t write more than two sentences of feedback.

The word “teaching” usually evokes an image of an instructor at a whiteboard. While effective communication skills are important, the environment and perceptions that an instructor fosters among students is equally important. For that reason, I’m choosing to focus on aspects outside of teaching classroom material.

Disclaimer

I’m still an undergraduate with a fraction of the teaching experience of a professor – but the advantage of youth is that I can still remember the most basic and glaring mistakes that student instructors make.

These tips are derived from three sources:

  1. My own mistakes as a teaching fellow
  2. My own experience as a student
  3. My observations of other student instructors

1. Explicitly emphasize your accessibility.

Concrete action: At the beginning of every section (or every section for the first half of the semester), tell the students to email you any questions that they have about the course or problem sets – no matter how trivial.

Phrasing is important. As an instructor, I particularly emphasized my willingness to look at the rigor of proofs, a common concern in introductory mathematics courses – telling students that I would avoid saying whether their answer was correct but would instead give feedback on the rigor of their proofs.

Consider the result of being passively open to questions. In the back of their heads, students know that they can approach you for questions, but they may be worried about looking “dumb” or coming off as annoying. Explicitly emphasizing your accessibility fosters an environment that allows you to help struggling students.

2. Avoid saying that things are easy.

Concrete action: Try to catch yourself before using any of these phrases or their variants: “this problem is easy”, “this problem is really simple”, “this is not too hard”, etc.

Here’s a real story (identifying details omitted). A student in a course (that I was teaching) told me that another instructor thought that the course was easy when the instructor, who had a strong mathematics background, had taken it. The student, who was struggling in the course, was clearly bothered by this.

Ultimately, telling a student that the course was “supposed to be” easy achieved nothing positive. It only served to foster the student’s apprehension about the course.

Many people would find it obvious that an instructor shouldn’t tell a struggling student that a task is easy. However, note that it’s also a bad preface to an example problem – before anybody mentions confusion. Deeming the problem “easy” beforehand will make potentially confused students feel worse.

3. Admit when you don’t know the answer – then find it.

Concrete action: If a student puts you on the spot with a question, and you can’t figure out the answer, admit it, but make sure to follow up with the student later.

An appropriate response – one I’ve used many times – is along the lines of: “I’m sorry, I don’t know off the top of my head. I’ll find out and send you an email.” (Of course, you should always first try to answer the question)

Most of the time, the student doesn’t urgently need the answer. As much as it might ring the ego, it’s better to send the student a well thought-out answer than stalling (wasting everyone’s time) or giving a copout answer (hurting the student’s learning).

4. Don’t rely on the solutions key.

Concrete action: Fully solve any solution that you’re responsible for explaining (example problem in section, homework problem, etc.).

In my experience, failing to do this will, with nontrivial probability, result in trying to parse the solutions under high pressure. Having the solutions key is not the same as having the ability to explain the steps of a solution (I know of a few other instructors that were capable of procuring explanations quickly – I am not one of them). Working through the solutions beforehand ensures that you can maximize your helpfulness to students.

5. Follow the course materials with the students.

Concrete action: Read any potential source of questions – textbook chapters, slides, notes – in step with the timeline of the course.

Familiarize yourself with the students’ readings. Even if you know the course concepts, students often have fairly specific questions about certain examples in the readings. The ideal response is to explain an example after rereading it once, having already reviewed the students’ readings.

The wrong response to a question – which, I guiltily admit, has happened to me on occasion – is to ask the student to wait, spending substantially longer to read, parse, and understand the example in question.

Conclusion

A good way to improve as an instructor is to consider the qualities that you appreciate in instructors (or more saliently, the qualities that you dislike).

If you haven’t considered teaching as an undergraduate, I strongly encourage you to think about it. Teaching as an undergrad is a unique (and sometimes controversial) opportunity.

Thank you to Ruth Fong for contributing to this article.

Thank you to Paul Bamberg, Stephen Chong, Harry Lewis, Emily Riehl, and Salil Vadhan for providing me valuable opportunities to teach during my college years. I am especially indebted to Paul for propelling me into teaching as an undergraduate.

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