How NOT to be a good TA

How NOT to be a good TA

How NOT to be a good TA

Lessons from a first year of graduate student TA

January 6, 2023 | Brittany L.


It was my first ever trip to Cambridge and to the MIT campus and, more importantly, the start of my graduate program in the chemistry department. My fall semester schedule was a balance of courses, lab rotations and my teaching assignment. Needless to say, it was a lot to juggle. 

I felt confident that the coursework would be the easiest to handle; after all, I already made it through undergrad and learned how to study. Lab rotations should be the most exciting part, being an opportunity to meet older students in the department and hear about their research. 

The scariest part, though, was being a teaching assistant, also known as a TA … as a first-year graduate student. And I wasn’t just any TA. I was an organic chemistry lab TA, responsible for the over thirty students taking my course. This experience was an incredible journey, and I learned a lot along the way. My experience was encouraging enough that I signed up to be a lab TA a second time for an IAP course  (Independent Activities Period) in January. I made plenty of mistakes during both teaching assignments, but I hope that future TAs can learn from my mistakes. 

With that, here are four ways how NOT to be a good TA: 

1. Be unprepared 

As most students know, even if the semester is manageable at the beginning, there reaches a point in the semester where it inevitably becomes hectic. Between attending classes, working on assignments, going to meetings, and simply navigating my new environment, I had to make the lab space ready for students (e.g., setting up labeled waste containers, mixing solution mixtures, collecting the necessary reagents, laying out supplies, etc.) and deliver the (hopefully) thorough pre-lab lecture slides, which usually still contained errors I failed to recognize. Keeping track of everything that needed to be done was a lot of work, and it was embarrassing when I showed up clearly unprepared to class.  

The worst occasion was when I forgot to prepare and aliquot the standards and replicate samples of an iron protein for 14 student groups. My saving grace was the co-TA, who was able to present the pre-lab lecture while I frantically diluted the appropriate solutions and distributed them into centrifuge tubes.  I could have saved myself this stress by creating a checklist the night before and coming in early to finish the tasks. Hopefully some future TAs can learn from my mistakes. 

2. Return assignments without feedback   

Grading takes time. And while it is faster to simply pepper assignments with pluses and minuses and write a percentage at the bottom, students want feedback. For many of them, this was their first lab course and their first time performing a multi-step synthesis. During my course, they put into practice what they learned in the classroom. When they submitted physical assignments, they wanted to know if their ‘experimental introduction’ made sense, if they wrote down enough observations, included the right calculations, and if there was something they forgot to include. 

As a TA, I was nervous to return physical assignments because I feared it would serve as an opportunity for them to question my grading. I feared that it would be an opportunity for students to fight for points back. 

What if they were right? What if I made a mistake and had to give everyone points back? Even if I didn’t make a mistake, would I be firm enough to stand my ground? What if they rebuked me and started an argument? 

However, I discovered that my fears were ungrounded. Students respected my decisions. There were no disputes about grades, nor did I receive any angry student emails. Rather, the students seemed to value my judgement.  

3. Forget to fact check

I was not the first person to TA this lab course, which meant I had access to resources (videos, PowerPoint slides, answer keys, etc.) from previous years. This was a tremendous help in creating lectures and quizzes, giving me a starting point from which I could modify existing documents and put my own spin on them. 

However, it is easy to get lost in the sea of presentations and assignments. The overwhelming number of documents meant that I did not test every answer key on my own and ultimately led me to trust a false answer in the key provided by the TA the year before. 

This false trust came back to bite me during a pre-lab lecture. I often sprinkled questions into my lectures to keep my students thinking and engaged, so one day I asked a question written by the prior TA. After the input of a few students, I displayed the answer I trusted to be true. 

It didn’t take long before the entire class realized the answer was wrong. Fortunately, it provoked them to find the right answer for themselves, but it left me terribly embarrassed. 

Of course, I should have double checked the previous TA’s answer before copying and pasting it into my own slides. I learned it pays to cross your t’s and dot your i’s. 

4. Display lack of confidence 

Lecturing to your students will certainly get easier with practice and you will feel more comfortable as you get to know your students better. But early in the semester, it takes courage to speak with authority on a topic you haven’t thought about in three years. I felt unqualified to teach students lab techniques in organic chemistry, especially when I considered myself more of an inorganic chemist. I did not use much of the instrumentation or methods that were a part of this particular course. Was I really the best person to show these students what synthetic organic chemistry is like? I wasn’t so sure. In honesty, I still felt more like a student than a teacher. 

In my first few pre-lab lectures, I found myself speaking softly, going fast through parts I didn’t wholly understand, and using closed body language. My lack of self-confidence may have led my students to distrust my words or ask questions of someone else, someone they thought more highly of, instead of myself. 

Fortunately for me, my lack of confidence did not deter students from trusting my words. When my students were stuck or didn’t remember part of the written procedure, they didn’t hesitate to ask questions. And I found I could actually answer these questions. The more I spoke with my students, the more of a rapport we built and more my self-confidence grew. 

Of the four lessons above, I believe this last one is most important. Many of the mistakes I made as a TA were because of a lack of faith in myself, my abilities and my qualifications to fulfill this teaching assignment. 

Being a TA as a first-year graduate student taught me that it was okay to make mistakes. The world didn’t fall apart when I forgot to prepare a reagent or fix an error in my presentation slides. Instead, mistakes showed me areas where I could improve as a teacher and a learner.

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