Resources for Teaching Assistants

 2020-21 NOTE: The CTE is no longer offering the Online TA Training. Relevant content will be shared in this page as well as the Graduate Student Orientation. Any additional inquiries about Graduate Student training should be addressed to the folks in the Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies.

As a Teaching Assistant (TA), you are a key link between the professor and students. This gives you the opportunity to observe and influence higher-level decisions about course design and content, as well as the opportunity to maintain daily, close interactions with students.

If you keep this perspective, you may find that being a TA is one of the most rewarding experiences you will have in your graduate education. In most cases, you will have to take some initiative to make sure that your TA experience provides both the mentorship you hope for and a set of responsibilities you can handle. Clear conversations with the professor with whom you are serving as a teaching assistant can set the stage for both.

As you read the following sections, reflect on what a TA does, the characteristics that make a great TA, as well as what you need to do to get started. 

 

What are the skills needed for someone to become a great TA? If you have never worked as a TA before, you might feel a little nervous about what is ahead. However, teaching is a skill that can be developed over time and below you will find a detailed list of skills that will be helpful in allowing you to become a great TA. 

  • Preparation. Whether you’re leading a discussion section, a review section, or a lab section, plan your materials in advance. Ask former TAs and the professor for materials developed for previous classes, and collaborate with fellow course TAs to update and expand those materials.
  • Knowledge. In addition to whatever advanced background training you have in your field, be sure to stay up to date with the content of the course you are assisting. Nothing is as disappointing to students as finding out that their TA hasn’t read the textbook or doesn’t attend lecture.
  • Communication skills. In particular, you need to be able to explain complicated things clearly, develop interesting examples, and listen carefully as students ask questions or try to explain their confusion. In addition, basic public speaking skills can contribute enormously to your comfort and success as a TA.
  • Accessibility and availability. You need to be approachable. Achieve this by maintaining a friendly attitude, staying after class to talk with students, and encouraging students to visit your office hours or email you their questions. Then, make sure your office hours are at times your students can actually attend.
  • Concern for student learning. Students can tell the difference between a TA who considers being a teaching assistant a waste of his or her time and a TA who enjoys teaching and interacting with students. Focus on the positive aspects of the course and your interactions with students.
  • A good relationship with the professor. A great TA provides a bridge between a professor’s goals and his or her day-to-day achievement. To do so, maintain regular, positive interactions with the professor and provide feedback about how the course is going, from the students’ perspectives as well as your own.
  • A good relationship with your fellow course TAs. A strong teaching team is a boon to student learning and course management. Communicate with fellow TAs on a regular basis: review and confirm responsibilities, share insights from interacting with students, and resolve any issues (scheduling, grading, student concerns) without getting personal. Remember, your behavior is a model for students and reflects on the course as a whole.
  • Organization. Anticipate ways that you can make the course run more smoothly for both the professor and the students. Look for ways to streamline, document, or improve course activities and teaching responsibilities.

Source: https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/grad-support/grad-teaching-development/teaching-assistants-role  with minor edits.

Let's spend a few minutes looking at the top tips for being successful as a TA at SMU. You really can do this! 

Tip #1

Use the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) where Instructional Designers can evaluate and help improve your teaching.

Tip #2

Get to know your department administrators. Administrators are an important part of your extended teaching team, and they can help you address a variety of issues including student accommodations, room scheduling, technology needs, website management, and materials preparation and distribution.

Tip #3

Help your students hit their academic targets by recommending university academic support and tutoring services(more on that later) to help those who need more help than you can provide.

Tip #4

Make use of student feedback surveys and course evaluations for evaluating and improving your teaching.

Tip #5

Balance your TA work with other academic and professional obligations; consider this practice for a faculty position that combines teaching and research.


The way you present your lecture can make all the difference to students. But don’t despair – here are a few tips that can enhance the style and pace of your teaching.

Tip #1

Speak Slowly.Robinson et al (1997)found that the rate that an instructor speaks impacts the comprehension and perceptions of the information presented. Researchers presented the same information but at different speeds. They found that speaking at 100 words per minute (as opposed to 150 or 200 words per minute) outperformed the faster speeds. Speak slowly and clearly when delivering your lecture – especially for key points.

Tip #2

Vary Your Expressions.While it can be difficult, it’s important to fluctuate your vocal variations, movement, gesture, and facial expressions. This may be a challenge for some personalities, but students will more likely pay attention to expressive and enthusiastic instructors. They can also rate an instructor based on both the content and their communication style. This isn’t to say that you should try to be an entertainer, but simply attempt to be expressive as you present important content in class. Hodgon (1984) did research on this topic, and she described the vicarious experience of relevance. This is the idea that the perception of an instructor’s enthusiasm and love of the subject matter can bring the content to life in a way that will impact the experience of the student during the lecture. While the implementation of this may look different for everyone, the ability for an instructor to vary his or her expressive cues can help students relate to the material in a variety of ways.

Tip #3

Pace Yourself.Good pacing of the material allows students the time they need to process the information. The brain uses different paths to process visual and oral information. When you present too much information in one setting, it can overload the brain, leading to less retention. One way to cause an overload is by requiring the students to use too many sensory channels at one time. For example, when an instructor presents the material using a PowerPoint slide full of text, and then talks about the text simultaneously, this can overload students. The students cannot both read the text and listen to the instructor successfully. The student will always make the choice to either read the text OR listen to the instructor. Instead, present a simple image or a few words to highlight the concept, and provide a verbal explanation of the material. This way, you are amplifying the material through multiple channels, rather than providing information overload. The combination of verbal and visual information improves students’ learning.

Tip #4

Performance.Students prefer a “performance” lecture to that of a traditional lecture. When giving a performance lecture, use humor, personal anecdotes, questions to the class, and student activities. When you vary the presentation style, it can lead to increased student learning.

Tip #5

Engage Your Students.Use mini-lectures with purposeful active learning breakouts to improve student learning. For example, in a three hour class period, try breaking each hour into 15 or 20 minute chunks of lecture. After each period, students can work together in groups or discuss the content from the lecture; after their discussion with each other, one of the group members should report out the findings to the rest of the class. You can also substitute formative assessment on the topic under discussion to reinforce student learning.


Source: Major, C., Harris, M.S., and Zakrajsek, T. (2016). The Lecture Method. Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Education Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success. New York: Routledge

Studies have shown that a student’s attention span drastically drops after only 10 minutes of lecturing. (whoa!) One researcher found that students retain about 70% of information in the first 10 minutes, but only 20% of information at the end of a lecture.

Find a way to mix up your instruction by giving a quick 1-3 minute pause every 10-12 minutes of instruction. This can help reset student attention, and can allow for an improved retention of information. During this pause, you can ask questions about the material or allow small group discussions. This is called an active lecture– and provides students with an activity during the lecture that directs them to be more active in class. The activity could be an encouragement for active learning, better note-taking, self-testing, or another approach.

Example

One example of active learning showcases Harvard Professor of Physics, Dr. Eric Mazur. All course evaluations showed that he was a great teacher, but he was not convinced his students were really learning the material, or at a level he’d hoped for. He began to integrate peer instruction into his teaching.

During this 8 minute video, you will see Dr. Mazur explain the information to the class in a lecture format, then provide students time for individual and group reflection and problem solving. While we understand not everyone participating in TA training is a physics major (I wasn't either), it's important to look at the principles Dr. Mazur uses to teach the complex topic. 

So much of the research on discussion-based teaching points to the need for students to prepare for their discussion in your class. Active participation for a discussion is linked to reports by students of their oral and written communication skill. (Dallimore, Hertensteien, & Platt, 2008). 

In the video below you will hear from a California State University, Northridge Teaching Assistant sharing his thoughts on how to lead a class discussion:


Discussion Prompts

A good discussion question or prompt can take on a variety of types, but they are similar in that they are open-ended and designed to be thought-provoking for the student. They always require students to use their understanding of the material.

Let's look at a variety of different types of questions, and how they can be used in a discussion class (Barkley, 2010).

Exploratory

These questions examine facts and basic knowledge.
EXAMPLE:“What research evidence supports the theory of a cancer-prone personality?”

Challenge

Examines assumptions, conclusions, and interpretations.
EXAMPLE:“How else might we account for the findings of this experiment?”

Relational

Asks for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issues.
EXAMPLE:“What premises ofPlessy v. Fergusondid the Supreme Court throw out in decidingBrown v. Board of Education?’

Diagnostic

Probes motives or causes.
EXAMPLE:“Why did Jo assume a new identity?”

Action

Calls for a conclusion or action.
EXAMPLE:“In response to a sit-in at California Hall, what should the Chancellor do?”

Cause and Effect

Asks for causal relationships between ideas, actions, or events.
EXAMPLE:“If the government stopped farm subsidies for wheat, what would happen to the price of bread?”

Extension

Expands the discussion.
EXAMPLE:“How does this comment relate to what we have previously said?”

Hypothetical

Poses a change in the facts or issues.
EXAMPLE:“Suppose Greg had been rich instead of poor; would the outcome have been the same?”

Priority

Seeks to identify the most important issue.
EXAMPLE:“From all that we have talked about, what is the most important cause of the decline of American competitiveness?”

Summary

Elicits syntheses of the material.
EXAMPLE:“What themes or lessons emerged from today’s class?”

Evaluating Class Discussions

Should you grade a student’s participation in class? If you choose to grade, you might fear it will have a stifling effect to your discussion. Or, if you choose not to grade, then your students may not care enough to invest in your class. When in this dilemma, look to the research. It suggests that you should grade the participation in class because it encourages students to more actively participate in the discussions.

Another way to encourage the use of participation in class is through a token system. Students can earn tokens through participation in class and redeem them for extra credit. The use of tokens has been shown to have a positive impact on students’ joining the conversation. Bonicki & Moore (2003), studied the effectiveness of tokens for student participation. They found that directed and non-directed participation increased with the use of tokens, and students responded faster to questions while the token system was in place. Even after the system ended, students continued to positively respond to questions.


Source: Barkley, E.F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty (pp. 90). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

An effective teacher is an excellent communicator and therefore thinks about improving his or her presentation skills. One of the most important aspects of communicating is shaping both content and style to fit your audience. In the classroom, if you cannot communicate in a way that is both comprehensible and interesting to your students, their learning will be greatly reduced.

To strengthen your presentation skills, you should work on improving your skills in these three areas: Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication; Effective Use of the Chalkboard and Visual-Aids; and Effective Design and Meaningful Organization of Content. In the next few pages you will review more details about these.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication

  • Find out all you can about the room in which you will be presenting. Visit the room ahead of time to familiarize yourself with its size and layout, as well as the type of chalkboards/whiteboards, chalk, erasers, and multimedia available. In addition, obtain any necessary training on the multimedia with OIT.
  • Use the classroom as a stage. Move around to engage and interact with your audience. Do not stand in one spot the entire time. Move with purpose; do not walk aimlessly.
  • Prepare. Preparation is essential. All excellent teachers are well prepared for each class. Practice in the room if you can, especially if you are new to teaching. In addition, prepare yourself emotionally and psychologically by taking the time to organize your thoughts and to look forward to teaching before every class.
  • Speak loudly and clearly.Project your voice and face your audience when you are speaking. Speak slightly louder than you do in a normal conversation. Use a microphone in a medium to large classroom. The class may include students with hearing problems. Moreover, a microphone will help ensure that students can hear you even when you turn to the chalkboard momentarily.
  • Modulate the tone, pitch, and speed of your speech.Do not speak in a monotone. Vary the pitch and speed of your voice for emphasis and effect. Use appropriate pauses. Rather than using filler words such as “uh,” for example, simply pause before moving on to the next idea or point.
  • Use gestures and facial expressions to help you explain, emphasize, and communicate the material. However, be careful not to develop distracting habits such as pacing or repeatedly adjusting your glasses or hair. To find out if you are unconsciously doing anything that may be distracting to your audience, have a colleague observe one of your classes or have your class videotaped. 
  • Develop a teaching persona.Decide how you want to be perceived and what mannerisms you want to have. For example, do you want to be quiet, humorous, formal, or informal? Whatever persona is right for you, aim to convey confidence and ease. Move with certainty and assuredness, and be careful not to seem pompous or intimidating.
  • Show passion and enthusiasm for the topic. If you are not interested in the subject, you cannot expect your students to be interested, either. Point out the fascinating aspects of what they are learning.
  • Do not read your notes or slides. Doing so will lower your energy level and lead your audience to feel less engaged.
  • Interact with and pay attention to your audience.Make eye contact with the students, not with the wall or chalkboard. Build a rapport with the class. Make sure the class is with you (following and understanding what you are discussing). If they appear to be lost, take additional time to explain points and to ask and answer questions.
  • Do not take yourself too seriously.Be able to laugh at yourself and your mistakes. Feel free to bring humor into the classroom, but direct it at yourself, rather than at your students’ questions and ideas.
  • Keep track of the time. Do not start early or end late. The students often do not recall or listen to information presented after the class period is technically finished.

Source: McKeachie, W. (1999). McKeachie’s teaching tips : strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (10th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Are your classroom norms clearly stated? What implicit values of your discipline might disturb or bewilder some students? How do you encourage students to present alternative or different perspectives, debate ideas, or even create panels that represent differing viewpoints? Do your examples or illustrations acknowledge the experiences of people from different backgrounds in non-stereotypical ways? Are students welcome to share from their own interests and backgrounds? Are they treated as individuals? Have you thought about your own conscious and subconscious biases about people from other cultures? 

As you work to create an inclusive classroom for your students, there are a number of multicultural considerations that you should take into account during the planning process. Firstbecome comfortable with your lack of knowledge about certain groups, then look for ways to inform yourself. This could be through experiences, reading, and/or conversations with faculty, peers, and students from those groups that are knowledgeable about specific groups. 

Accommodations

Some students may have religious holidays and practice that require accommodation, and may not line up with university holidays. At the beginning of the semester, ask your students to let you know if their participation will be affected by their observance of any religious holidays or a disability. This gives you the opportunity to make accommodations well in advance. 

Attendance

Some students may appear different in a very visible way, such as women who wear Islamic clothing, African American or Asian American students in a predominantly white class, students who use wheelchairs, and so on. Because they look different, they often can be penalized because of their visibility and absences can be more easily noticed. For this reason, it is important to record all student attendance at each class session (even if you choose not to use that information) rather than collecting a mental record of absences. This may unintentionally affect how you evaluate them.

Grading

Be careful not to use different criteria to evaluate the performance of people from certain groups. To avoid this, ask all students about their prior experience with the content, and inform them of the assessment criteria. Also inform them with a rationale of any differential evaluations, if you use such a practice.

Cultural Reference Points

Instructors that draw exclusively from their own experience may miss out on reaching all students in class. Examples are used to clarify key points, so make sure to collect examples from a variety of different cultural points. For example, different TV shows may be relevant to different cultural groups, and sports references should include activities that both men and women play. Any concern you have about this can also be offset by simply asking your students familiarly with the example before you share it. You can also explain the example completely, to help create a more diverse classroom.

Additional Strategies

Additional strategies that you can start using right away to start promoting a more inclusive classroom are:

  1. Set ground rules from the start to ensure all students act with respect toward their peers. Have the students create the ground rules for classroom interactions as an icebreaker activity on the first day.
  2. Use varied assessment/evaluation strategies so students can flexibly demonstrate their learning in a variety of classroom activity contexts.
  3. Use cooperative learning strategies such as peer-learning. 
  4. In discussion, invite students to work together in small groups on a problem, then ask the students to work independently on the problem or task you have assigned.

It's a very short list but it is one designed to get you thinking about diversity and how incorporating a diversity of learning experiences for students can help to create an environment that feels accessible to all students. In the next few sections we will highlight some pedagogical approaches that foster inclusive practices. 


Source: University of Virginia Center for Teaching Excellence (n.d.) Teaching a diverse student body. Retrieved from http://cte.virginia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Diverse-Student-Body-Chapter-1.pdf

In addition to seeing students with potential mental health issues, you might also see some students in your class that might require accommodations due to a disability. Therefore, Teaching Assistants should familiarize themselves with the general guidelines applicable to students with disabilities. 

The primary office for handling disabilities at SMU is DASS, or Disability Accommodations & Success Strategies. This office is the result of two important laws:  the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Also many Texas state laws guide this work. 

DASS helps level the playing field and ensure equal access for all. Accommodations are designed to remove or minimize barriers. 

What is a Disability?

1) Chronic or permanent condition

2) Interferes with or makes impossible a crucial area of life

3) Many types, in order of prevalence here at SMU:  ADHD, learning, psychological, medical, and a small number of students in the categories of mobility, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), blind, deaf, and hard of hearing. 

VERY IMPORTANT: Students are responsible for submitting documentation that complies with these guidelines, NOT teaching assistants. 

Guidelines for Service Requests/Documentation

To establish eligibility for services and accommodations on the basis of a disability, students must complete and submit an online Accommodation Request form along with supporting documentation to determine eligibility for services.  Students should carefully read the Guidelines for Documenting a Disability before submitting supporting medical documentation.

Documentation must be comprehensive and current, even if the student has had a long-standing disability diagnosis. The review process could take 2-3 weeks from the time the online form and documentation are submitted. Students will receive correspondence through DASS Link, the DASS office’s online data management system used to facilitate accommodation requests and communicate with students and instructors. On a case-by-case basis, based on the impact of a documented disability on the individual student, DASS staff will verify the disability, determine effective and reasonable accommodations, and recommend accommodations and services. After the review, DASS will notify the student of the outcome of the review.

The DASS Office is Located in the
Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center

If the documentation provided is adequate: the student will schedule an intake appointment with a member of the DASS staff. At that appointment, DASS staff go over procedures for how to make accommodations official with faculty and/or implement services. The student will then be expected to communicate with each instructor personally about implementing the accommodations listed in the electronic DASS letter. 

If the documentation is inadequate: DASS will inform the student (in writing if needed) as to what additional information is needed. DASS reserves the right to request additional or updated documentation, as needed. 

Caution: Even if students with disabilities shared information about their disability with SMU Admissions, that information is not shared with the DASS office. Individual Education Plans (IEP's) and 504 plans from high school are generally not considered sufficient documentation at the post-secondary level, but in some cases may contain the test report and scores required. At the university level, it is the student's responsibility to pay all costs involved in obtaining evaluations and documentation of a disability.

Lastly, please note that accommodations authorized by SMU may not necessarily be the same as those received in high school or at another college or university, and accommodations do NOT apply retroactively.

If a student and/or qualified professional wishes to discuss the documentation guidelines, he or she may call DASS at 214-768-1470. 


What Does An Accommodation Letter Look Like?

After several months of preparation and testing, DASS is rolling out a new online system, DASS Link, for managing the disability record of the student, including their accommodation letters.  The online system will be fully functional for the Fall 2019 Semester. You should NOT be receiving any electronic letters from DASS Link for your summer 2019 courses. You could start receiving electronic letters for FALL incoming students as early as July (NOW), which means you will be notified by email when a letter is received in the system (see below). We’re offering first intakes now (in July) to new incoming Fall students to minimize the bottle-neck that happens the first 3 weeks of classes; the first letter is generated in the intake and this is why you as the professor may receive a DASS letter in DASS Link as early as mid-July. Most/more will be available for you to view after returning students submit a Semester Request in early-mid August.

Here are a few details we want faculty to know in advance:

  1. Delivery of Accommodation Letters

The DASS Link system gives students digital access to their accommodation letters.  At the student’s request, faculty will also gain access to the letter on their faculty DASS Link account.  You will receive an email message notifying you that:

  1. a DASS accommodation letter is now available for your review in your DASS Link account;
  2. instructions for accessing the DASS Link portal; and,
  3. requesting you to digitally acknowledge receipt of the accommodation letter.

We recommend you wait to digitally sign the acknowledgement ONLY once the student has reached out to you to discuss the accommodations. This is a clear sign to you and us that you two have communicated about their specific needs.

  1. Student Communication with Faculty Members:

Undergraduate and graduate students (except for Dedman Law students) will still be advised to communicate with faculty directly, preferably in a meeting, to discuss how their accommodations will be implemented.  DASS encourages faculty to:

  1. continue having these meetings to minimize confusion or misplaced assumptions about delivery of accommodations, especially for extended time testing purposes. This discussion is the time for you and your student to determine the best plan for implementing the accommodations (where to test, when to start, etc.).
  2. note this expectation for a meeting or communication from the student in your syllabus or by email announcement .
  1. Storage of Accommodation Letters

Accommodation letters for all DASS students who have made a request to share their letter in your courses will be found by clicking “Accommodation Letters” on the left side bar on your DASS Link account. 

DASS Accommodation Letters Graphic

You may also access the list of DASS students requiring accommodations by course from the “Courses” side bar on your DASS Link account.

Remember though, that a DASS student may choose NOT to share their DASS letter or status with you, just as they have been able to decide before. No letter will appear in DASS Link, in this case. You are under no obligation to consider disability-related accommodations until the letter has been shared with you through DASS Link and the two of you have communicated.

  1. Renewal of Accommodation Letters

DASS students will still need to request new accommodation letters each semester.  You should expect to receive a current letter from your DASS students by the same method described above each semester. (See Items 1 and 2). We selected the DASS Link system to expedite the entire letter process; students don’t have to wait for printed letters nor walk to the DASS office to pick them up.

For more information visit: https://www.smu.edu/Provost/SASP/DASS/DASS-Link

Begin by skimming through the paper to see the argument and get a sense of the organization (or lack thereof). Next, read the paper carefully with your pen in hand, commenting on ideas and marking specifically targeted areas of the writing. If you are going to grade several papers over the course of the term and you like to use abbreviated editing marks when you grade, provide students with a key at the beginning of the term so that they can understand what you have written on their papers.

A Guide to the Cryptic Marks on Your Papers

proofreading marks

Source: http://www.jamesriverarmory.com/index.php/service/25521/

Comments on Ideas

The margins are the ideal place to comment on smaller ideas within a paper because you will not have the time or space to mention them in the final comments. If a student makes a particularly good or specious argument, write a note there. If the student makes a confusing point, ask a question there.

Comments on Grammar

You cannot comment on everything, so try to be thematic. If the student is having problems with sentence fragments, mark those and do not try to mark all the sections that are consequently choppy. Focus on fixing one significant problem at a time.

If you are factoring grammar into the paper grade, seriously consider how much weight it should carry compared to the content of the work. Be especially careful about grading students harshly for grammatical “problems” that are debatable (e.g., split infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition, singular generic they). And remember that a stu­dent’s style and/or dialect may be very different from your own. At the same time, it is true that students’ awkward written grammar can undermine the quality of their writing; use your comments to show them how they might construct sentences more effectively. Along these lines, consider substituting words like “effective” and “ineffective” for “right” and “wrong” in some circumstances.

Comments on Spelling and Typographical Errors

Do not waste time correcting spelling errors and typos. You can circle them as you see them, but you do not have to fix them. If these kinds of mistakes are particularly pervasive in a given essay, make a general comment on the need to proofread and, if appropriate, dock the grade for these mistakes. Students may not see the importance of ridding their papers of “little” mistakes unless they are penalized for them. You can explain to them that their readers may have trouble taking their argument seriously if it is presented sloppily.

Positive Comments

Do not write only negative comments or questions in the margins. If a paragraph is particularly well written, say so. If an argument is strong or well presented, say so. Students can learn as much from what they do successfully as from what they do unsuccessfully.

HEADS-UP:You may want to keep notes on your own comments so that you can cover different issues on each assignment. You can use pages in the back of your grade book for notes about each student, or you can keep them in a running computer file. You can also ask students to keep their papers and hand in all of the work they have done in your class with each new paper or at the end of the semester. Some teaching assistants warn students about their impending doom if they force the teaching assistant to comment on the same problem twice, but you should remember that the “same” problem can be difficult to define and a student’s concerted effort to work on a problem may not be entirely successful.

Feedback on the Whole Paper

The final comments are the time to address the “bigger picture” of the paper. Tackle the big things like the essay’s argument, the organization, the major supporting arguments or facts, and the overall writing style. Leave the smaller points for the marginal notes. And remember that you do not have to solve the problems—your job is to point them out.

SCOPE

The key to writing good comments on students’ work is striking the balance between too little and too much. Bear in mind how frustrated you have been over the years when you have put time into an assignment only to get it back with a check mark on the first page. As importantly, remember that students can absorb only so much constructive criticism in one shot. Focus your comments on one or two major problems and perhaps one minor one (e.g., a grammatical problem) and accept the fact that you cannot cover all the bases in your response to one assignment.

FORM

For shorter assignments, writing your comments in the margins and on the last page often works well. For extended essays, teaching assistants generally opt to write a longer set of comments either on the last page or on a separate page stapled to the essay. For these longer sets of com­ments, it is helpful and kind (if a bit elicited) to follow the “(Positive comment) but (Negative—yet constructive—comment)” formula.

EXAMPLE:  “You set up the essay beautifully with the story in the beginning, and the conclusion nicely circles back to that story. But the organization of the paragraphs in between is not always clear. ...”

You also may want to start the comments by addressing the student directly and end them by signing your name.

EXAMPLE: “Sarah, You have chosen a provocative topic, and you clearly recognize the importance of including both sides of the issue. The next step is to think about how you want to organize these ideas. ... I look forward to reading the next draft. -Jackie”

LEGIBILITY

In your comments, legibility is critical. It is incredibly frustrating for students if they cannot read your writing; if you do not write legibly, you might as well not write the comments at all.

If you choose to type your comments, be careful: some teaching assistants have found that their comments sound or become harsher when they type them, perhaps because they adopt the critical mind-set of their own academic work in front of the computer or, perhaps, simply because typewritten comments look and feel more impersonal.


Source: Curzan, A., & Damour, L. (2000). First day to final grade: A graduate student's guide to teaching. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 

There are two general philosophies about grading group work: one grade for the entire group or different grades for each group member based on effort.

When each student in the group receives the same grade:

  • PROS:
    • It is the easiest way to assign grades for group work.
    • It can encourage students to make the most of working as a group.
    • A combined grade reflects the “real world” consequences of a group effort: it is the final product, not the contributions of each group member, that counts.
  • CONS:
    • Some students will put in more work than others, but they all will receive the same grade.

When each student’s grade is based on their individual contribution to the group project:

  • PROS:
    • Some students will put in more work than others, and their grades will he higher.
    • It can encourage students to work equally hard.
  • CONS: 
    • It can foster tension between group members because they are asked to judge each other’s effort.
    • It is a more time-consuming way of assigning grades (see the directions that follow).

How to Assign Grades Based on Individual Effort

  1. Determine an overall grade for the project.
  2. Ask each student to turn in a list of the group members and their perception of the percentage of effort put into the project by each member. Remind students that the percentages should add up to 100 percent.
  3. Average the percentages for each student.
  4. Adjust each student’s grade according to the percentage they contributed to the project. To do this, multiply the final grade (give it a number value) by the number of students working on the project. Then for each student, multiply that number by the percentage of effort they contributed. Convert these numbers back to letter grades if necessary.

Example:

Overall project grade = B (3.0)
3.0 x 4 students = 12

All students about Student 1: 25 percent, 25 percent, 30 percent, 20 percent = 25 percent (make this calculation for each student)

Student 1: 25 percent x 12 = 3.0 (B)
Student 2: 25 percent x 12 = 3.0 (B)
Student 3: 35 percent x 12 = 4.2 (A or A+)
Student 4: 15 percent x 12 = 1.8 (C—)


Source: Curzan, A., & Damour, L. (2000). First day to final grade: A graduate student's guide to teaching. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.