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An insider’s guide to being a teaching assistant

Three students in a room having a discussion

Teaching assistant (TA) roles are a unique opportunity to gain teaching experience at the university level. TA roles are diverse but can include teaching tutorials, leading laboratories, supervising student projects and marking course submissions. A TA is expected to support a course instructor with the successful delivery of their course.

Teaching assistantships at Concordia provide a source of income but, more importantly, they offer valuable professional experience for your resumé and teaching dossier. Being a TA helps you develop your presentation and knowledge-transfer skills, and can help you decide if teaching is something you might like to do in your career.

It can be difficult to figure out how to secure a TA contract and then how to TA your first course, so here are a few tips to help get you started.

So you want to be a teaching assistant. Now what?

Students in a classroom

Who can be a teaching assistant?

Teaching assistantships at Concordia are unionized through the TRAC Union and therefore only given to students registered at the university. Position availabilities vary significantly across departments. Some departments offer TA positions to both graduate and undergraduate students, while other departments prioritize graduate students. Teaching assistantships can be mandatory for graduate students, depending on the department’s graduate student funding structure.

To know what TA positions are available to you, check with your department or supervisor. 

What course should I TA?

If your teaching assistantships are not pre-assigned, you will have to figure out what you want to teach. Deciding which course to TA will depend on which subjects you’re most interested in and comfortable with. Remember, for tutorial and laboratory TA roles, you will need to understand the concepts of the course well enough to teach them and answer students’ questions. Even if you are marking, you will need a good enough understanding of the course material to be able to tell which answers meet the criteria of the evaluation.

A pen on a piece of paper with students in the background

The good news is that you will not be on your own — the course is taught by an instructor who can provide tutorial content or guidelines, laboratory experiment instructions, and marking rubrics or solutions.

Some courses even accept TAs from other departments and faculties. Use your judgement for how much of a learning curve you can handle. It’s okay if you don’t remember everything from when you took the course yourself, but you’ll need to be sufficiently prepared to lead a tutorial or lab every week.

You can look at the course offerings for each term by scanning the Concordia course search. You must be available at the scheduled time for the entire contract duration, so make sure to check the tutorial or lab dates and times.

Applications and deadlines

Check with your department to find out how to apply for TA positions — and when the application deadlines are for each term. The deadlines may be a few months before the term starts, so plan ahead! Your department may also have a maximum number of hours you are allowed to TA per term. Make sure you aren’t exceeding this limit.

Some faculties, including the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science and the Faculty of Fine Arts require applicants to have completed mandatory training prior to their appointment.

You’re going to be a TA! What’s next?

First things first: Workload form and contract

A contract

When you have been selected for a position, you will first need to review and sign a workload form, which details the number of hours you are being allocated per task. This is the time to meet with the course instructor to discuss your workload expectations. Your conversation should cover topics such as the content you’ll be teaching in your lab or tutorial, the number of evaluations you’ll be expected to mark and how quickly you’ll be expected to mark them, the frequency of communication you can expect from the instructor, and if you are expected to attend lectures.

Once you have agreed on the workload distribution, a contract will be issued by your department, which you will then need to sign. The contract will tell you the total hours, hourly rate and duration of your contract. Make sure the number of hours on the workload form and the contract are the same. The workload and contract processes are summarized by this flowchart.


Up next: Plan out your time!

Teaching assistantships can be a lot of work, and it may feel overwhelming to balance your new role with your school workload. From keeping up with readings to grading essays, supervising labs, facilitating discussions, organizing slides and responding to student questions, not to mention your own schoolwork, as a TA you’ll have a lot on your plate!

Just like when you take a course as a student, the best thing to do is to review the course outline. This will detail the course schedule, content, evaluation breakdown and general expectations. Then make yourself a schedule to block the time you will spend every week for preparation, such as for reviewing the material; teaching, during the scheduled tutorial/lab time; and administration, such as answering student emails or holding office hours for questions.

Preparing to teach can take time, especially if you haven’t studied the topic recently. Make sure you plan your week so you aren’t panic-preparing and have time to get comfortable with what you’re teaching each week.

For marking, plan around the schedule and weight of each evaluation. A midterm will likely be longer to grade than a quiz — and might take place around the same time as your own midterms as a student. Refer to the instructor’s timeline expectations for mark submissions and organize your time accordingly.


Set expectations with your students

Students in a classroom

When starting a new position as a teaching assistant, the gap between student and teacher closes. As a TA, you now represent the university in a professional capacity. It is the perfect opportunity to refresh your understanding of Concordia’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities and the Academic Code of Conduct.

At the outset of the course, set boundaries and be transparent to your students about what supports you are offering — what you have agreed with the course instructor. You are not expected to respond to a student’s email at 2 a.m., but you should respond to them in a realistic timeframe — one to two days.

When you give feedback, make sure it is effective: be constructive, specific and kind in identifying ways students can improve their work. Ensure your students feel comfortable asking you questions and are engaging with the content and activities. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, that’s okay! You can always offer to look up the answer and get back to the student later, or ask the instructor.

Make the most of your experience

Typing on a laptop

Delivering a good tutorial or lab is the trickiest part — and the main reason to gain experience through teaching assistantships. If course instructor gave you given content to deliver, such as a presentation, problem set or lab experiment, that’s a good starting point. You can explore tools for delivering this content, such as a chalkboard or tablet, videos, class-participation activities. If you are developing or redesigning the tutorial content yourself, make sure to communicate openly with your instructor so your tutorials complement what is being taught in class.

If you are very nervous at the start, just focus on getting through the first few tutorials. Get to know your students, try to make them feel comfortable enough to ask you questions, and just do your best. Once you have gotten over the initial stage fright, you can put on your student-thinking-cap and reflect on the kinds of teaching techniques you liked from your own instructors.

There are many, many resources for teaching and learning. Here are the best places to start:

1. Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning has many teaching and curriculum development resources. The Active Learning Techniques are most pertinent.

2. GradProSkills has many teaching assistant workshops to support you, notably the week-long Graduate Seminar in University Teaching and the TA Orientation.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try TA-ing! It can be challenging but is very rewarding. Don’t be shy to ask other TAs or instructors for their advice, and ask your students for feedback on how you can improve for next time.

Your students are diverse — there is no one-size-fits-all for teaching and learning methods. So, remember to have fun, be enthusiastic and enjoy the learning process. Happy TA-ing!

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