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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Teaching Assistant (TA) Guide: First Thoughts

Resources and guidance for teaching assistants (TAs) on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.

Quick Tips

•   Being a teaching assistant is not only important because it helps students, but it gives you learning opportunities for your future career.

•   Think critically about teaching and how you can improve. This is one of the most valuable experiences you will have in preparing for your career.

•   It is important to discover your own teaching style.

Questions and Answers

         Why should I be a teaching assistant?

Being a teaching assistant requires you to be familar with a subject area. In order to teach a subject, one should become an expert in it. Through your teaching assistantship you may become even more confident about your discipline.

Additionally, it provides excellent experience. Often teaching assistants stay in higher education, which requires the ability to teach. Not only are you investing in your future by delving deeper into your subject, but you are gaining the skills you will need in your future career.

Being a teaching assistant also supports students’ educational growth. Undergraduate students will benefit from having a more supportive teaching environment. Faculty can rely on teaching assistants to help out in the classroom or lab or study session when necessary, which will allow everyone to focus on creating a better learning experience.

            How do I get better at teaching?

You may be nervous when you first start teaching. This is normal. The more you teach, the more relaxed you will become and the better teacher you will become. Additionally, you want to think critically about what you want students to gain from their classroom experience and how you, as their teacher, can facilitate that learning. Finally, evaluation is key. You need to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses so that you can continue to improve.

            What if I am having a bad day?

In a lot of ways, teaching is like acting. You can develop a teaching persona which might not be your real personality. Find the presentation skills that work best for you, whether that is lecturing from behind a desk or a discussion roving between students. 

            What if I am not prepared?

It is always important to review the material before class and be as prepared as possible. If you do get behind, however, or are faced with new material, remember that you will still pick it up faster than your students. You have had more practice and experience in these areas. Look over the material with whatever time you have. During the class, let the students lead the discussion. Have them break into groups to discuss the readings, or have them answer a question from last week’s lecture. Critical thinking skills can be developed even if new material is not present.

            What if I do not know the answer to a question?

Be honest with your students. If you do not know an answer, tell them. Don’t pretend and make something up. You can say that while you do not know, you will get back to them. Or you can encourage students to look up the answer themselves and share the information they found with the class.

            How do I evaluate myself?

Prior to starting the semester, you should set some goals of what you hope to accomplish. These will provide a rubric for your personal evaluation by the end of the semester. Additionally, ask other teaching assistants if you can observe them while teaching and see where you could improve. You could also request student feedback, perhaps in the form of a suggestion box. Your students’ success speaks well for your own evaluation. 

What if I don't know the answer?

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