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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Teaching Assistant (TA) Guide: Planning a Class

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

Quick Tips

Quick Tips:

•   Good teaching involves enthusiasm and organization. Make sure you prepare ahead of time and then do your best.

•   Diversify your teaching. Include different teaching styles such as group work, discussion, and lecture.

•   Make sure grades reflect well what students have learned. 

A Guide to Effective Practices for Teaching Assistants

The following aspects for good teaching are taken from the University of British Columbia's Teaching Assistant Guide.

1. Clarity: method used to explain or clarify concepts & principles

- Give several examples of each concept
- Use concrete everyday examples to explain concepts and principles
- Define new or unfamiliar terms
- Repeat difficult ideas several times
- Stress the most important points by pausing, speaking slowly, and raising voice
- Use graphs or diagrams to facilitate explanation
- Point out practical applications of concepts
- Answer students’ questions thoroughly
- Suggest ways of memorizing complicated ideas
- Write key terms on whiteboard or overhead screen

2. Enthusiasm: use of non-verbal behavior to solicit student attention and interest

- Speak in a dramatic or expressive way
- Smile
- Walk among students
- Maintain eye contact with students
- Avoid reading lecture verbatim from prepared notes or text

3. Interaction: techniques used to foster class participation

- Encourage student questions and comments
- Avoid direct criticism of students when they make errors
- Praise students for good ideas
- Ask questions of individual students and whole class
- Incorporate students’ ideas into presentation
- Present challenging, thought-provoking ideas
- Use a variety of media and activities

4. Organization: ways of organizing or structuring subject matter

- Use headings and subheadings to organize presentation
- Put outline on whiteboard/overhead/PowerPoint
- Clearly indicate transition from one topic to the next
- Give preliminary overview at beginning
- Explain how each topic fits into the course as a whole
- Begin class with a review of topics covered last time
- Periodically summarize points previously made

5. Pace: rate of information presentation, efficient use of time

- Ask and confirm if students understand, before proceeding to next topic

6. Disclosure: explicitness concerning course requirements and grading criteria

- State objectives of the course and objectives of each meeting
- Advise students as to how to prepare for tests or exams
- Provide sample exam questions
- Tell students exactly what is expected of them on tests, essays or assignments
- Remind students of test dates or assignment deadlines

7. Rapport: quality of interpersonal relations

- Address individual students by name (to the extent possible in larger classes)
- Announce availability for consultation outside of class
- Offer to help students with problems
- Show acceptance of other points of view
- Talk with students before and after class


Questions and Answers

         How should I grade assignments?

Discuss with the instructor before you make any decisions about grading assignments. Often you will use the instructor’s guide or rubric* as a standard. Additionally, discuss with the instructor turnaround time for the assignments and keep to that. Students will expect their assignments back in a timely manner so they can improve on them for the next assignment. Read through the assignment before marking it, and if you have trouble, set it aside and come back to it after looking at others. Once you are done marking, evaluate and make sure you have consistently marked all the assignments. Be sure that your feedback is both encouraging and constructive. 

*For information about what a rubric is and examples of rubrics, see Carnegie Mellon's University's Grading and Performance Rubrics guide from the Eberly Center: Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation.

          What are good grading system characteristics?

When thinking about how you are going to weigh each section of a grade, or when creating a rubric, you want to know about these good grading characteristics. The following are partially developed from the University of Minnesota’s “Teaching Resources” site.

  • Grades should be relevant to major course objectives. Think about what you want your students to learn and how that can be evaluated. Often that means more involved assignments. Don't give multiple choice quizzes in a course designed to assess critical thinking, for example. Students will appreciate grading that is relevant to the course content in the long run. 
  • Grades should have recognized meaning by students and instructors. This means that grades should represent what students have learned in the course. The success of their performance, whether it be in an exams, papers, or presentations, should be evaluated instead of whether they show up or how hard they worked on an assignment.
  • The grading process should be impartial and compare each student to the same criteria.  This is where a rubric can be helpful. A rubric has standardized criteria that helps to evaluate unstandardized assignments like papers. Additionally, you want to make sure that extensions, extra credit, and other opportunities for rewrites are given to all students and not just a few. 
  • Grades should be based on sufficient data to permit you to make valid evaluations of students.  This is necessary because you want students to have enough grades to sufficiently match what they have learned and be given opportunities for adjustments in case of errors. Unless the exam is extremely comprehensive, you want to give students more than one or two opportunities to build up their final grade. Their performance should be evaluated on many fronts, which will allow some mistakes on an off day, or for different learning styles.
  • The basis for grading should be statistically sound. Basically, be honest. For example, if you say one assignment will be 15% of the final grade, the assignment should be 15% of the grade. Make sure you account for all assignments, and each is given an accurate weight. 

        How do I motivate the students?

If you are engaging, students will respond. You can motivate them by tapping into their desire to learn. Compliment them on what they do well. Encourage them when they are struggling, and make yourself available when they need it. Be prompt with feedback on assignments. These all indicate that students’ work and the class is important to you; this will encourage them to become more involved. Additionally, be friendly and use humor. Yes, teaching is serious business, but your relationship will develop more deeply with students if you use humor to lighten the atmosphere and show your human side, not just your professional persona.

            What makes good teaching?

Good teaching often involves enthusiasm, knowledge, clarity, and respect. It is important to be clear and involved when you are giving information. And it is important to know the subject well so that you can think about it practically, analytically, and theoretically. Additionally, you want to have a good relationship with the students which is dependent on communication and respect.

Facilitating Different Types of Teaching

            How should I create small groups in class?

The optimal size for a group is 3-4 students. It is important for students to work in groups so they can develop their own ideas, build trust with their classmates, and work on their communication skills. You do not want students to always be working with their friends. Break up the students by having them count off, or by giving them random numbers. Make sure students have a time keeper, a task manager, and a presenter. With these jobs assigned, students can get the most out of the group discussion.

            What makes a good lecture or presentation?

The University of British Columbia includes this helpful acronym for lecturing and doing presentations in their teaching assistant guide: P.A.L.

            Purpose - objectives, task

            Audience - knowledge base, group dynamics

            Logistics - time, room arrangement, AV needs

Think about how you are presenting yourself as you lecture. This includes dressmovement (pacing shows nervousness, but moving through the audience demonstrates ease and confidence), and listening to your audience (keeping eye contact and observing to see if they are engaged in the material). Good speaking comes from your ability to captivate (either through tone, story, or humor), your clarity (speak clearly and pronounce words correctly), your engagement with the students, and by your speed of talking. Speak conversationally, rather than as if you are reading from your notes. Take pauses and breathe.

Common advice about presenting involves these three steps: tell them what you are going to teach them, teach them, and tell them what you taught them. Prepare before lecturing. Know what you are going to teach and practice it. Make sure you don’t go over time.

      How do I manage a class discussion?

Prepare your questions before class. Think about the kinds of questions you can ask: closed (yes or no), open (typical discussion questions answering why or how), hypothetical (extending the subject, what would happen?), and reflective (where do we go from here?) When you give the class a question (one question at a time as to not confuse students), give them time to think before asking students to provide an answer. You may feel the urge to fill the silence, and answer the question. Resist this urge. You can, though, give suggestions if students are struggling, or push them a little further into thinking about what they are saying. (Why might you think this? Do you think this might be an issue because?, etc.)

     How do I facilitate a lab?

Be prepared, and do the lab before having the students do it. Allow yourself time to learn where the equipment is and what the emergency procedures are. Think about how students can learn the lab most effectively and teach it accordingly. Supervise students as they are doing the lab by asking if they need assistance. Balance your time between all students and keep moving so you can give equal help to all students. Think about how much time is needed: how long to teach, how long to do the lab, and how long to clean up afterwards.

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