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Perspectives on TA Management

The complexities of large university course management include TA management. There is an array of technical and organizational challenges, and there is a set of more holistic considerations around the role of the TA. In order to properly identify and rectify issues that arise, it is important to consider a range of perspectives from the academic literature to working instructors, and working TAs. Hearing the voices of all involved allows for a near complete picture of how instructional teams may ideally operate, and how certain practices may be incorporated into higher education course structures.

TA Management Research

Much research has been conducted on the role of the TA in shaping learning behavior—outlining not only their significance but their potential. However, much of the effectiveness of TAs may rely on how they are trained. A group of researchers from University of North Carolina Wilmington profiled the literature and outlined several factors that led to the effective performance of TAs, including mentoring, pedagogy, and skill development from targeted training programs.

Their conclusion supports structured TA training to help institutions experience an array of department-wide positive outcomes. Importantly, a structured approach results in TAs receiving training for their future as faculty members. TA training as a part of student graduate development is, therefore, more than a short-term goal; it is, rather, early-career professional development.

TA Management and the Instructor

From the perspective of the instructor, TAs are vital to the delivery of courses. They can be strategically employed for both teaching and administrative purposes. However, success in both of these categories may hinge upon a strong interpersonal relationship between instructor and TA. This finding is from Andrea Jardí, Rob Webster, Christina Petreñas, and Ignasi Puigdellívol, who highlighted that “personal affinity, open communication, the sense of belonging, and professional compatibility are key to feel at ease” in the relationship.

In addition to the instructor-TA bond, there are other considerations for how to direct the TAs to maintain a well-delivered course. Alan Ableson of Queen’s University, finds that in general, having TAs mark a single question increases efficiency and consistency in grading. However, this is coupled with a consideration that some TAs may benefit from a “global view” of assessments for their own understanding. For Alan, this can be determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the TA’s level of study, experience with the topic, and experience as a TA.

TA Management and TAs

The final piece of the puzzle fundamental to the understanding of TA management is the actual TA. Their unique role in the higher education ecosystem must be thoroughly understood in order to properly manage benefits for all involved. Yoonjung Cho, Myoungsook Kim, Marilla D. Svinicki, and Mark Lowry Decker assess TAs and measure their concerns using a classic threefold framework of teacher worry: concern about self (proficiency and status as a teacher), concern about task (teaching duties), and concern about impact (student learning). They conclude, chiefly, that “concerns with class control, external evaluation, task and role/time/ communication represent teachers’ worry about something about which they may feel incapable or deficient, or which they perceive as being undesirable and problematic.”

These findings suggest that TAs may feel inadequate and incpmpetant. This could be related to the wider phenomenon of “imposter syndrome” many graduate school students face. So, what are the solutions to these problems intrinsic to the nature of being a TA?

As previously mentioned, training programs are a way to increase TA effectiveness, but comprehensive research suggests that individualized training adds value to this broad training focus. Stacey L. Young and Amy M. Bippus found that TAs “reported being more likely to choose prosocial behavioral alternation techniques to manage students after training. They also reported significantly higher self-efficacy across three instructional areas: management, student involvement, and instructional strategies” when an personalized approach was taken.

A Holistic View of TA Management

The literature tells us that training is the key to competent and comfortable TAs, and that programs that target specific functions of their role have proven effective. Taking the position of the instructor, TAs are useful for course teaching and management, but they must be strategically directed in relation to their identity as a student. Finally, by looking at the student perspective, we see a common thread of concerns, all of which could likely be significantly reduced through training programs. While all of this can be used as a guide, it should be premised on the notion that the TA is beyond a temporary employee that helps alleviate pressures of the instructor; instead, TAs are the future of faculties, departments, and universities, and they should be nurtured and developed at this critical stage of their learning.

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