( last updated 2009-08-18)
1. The Role of a TA in Undergraduate Education
2. TA Workload
3. What We Expect of our TAs
4. Professional Ethics
5. General TA Responsibilities
6. General Guidelines for
7. General Guidelines for Consulting
8. General Guidelines for a Lab TA
9. International TAs (i.e. TAs
whose first language is not English)
10. TA Administrative Issues
TA Contract (Duties Specification Letter)
Composition of TA Board
11. TA Training Programs at UWO
12. Contacts for Questions
As a Teaching Assistant ("TA") you are an employee of the Computer Science Department, whose role is, as the name implies, to assist with the teaching of a course. Your assistance will have different components, depending on the course and the instructor. But whatever your specific role may be, you are an important member of the teaching team for the course! Many courses could not be run without TAs. And a good TA can make a big difference in how the course is perceived by the students, and how smoothly and effectively the course runs.
Helping students to succeed in Computer Science is very satisfying and rewarding -- enjoy being a TA!
The duties of a teaching assistant may include some or all of the following:
Teaching assistants are not expected to make up assignments nor exams.
TA duties will be discussed in general, further in this handbook. The duties of a TA for a specific course will be detailed in the Duties Specification Letter provided by the Computer Science Department, which is a contract that is signed by both the course instructor and the TA.
TAs provide individual contact. A TA is the "front line" contact for many students, especially in courses with large lecture sections. An instructor may not get to talk to many students individually, but a TA will frequently talk to them one-on-one in situations such as consulting hours or lab hours. Thus, it is important for a TA to have a positive and helpful attitude. It can make a big difference in the impression that the course, and Computer Science in general, make on the student!
TAs provide help to the students. A TA is one of the main sources of reliable help to the students. As such, a TA is expected to be familiar with the course material and assignments, so students know they can ask for and receive competent guidance and assistance. (By the way, it is OK to tell a student you don't know the answer to a question, and that you will get back to him or her later.)
TAs provide feedback on assignments. Students get much of the feedback regarding their success in a course from the marked assignments. If this feedback is helpful and positive, the student will know what needs improvement, and how to improve.
TAs aid with the smooth functioning of the course. Some of the tasks done by a TA that greatly affect the functioning of a course are the marking of assignments and recording the marks. It is very important that these tasks be done correctly and in a timely manner.
TAs affect the student perception of
the course. No matter how
organized and good a course may be, students may react negatively to the course
if their TAs are not helpful, organized, and informed. On the other hand,
good TAs can really enhance the learning experience provided by the course. Student
comments on Course Evaluations often include
references to the TAs. Here are actual comments from two different courses:
Course A: good .... "TAs were extremely helpful." "I love the labs."
Course B: bad ..... "Are the TAs really qualified to mark the assignments?" "Some TAs don't know Java, don't know anything." "The TA showed little (no) interest in his sessions." "Some TAs are strict on marking , some easier. It's not fair!" "While my TA is a good person and knows the subject, having a wealth of information is useless if the TA can't communicate it."
TAs provide help to the students. The help provided to students by TAs is very important to instructors, since they cannot deal with all student questions themselves. Instructors need to be able to count on their TAs to provide reliable and competent guidance to the students.
TAs provide feedback to the students. The instructor needs to be able to count on the TA's marking being consistent and correct, and that students are receiving helpful feedback on their assignments.
Being a TA is good experience. Being a TA is good initial experience in aspects of teaching in a university environment. TAs handle many routine but essential teaching responsibilities, such as student consulting, lab instruction, and marking .Your TA experience can be listed on resumes, and your TA supervisor can act as a reference for later job applications.
Being a good TA requires good oral and written communication skills. Communication skills are an important consideration taken into account by potential employers.
For graduate students, the Computer Science Department views the Graduate Teaching Assistantships as an opportunity to teach students how to teach, a skill that is important in future job applications.
Being a Graduate Teaching Assistant is your responsibility to the Department. Being a GTA is how you are funded as a graduate student. It is your responsibility to do the job in as competent and effective a way as you can, and to contribute to the intellectual life of the university through your teaching assistantship.
According to Article 15 of the Collective Agreement between the University of Western Ontario and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, "a full Graduate Teaching Assistantship is a position that requires an average of ten (10) working hours per week...", to a maximum of 140 hours per term. This workload applies to undergraduate TAs as well. Note the word "average". In the case of marking, it is unavoidable that the workload may be heavier in some weeks than others. You should be able to schedule the time for your TA work among your other responsibilities, to ensure that it gets done within the required time frame.
The period of employment is given in your Duties Specification Letter.
Besides the duties specified in your contract (Duties Specification Letter), the Computer Science Departments expects that
10. you will show tolerance and respect for persons of all races and genders, thereby providing an atmosphere in which students can feel safe and comfortable.
At the University of Western Ontario, teaching assistants are both protected by and responsible for abiding by the university's general regulations and guidelines concerning appropriate behaviour. For more information on these guidelines, you are referred to
Room 298, Stevenson-Lawson Building
The University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario N6A 5B8
Phone: (519) 661-2111, ext 85899
Fax: (519) 661-2079
The university has an established policy against discrimination or harassment based on race, colour, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, or disability. As a TA, you may not discriminate among your students on any of these bases. You must be careful to show respect and sensitivity to all students, and to foster a respectful, supportive academic atmosphere for all your individual students.
Be careful about the kinds of comments or jokes you may make to your students -- you may think they are harmless or funny, but a student may misconstrue them as being offensive.
Sexual harassment is any verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is known (or should reasonably be known) to be unwelcome. Such comments or conduct can offend a person and create an environment that is offensive, demeaning, or intimidating. Sexual harassment includes harassment on the basis of sex, gender or sexual orientation.
The University of Western Ontario prohibits sexual harassment of students and employees. Information on UWO's policy on sexual harassment is provided at www.uwo.ca/equity/.
Individuals who sexually harass students or other employees will be subject to appropriate disciplinary action. If you have reason to believe that you or one of your students may have been subjected to such harassment, you should bring the matter to the attention of the Computer Science Department's Graduate Program Assistant, Janice Wiersma (661-2111 ext 83564).
As a TA, be careful that your behaviour cannot be misinterpreted by a student as sexual harassment. For example, using even subtle sexual innuendos or inappropriate references to the body can be construed as sexual harassment, even if you did not mean it that way. Avoid any unnecessary touching, even supportive gestures such as patting on the back.
You may be assigned to a course where you have a conflict of interest. In this context, a conflict of interest is defined as having a student taking the course, with whom you have some type of relationship that may prevent you from impartially grading their work or providing appropriate help and hints:
You must report such a relationship to
the instructor or lab supervisor, prior to the start of the
course. They will take action to ensure that there is no conflict of
interest for you, by making sure that you are not involved in grading any work
for that student. The Department can accommodate this by switching your
lab sections, making sure that you do not mark the student's work, or
adjusting the course to which you are assigned as a TA for the term.
Some of you may share an office or laboratory space with students in the course. You should notify the instructor or lab supervisor of this, and let the instructor decide if you will be allowed to grade work for these students.
First and foremost, DO NOT DATE YOUR
STUDENTS. Do not flirt with your students, and do not become romantically or
sexually involved with any student. Involvement with a student that you have
some power over can be construed as harassment. You have control over your
students' grades, and thus you should do nothing that would even imply that
anything other than their performance in the class will have an effect on their
TAs who develop a romantic or sexual relationship with a student are in conflict of interest. Failure to report such a relationship to your supervisor will result in disciplinary action.
As a TA, your relationship with your students is a professional one. Avoid making comments of a personal nature (about looks, lifestyle, personal life, etc.).
Socializing with your students (e.g. going out for a beer after a lab) may be a friendly thing to do, but be aware that it can lead to difficulties. Students may think that you will favour them if they buy you a beer, or conversations may become too personal (especially under the influence of alcohol). You must recognize when the line has been crossed between friendly chatting and not-so-benign situations, and be ready to take your leave with a friendly "Sorry, have to get going now ..."
You must protect student numbers and student grades from being accessed or seen by others. Don't leave mark sheets lying around if you are marking in a publicly accessible area.
Never discuss the grades of individual students with other students. Try not to even discuss a student's grades with him/her in a public place such as a busy hallway -- suggest that you go to a consulting room or your office for the discussion.
You must not discuss student matters such as cases of cheating or personal problems, etc. other than with the instructor.
The rule is simple: do not accept gifts from your students.
This section discusses TA responsibilities in general. Not all TAs will have duties in all of the categories discussed below; your specific duties will be outlined in your Duties Specification Letter.
The most important aspect of all your responsibilities is to be prepared and be informed! This means that you should be familiar with:
Different courses are run differently, and you must be knowledgeable about the course for which you are a TA.
Note: Some courses may have a Lab Supervisor who will be responsible for some aspects of the course. In the guidelines that follow, it may be the Lab Supervisor rather than the course instructor who will be the contact person; this will be made clear in the individual course contract.
Marking assignments is discussed in detail in a subsequent section of this handbook.
Consulting is discussed in detail in a subsequent section of this handbook.
Leading Labs is discussed in detail in a subsequent section of this handbook.
All TAs are expected to proctor exams. If you are unable to proctor an exam for the course to which you are assigned, you will be expected to exchange proctoring duties with a TA for another course. You should let the course instructor know as as soon as possible if you cannot proctor a scheduled exam, and Angie in the Main Office will make arrangements for you to proctor a different exam.
The UWO policies on the administration of examinations are outlined in the UWO Senate Academic Handbook. This document includes information for the exam proctors, and you should read them over carefully before you need to proctor an exam.
Although all instructors will follow the UWO policies, they may have their own preferred way of dealing with such matters as:
If the instructor does not let you know how he/she wants the above matters handled, make sure you ask.
In most cases, there will be regularly-scheduled course meetings in which the instructor and TAs will discuss such matters as:
Other duties will be specified in the TA Duties Specification Letter, and may include such responsibilities as:
The following duties are not expected of a TA except in exceptional circumstances. If they are to be included, they will be specified in the TA Duties Specification Letter.
The Departmental policy is that you may not privately tutor a student for a course in which you are a TA.
If it is unavoidable that you have to miss a lab or consulting hour,
In the case of sudden illness or emergency, call the instructor or leave a call at the CSD office (661-3566) as far in advance of the lab time as possible, so that the office can post a note on the lab or consulting room door to advise the students that you cannot be there.
If you cannot get marking done in the required time frame because of illness or emergency, let your instructor know as soon as possible.
No matter how patient you may be, some students may act in a rude or harassing manner. Try to not get into an argument, but suggest that they take up the issue with the instructor. You may wish to discuss the matter with the instructor also, especially if it is really bothering you. (Instructors have probably had to deal with rude students themselves on occasion.)
Even though both the instructor and TA sign a contract, it may happen that you feel that you have been given more work than you expected. Or there may be some other problem that has arisen between the instructor and TA. In cases such as these, the first point of contact is with the Computer Science Department Academic Counsellor, Sandra McKay (661-2111 ext 83539). If necessary, the matter could be referred to the TA Board (see section on TA Board under TA Administrative Issues).
Note: for the purposes of this Handbook, the term "international" refers to a student or TA whose first language is not English.
English is not the first language of many TAs, nor of many students. This can obviously lead to problems during labs or consulting hours, as TAs may have trouble understanding their students or being understood by them. The most important point to bear in mind is that, although language differences can be problematic, they are by no means insurmountable. If you really work at establishing two-way communication between you and the student, the international student will be helped to learn, and life is made easier for both of you.
If you are an international TA, the section on International TAs further in this document deals with language issues and cultural issues that you may encounter as a TA.
In general, the following tips can help solve language problems with students whose first language is not the same as yours:
· Try to speak slowly and clearly. See how the student reacts, and now and then check that they understand what you are saying.
· Avoid using slang expressions or colloquialisms.
· If necessary, ask the student to speak slowly and clearly.
· If you still cannot understand a word or phrase that they are saying, ask them to write it down.
· Repeat key words or phrases, or write them on the board or on paper.
· If you are giving a student an explanation during consulting, try to jot down some notes on paper. Students often like to take away some paper to refer to later, in case they missed some details.
Your duties may include marking of assignments, quizzes, and exams.
Marking schemes for assignments, quizzes, and/or exams will be provided by the course instructor. The following guidelines apply to marking schemes in most courses (but make sure you check with the instructor as to what situations require that you contact him/her while marking):
Each instructor will have different ideas for mark sheets and/or feedback for the students. However, the following general guidelines hold for most assignments:
You will likely have scheduled consulting hours in a Computer Science consulting room (or possibly in some other office). These are the times that students know you are available for questions and assistance, and you must keep those hours faithfully!
The first lab is an especially important one, since the students will be forming a first impression of you and of the course. Here are some hints for having an effective first lab:
First of all, it will help to know that feeling nervous when standing up in front of a group of people is very common. Some instructors feel nervous at the beginning of a class for years! Here are some hints for handling your nervousness:
Note: for the purposes of this Handbook, the term "international" refers to a student or TA whose first language is not English.
If you are an international student yourself, you may have a further set of challenges to be met with respect to language and/or culture.
If English is not your first language, here are some suggestions for better communication with your students. (Some of these were already mentioned in the section on General Guidelines for TAs.)
1. If you do not understand what a student has said, the best thing is to be honest, and say so. You may then ask the student to speak more slowly, and to repeat the the question or remark.
2. If you still cannot understand a word or phrase that they are saying, ask them to write it down, or rephrase their question using different wording.
3. Try to speak slowly and clearly yourself. See how the student reacts, and now and then check that they understand what you are saying. (Some students do not like to say that they did not understand, so look for puzzled or unhappy expressions on their faces.)
4. If you are giving a student an explanation during consulting, try to jot down some notes on paper. Students often like to take away some paper to refer to later, in case they missed some details in what you were saying.
5. If you are teaching a lab, write key phrases on the board or overhead to make sure that the students understand what you are saying.
6. Feel free to ask the meaning of slang expressions or colloquialisms that you do not understand. Students are usually more than willing to do this, and may even find it fun.
7. If you are teaching a lab, tell the students a bit about yourself and your culture in the first lab. Students will try harder to understand someone with whom they feel some connection. Also, in a cheerful manner, tell the students that any language problems you may have are a minor consideration compared with the enormous amount that the students can learn from you!
8. If there are English sounds which are particularly difficult for you to pronounce, tell your students this at the beginning of the term. You should, of course, try to improve your pronunciation, but at the same time students can learn your way of pronouncing common sounds or words.
Here are some quick tips for improving your English:
· Watch television, especially news programs or conversational programs (even "soap operas"!).
· Make a habit of reading at least one English language newspaper. The local paper, The London Free Press, covers international, national, and local news. The Globe and Mail and the National Post cover a broad range of news.
· Form study groups with other students.
· If you and your supervisor have a common first language, try to use English in your discussions.
· Avoid socializing exclusively with other students from your home country. It may make you feel more comfortable in the short term, but in the long run your English will not improve and you may just continue to feel isolated and confused in a foreign country.
Informality: International TAs are often puzzled by Canadian undergraduate behaviour. Canadian students tend to be less formal in dress and manner both in and out of the classroom. Canadian professors may also be informal in dress and manner, and may encourage students to call them by their first name. You will find that students will certainly expect to call their TAs by their first name.
Questioning authority: Rather than accepting what the professor says as
being the "truth", students may challenge what an instructor
has to say, both in and out of class. This is considered to be rude or
disrespectful in some cultures, but questioning authority is both acceptable
and encouraged in Canadian high schools and universities. However, students who
become rude or angry are NOT behaving in an acceptable manner, and you do not
need to tolerate such behaviour.
Complaints about grades: Some international TAs are very surprised at the extent to which students will complain about their grades. Many students may feel that they have been treated unfairly, and will argue for a change of grade. When students complain to you in person, it can be very hard to respond, especially if you are not completely fluent in English. You may feel that you are being pushed into doing what the student wants, especially if the student becomes angry. Encourage the instructor of your course to make a policy that only written complaints or queries will be accepted.
Full-time MSc students registered in the
thesis option are given three teaching assistantships within the 16-month period
that starts upon entering the program (with the 3rd TA-ship in the 4th
term) provided that they satisfactorily carry out their TA duties and maintain
good academic standing. Full-time PhD students are given two teaching
assistantships within a one year period for four years, provided that
they satisfactorily carry out their TA duties and maintain good academic
standing. Your signature on the Computer Science Department's Duties
Specification Letter verifies that you find these terms acceptable.
Additional teaching assistantships beyond the normal funding period are contingent on available funding, good academic standing, and satisfactory evaluations from previous teaching assistantships.
Good academic standing for MSc students is defined as maintaining at least a 78% average on all graduate courses completed in the current program. Good academic standing for PhD students is defined as maintaining at least a 78% average on all graduate courses completed in the current program and progress on their research which is reported on a yearly basis.
This letter is an offer of employment as a GTA in the Computer Science Department. It contains a list of duties to be performed by the GTA, with an estimated number of hours for each filled in by the course supervisor. When you sign the letter by the stated expiry date, this serves as the acceptance of the offer of employment and confirms that you will perform the specified duties.
The purpose of TA evaluations is to provide feedback on your performance as a TA, so that you can recognize areas that might need improvement (or that you are doing a fine job!).
Student Evaluations: If you lead a lab session, students in your lab will be asked to provide an evaluation. The student evaluations and comments will be summarized and made available to you after final grades for the course have been submitted to the Registrar.
Instructor Evaluations: During the term, the instructor or lab supervisor may attend a TA's lab and/or examine a sample of the a TA's marking. The instructor may provide a written evaluation of the TA's performance.
Your TA evaluations will be kept as part of your departmental employment file. Upon request, you may review your evaluations. You may then submit written comments that will also become part of your employment file
This section describes how the Department may remove a TA from his or her position before the end of the term, or not provide the student with further TA appointments.
GTAs are considered on probation until the completion of one academic term. The Department may directly discharge a probationary employee. Grounds for dismissal of a probationary employee include the following:
If a GTA is found to be responsible for being late for work, late with grading, or does not meet other job expectations, a strike will be put onto his/her record. A strike is a written reprimand that is issued by the Departmental TA Board after evaluating a complaint from the instructor of the course. If a TA receives two strikes within a one year period, the student will no longer receive a TA appointment. Each strike will contain the following information:
A strike can be appealed within one week of the strike issue date stated on the formal strike letter.
All strikes are preceded by a meeting with a member from the departmental TA Board. The TA is entitled to be accompanied at this meeting by a Union representative. A copy of the strike letter will be provided to the TA and to the Union within three working days of such a meeting.
Immediate dismissal of a TA may occur in the following cases:
A student may not be provided with further TA appointments if they do not have good academic standing in their program or if there has been a finding of academic misconduct in research or scholarly activity. Exceptions may be granted by the Chair of the TA Board.
Grounds for dismissal of an undergraduate TA include the following:
The Computer Science TA Board has the
The Computer Science Department Chair or Associate Chair (who will act as the Chair of the TA Board)
The Computer Science Department Academic Counsellor
The Computer Science Department Grad Chair
Employment of graduate students as TAs is governed by the provisions of the Collective Agreement between the University of Western Ontario and the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
Although TA Training programs provided by the university are not mandatory for new TAs, it is strongly suggested that you look into the training workshops described below. It's part of "being prepared"!
The Teaching Assistant Training Program (TATP): These workshops are run by the UWO Teaching Support Centre (TSC) to help TAs develop their TA skills.
International Graduate TA Conference (ITA Day): These half-day workshops are designed specifically for international students. They discuss such matters as:
Here are the people to contact regarding questions or concerns you may have while being a TA:
General questions about this handbook, or about being an effective TA: Contact the TA Handbook Coordinator Aija Downing (aija<at>csd.uwo.ca, 661-2111 ext 86862) or the Undergraduate Chair Mike Katchabaw (katchab<at>csd.uwo.ca, 661-2111 ext 84059).
Problems with your workload or your specific responsibilities: Talk to the course instructor first, or if you are not comfortable with that, contact the Academic Counsellor Sandra McKay (sandra<at>csd.uwo.ca, 661-2111 ext 83539). If necessary, the matter can be referred to the TA Board.
Conflict of interest: Contact the course instructor.
Sexual harassment or discrimination: Contact the Graduate Program Assistant, Janice Wiersma (janice<at>csd.uwo.ca, 661-2111 ext 83564).
If you cannot proctor an exam as scheduled for your course: Let the course instructor know as soon as possible, so that you can be given a different exam to proctor.
In cases of illness or emergency: If you cannot make it to your consulting time, your lab, or your exam proctoring, you should
1. try to switch with another TA.
2. if there is not enough time to arrange that, notify the course instructor.
3. if the illness or emergency is very sudden, call the instructor, or call the Main Office (661-3566) and ask them to notify the instructor and post a sign on the consulting or lab room door if possible.