University of Western Ontario
Computer Science Department

TA HANDBOOK

( last updated 2009-08-18)


What is in this handbook?

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 Marking 

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

     GTA Appointment
     TA Contract (Duties Specification Letter)
     TA Evaluation
     TA Dismissal
     Composition of TA Board
     Collective Agreement

11. TA Training Programs at UWO

12. Contacts for Questions


1. The Role of a TA in Undergraduate Education

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!

1.1 What does it mean to be a "teaching assistant"?

 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.

1.2 In what ways is a TA important to the students in the course?

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.

1.3 In what ways is a TA important to the instructor of the course?

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.

1.4 In what ways is a teaching assistantship important to the TA?

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.


2. TA Workload

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.


3. What We Expect of our TAs

 Besides the duties specified in your contract (Duties Specification Letter), the Computer Science Departments expects that 

  1. you will have good language and communication skills
  2. you will have  a good command of the course material and be capable of doing the course assignments
  3. you  will read the entire TA Handbook and attend any TA Workshops provided by the Computer Science Department
  4. you will attend course meetings
  5. you will read your email regularly and frequently , so that you will be up to date on any information sent by the instructor
  6. you will keep up to date on information in the course web page
  7. you will do your work conscientiously
  8. you will behave ethically
  9. you will ensure confidentiality regarding course-related matters

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.


4.  Professional Ethics

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 

Equity Services
Room 298, Stevenson-Lawson Building 
The University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario N6A 5B8

Phone: (519) 661-2111, ext 85899 
Fax: (519) 661-2079 
E-mail: equity@uwo.ca
URL: http://www.uwo.ca/equity/

4.1 Prohibition against Discrimination

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.

4.2 Prohibition against Sexual Harassment

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.

4.3 Conflict of Interest

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.

4.4 Prohibition against Dating Your 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 grade. 

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.

4.5 Socializing with Your Students

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 ..." 

4.6 Student Confidentiality

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.

4.7 Accepting Gifts

The rule is simple:  do not accept gifts from your students.


5. General TA Responsibilities

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. 

5.1 Marking Assignments

Marking assignments is discussed in detail in a subsequent section of this handbook.

5.2 Consulting

Consulting is discussed in detail in a subsequent section of this handbook.

5.3 Leading Labs

Leading Labs is discussed in detail in a subsequent section of this handbook.

5.4 Proctoring Exams

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.

5.5 Course Meetings

In most cases, there will be regularly-scheduled course meetings in which the instructor and TAs will discuss such matters as:

5.6 Other Duties

Other duties will be specified in the TA Duties Specification Letter, and may include such responsibilities as:

5.7 What duties are not the responsibility of a TA?

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.

5.8 Tutoring - not!

The Departmental policy is that you may not privately tutor a student for a course in which you are a TA.

5.9 What to do if problems arise ....

5.9.1 TA illness or emergency

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.

5.9.2 Dealing with difficult students

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.)

5.9.3 Problems with the instructor

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).

5.9.4 Language 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.


6. General Guidelines for Marking

6.1 What will you be marking? 

Your duties may include marking of assignments, quizzes, and exams. 

6.2 Marking Schemes

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):

  1. Follow the marking scheme as closely as possible. Consistency in marking is very important, especially when there are several TAs for a course.
  2. If you have questions or concerns about something in the marking scheme, contact the instructor for clarification. Don't be afraid to question the instructor  if you are unsure of his/her answer. Most instructors will greatly appreciate you either finding a mistake in the answer set or wanting the answer clarified in your own mind before continuing marking.
  3. If you disagree with something in the marking scheme, do not  just change it --  discuss it with the instructor. Since you are doing the marking, you may have insights into problems with the marking scheme that the instructor had not thought of when making up the scheme. Your opinions are valuable and welcome! 
  4. If you see any potential anomalies in the marking scheme (for example,  deductions being made more than once for the same error),  ask the instructor if that was intended.
  5. Recognize when there may be more than one way to solve a problem,  and check with the instructor if solutions that you think are correct do not fit the marking scheme.

6.3 Assignment 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:

  1. Make constructive (not negative) comments on the assignment. For example, a constructive comment such as "make your variable names more meaningful"  or "variable names should be meaningful" is better than "bad variable names ! ".  Think about what kinds of comments would have helped you, if you were the student handing in the assignment. 
  2. If an assignment is good, say so. "Good job" or "Nice work" will give a student confidence and a feeling of accomplishment.
  3. Be clear as to where and why the student lost marks. For example, a notation of "-2" without saying  what the 2 marks were deducted for is not helpful to the student. 
  4. It is not necessary for you to correct errors on the assignment (many instructors will post the correct answers so that students can check them.) However, you should supply enough information so that the student will know what should be corrected. 
  5. Be consistent.  Students find it very frustrating when they perceive that they lost more marks than their friends for the same mistakes.
  6. Put your name on the mark sheet (if there is one) or somewhere on the assignment, so that the student and instructor know who has marked the assignment.
  7. Don't be afraid to give low marks for poor answers.
  8. Do the marking promptly, and return the assignments without delay after they are marked. (Your TA contract will specify what you should do with the marked assignments -- the instructor may want them returned directly to the students,  or to the I/O Counter, or back to the instructor or Lab Supervisor.)
  9. The instructor or Lab Supervisor may  spot-check the marking, to ensure that the marking scheme is being followed correctly and consistently. Do not take this as a personal insult, that you are being "checked up on" -- this is in the interest of fairness to the students in the class.
  10.  Record the marks and submit them to the instructor  promptly. Also, keep a copy of the marks for yourself in case a backup is needed.
  11. Extensions: Extensions are granted by instructors, not by TAs. If a student includes a note in an assignment asking for an extension, do not give it, but tell them that they must contact the instructor.

6.4 How to Make Marking Easier

  1. Do the assignment yourself beforehand, so that you are very familiar with it and with any problems that might arise when doing it.
  2. You might want to mark in a group with other TAs from the same course. This makes the marking more consistent, and allows you to discuss special situations that might arise. It also makes marking more fun!
  3. Mark one problem (or one small section of problems) at a time. This keeps your mind on that problem alone, and you can mark it more quickly than if you need to shift your concentration from one problem to another.
  4. Try marking as much as you can at one sitting, since you can then remember how you dealt with certain situations more easily.
  5. Make notes on your marking scheme about situations that don't fit the scheme exactly, for consistency in marking. ( You may want to discuss these with the instructor before finalizing the marks.)

6.5 What if ....

  1. What should you do if you suspect a case of cheating? 

    Cheating may involve two or more students having solutions that are more than coincidentally similar, or a student changing the output from a program to make it appear that the program worked. The Department has a policy on Scholastic Offences, with which you should make yourself familiar.

    If you suspect a case of cheating, give the assignments in question to the instructor, who will handle the cheating situation with the student(s). However, you should still mark the assignment(s) under suspicion
    according to the marking scheme, since assignments that are initially suspected of cheating may be subsequently cleared, or one student may receive credit if the instructor is able to determine that the work was stolen, etc.

  2. What should you do if you discover that you made a mistake in marking? 

    If this is discovered before the assignments are handed back,  it is your responsibility to go back and correct the marking. If it is discovered after the assignments have been handed back, discuss it with the instructor.

  3. What should you do if a student questions your marking ?

    If you made a mistake or adding error, fix it (and notify the instructor of the changed mark).

    If you didn't make a mistake in the marking, don't get pressured into changing a mark in front of the student! A good way to handle a student complaint is to give the student time to explain his problem with the marking, and  then try to explain your marking (in a calm and non-judgmental manner). If the student is not satisfied with your explanation, ask him to give you his complaint in writing (preferably via email). Tell him that you will then evaluate his request and make a decision later. If the student is then not happy with your final decision, ask him to discuss it with the instructor. 

    Another way to deal with student questions about marking is to ask the instructor of the course to make a policy that only written complaints or questions about marks will be accepted.

  4. What if a student becomes rude or angry?
      
    Students may feel very defensive about marks being deducted on their assignment, and react rudely or angrily. This is very hard to deal with, but try to stay calm. The best way to defuse another person's anger is to be patient and courteous (hard as it may be!). Do NOT become involved in an argument or in a shouting match. Ask the student to send his complaint via email, or to see the instructor.

7. General Guidelines for Consulting

7.1 Consulting Hours

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!

  1. You must be there for your full consulting time, even if it is not busy  or looks like  no one will show up. (Feel free to bring work to do in case no students come for consulting.)
  2. You are there to help the students in the course to which you are assigned as a TA.  You do not need to answer questions from other students (but you can if you want to, as long as there is no student from "your" course waiting).
  3. If you cannot make your consulting time for some unavoidable reason, you are responsible for switching with another TA (and notifying the instructor that you have done so). In the case of sudden illness or emergency, try to contact the instructor, or phone the Computer Science Department main office (661-3566) and ask them to let the instructor know.
  4. You do not need to stay with a student after your consulting hours are over, especially if you have a class or another commitment. If there is still a lineup after your consulting hours end,  this could be for a number of reasons:
    a) You may have spent too much time with one or two students (see guidelines for Time Limits below). This may cause frustration for the waiting students, so should be avoided at all costs.
    b)  It may be close to the due date for an assignment, and a lot of students have a lot of last-minute questions. You may tell them (politely and firmly) that your time as up, and they will have to come back at the next consulting time. You should not be responsible for accommodating them at the last minute, if you have other commitments.  If this happens frequently, you may want to discuss the problem with the instructor.

7.2 How to prepare for consulting

  1. It is crucial that you be familiar with the assignment, so that you can answer questions knowledgably.
  2. You should also be familiar with the material that has been covered in the course so far, so that you can relate the assignment to course concepts,  and not use ideas or terminology with which  the student is not yet familiar.

7.3 How to be a good consultant

  1. Try to lead the students to solving their problems themselves;  don't just tell them how to do a problem or debug/ fix a program yourself! It may be easier and faster for you to do that, but it is far more important to show the students how to solve their own problems.
  2. Keep in mind that students will have varying degrees of computer literacy and background.
  3. Try to deal with the students in a positive and friendly manner (even if your patience is wearing thin! ). They may be feeling very pressured and frustrated, especially if the due date is close.
  4. How to help a student who is stuck with a concept question:
    o Ask questions such as "What part of the notes are relevant to this problem"? or   "What approaches have you already tried"?
     o Try to find something similar in the lecture notes or the text, to use as a sample.
     o Give a hint, and then send them away to think about it on their own.
     o If they are still stuck, make up something similar to the assignment with the student (but not the assignment itself!) and work through it with them.
  5. How to help a student with debugging a program:
    o Suggest that they "start small". (Writing a large complicated program and then starting the debugging is NOT the right approach!)
    o Suggest that they narrow down what part of the program has the bug.  (Students will frequently just say "It doesn't work -- what's wrong with it?" ) First find out whether it even compiles, then ask questions about how far the program gets before the problem becomes evident. 
     o Ask what the symptoms of the logic errors are.  (For example: How does incorrect output relate to what the correct output should be? Is the problem that the test data is somehow special, such as an endpoint?)
     o Suggest test cases that might clarify what the problem is.
  6. What if you don't know the answer? 
    If you don't know the answer to a question or are in doubt, get the student's email address and get back to them later, or send them to the instructor. It's OK for you to say "I don't know", but you should try to find out what the answer should be. Or suggest that they try to find the answer, either on the Web or by trying it out in a small sample program. ( This will also encourage them to try to find some answers for themselves, rather than just always asking the TA.)
  7. You should try to answer a student question even if it is complicated, or you are not interested. ("You don't need to know this" is not always a valid reply.)
  8. You do NOT need to "premark" a question or assignment. Some students will bring in a solution and ask "Is this right?"  You can check that they have used the right approach, and point out any obvious mistakes, but you should not be checking their work in detail. 
  9. Should you help students via email?
    Some students will try to take advantage of TA help by sending their programs via email and asking the TA to find the problem.  You do NOT need to debug via email! On the other hand, answering brief questions via email may allow the student to continue working on an assignment without having to wait for the next consulting hour. Use your judgment as to how much email help you think a student deserves.

7.4 Time Limits

  1.  Don't let one or two students take up all your time. A suggested time limit per student is 10 minutes.
  2.  If you are not finished with the student's problem in 10 minutes, ask them to wait in line and help them again later. 
  3. If there is no one waiting, it is still not  a good idea to help one student for the entire consulting time. It is better for the student's learning process if you tell them to go away and think about the problem, and come back when they have made some progress.

 8. General Guidelines for a Lab TA

8.1 General Guidelines

  1. Be prepared!  It is crucial that you be familiar with the Lab material. You should also be familiar with the material that has been covered in the course so far, so that you do not use ideas or terminology with which  the student is not yet familiar.
  2. Be interested and pleasant. Be enthusiastic!
  3. Develop communication skills. For example, if you are "teaching" in a lab, do more than just reading from notes/overheads/the assignment.  Expand on things that are important, maybe do additional examples or diagrams.
  4.  Encourage students to ask questions, and answer patiently (even if it is something you already said. Students do drift off sometimes! )
  5. While students are working on an exercise, circulate among them to help them with the exercise. This makes it easier for them to ask you questions, than if you are standing or sitting at the front or back of the room. 
  6. Be patient with the students in your Lab when they ask questions. There is (usually) no such thing as a stupid question!
  7. Be present and available in the lab room during the entire lab time, even if there are no students left in the lab room at any time. It is possible that a few may come back for some help later on, and they should know that you will still be there. (Feel free to bring work to do in case no students remain.)
  8. Get people out of the lab room if they should not be there. Be pleasant but firm, and point out that the lab room is reserved for this time slot.
  9. Report any problems with malfunctioning computers, by sending email to sysgrp@csd.uwo.ca detailing the specific room, machine (by name, number, or position; possibly all 3) and as complete and accurate a description of the problem as possible.
    Example: "Machine NTD-027 in MC235 has trouble reading cdroms." 
    Please do NOT send a vague message, such as "There's a machine in MC235 that sometimes doesn't work."
    We would prefer that students NOT be given the above email address. They should report the problem to the TA or consultant.
  10. Ensure that students leave the lab room on time, since there may be another lab scheduled immediately afterward.
  11. Make sure the lab room is tidy when you leave.

8.2 The First Lab

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:

  1. Read the section on "Handling Nervousness" below. The first lab is the one for which you will feel the most anxiety (that's normal!).
  2. Welcome the students to the lab.  If there is a lab number, write that on the board for reference. Also write your name on the board.
  3. Introduce yourself to the students and tell them a bit about yourself. For example, you could tell them where you did your undergraduate studies, who your supervisor is, what your research interests are, etc. This will help to make you more approachable and "human" to the students.
  4. You may wish to read out the names of students in the lab, to find out who they are. (If attendance is being taken in your labs, you will do this anyway.) It's a good way to connect the names of your students with their faces, so that you get to know them better.
  5. Explain how labs are run in this course.
  6. Ask if they have any questions about the labs, or about the course in general. If you don't know the answer to a question, say "I don't know,  but I will check for you" or  "I don't know; it would be better if you checked with the course instructor." 

8.3 Handling Nervousness

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:

  1. Accept that is it alright to feel nervous. Take a few deep breaths before starting to speak, and try to speak slowly.
  2. Be well prepared for your lab, so that you feel confident of the material. You may even wish to rehearse your first lab in front of a mirror, or in front of a friend.
  3. Try looking at a friendly face in the class for a little while (but then look at different people around the room, so that person doesn't begin to feel singled out!)
  4. Don't feel anxious if you don't know the answer to a question. It is OK to say that you don't know, but that you will find out. Or suggest that they try to find the answer, either on the Web or by trying it out in a small sample program. (This will also encourage them to try to find some answers for themselves, rather than just always asking the TA.)
  5. Try concentrating on the subject matter or on the students, NOT on yourself. When you stop thinking about yourself, and how you look and sound, your nervousness will disappear. (It probably will in a few minutes anyway!)

9. International TAs

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.

9.1 Language Issues

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.

9.2 Cultural Issues

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.


10. TA Administrative Issues

10.1 Graduate TA (GTA) Appointment

Term and tenure of appointment

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.

10.2 TA Duties Specification Letter

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. 

10.3 TA Evaluation

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

10.4 TA Dismissal

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.

Dismissal of Probationary GTAs

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:

Dismissal of Non-Probationary GTAs

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.

Dismissal of  Undergraduate TAs

Grounds for dismissal of an undergraduate TA  include the following:

10.5 Composition of TA Board

The Computer Science TA Board has the following members:

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 

10.6 Collective Agreement

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.  


11. TA Training Programs at UWO

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:


12. Contacts for Questions

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.