I have been a teaching assistant (TA) at Williams College for the past four semesters, and will likely continue TA duties during my entire senior year, for a full six semesters of TA experience. (May update: I will be the theory of computation TA during the fall 2013 semester.) I therefore believe I can offer a reasonable explanation for what a TA does at a primarily undergraduate institution, especially if one is working in STEM fields.

First, a TA’s primary duty will be grading problem sets. The questions will range from straightforward computation to proof-oriented to programming. Grade them according to whatever scale or rigor the professor desires.

A second common duty will be to actually help students. These take the form of office hours (“TA Sessions”), but can also involve some lab supervision. In my opinion, this is a much more pleasant aspect of being a TA. Ideally, one will act like a professor and provide guidance to the student. It is crucial, though, not to give away big ideas or answers, though I understand if some students may want to check their results for some computation-heavy questions.

I do not believe it is standard for a TA to be grading exams, because those tend to be worth a much larger percentage of a course grade and there can be more peer pressure that could adversely affect one’s judgement. Furthermore, in undergraduate institutions, the professor has to do some grading, right?

For me, being deaf so far has not seemed to hinder my TA performance. TA sessions are rarely crowded, so it’s easy to get some one-on-one interaction with students. When it does get crowded, I tell everyone to calm down.

Anyway, I thought I would give three tips on how to be a good TA from the perspective of a person who has been on both ends of the student-TA interaction:

  1. Don’t give away answers to complicated proofs right away. If a student doesn’t know where to start, offer initial guidance. If a student’s almost done, look and point out the weaknesses. Do not tell students to ask classmates for answers. (Incredibly, I had a TA tell me that before!)

  2. If there are complicated problems that are hard to grasp, review them (and any solutions, if possible) before the TA sessions.

  3. Do not read right from the solutions manual during TA sessions unless absolutely necessary. It makes students believe that TA sessions are a pure question-and-answer session.

And here are three extra tips for the aspiring TA who wants to maximize his or her experience:

  1. Aim to TA courses where a high proportion of students type their homework, preferably in LaTeX. I’ve had enough trouble reading bad handwriting these past few years.

  2. Aim to TA courses where at least two hours (but not much more than that) of TA sessions are required.

  3. Aim to TA the upper-level courses, where students tend to be more serious about their subject. As a side note, they may be less likely to ask “What’s the answer?” and similar dumb questions.