Pedagogy

An Informal Summary of University Policies, Procedures, and Resources for Undergraduate Instruction

OID: Faculty Consultation

Working with Teaching Assistants

Teaching assistant categories and duties

The University regards graduate students employed as teaching assistants (TAs) as academic apprentice personnel, since teaching assistantships are designed to give graduate students training experience for future teaching careers. TA conduct and discipline are, therefore, governed by the principles and procedures in the Academic Apprentice Personnel Manual. In general, TAs are full-time graduate students employed for a maximum of 20 hours a week (also known as 50% time) in order to assist an instructor in teaching an undergraduate course.

Since the University considers TAs to be academic apprentices, this means that the faculty member will serve as mentor, as well as supervisor, to TAs in the course. In this capacity, talking with TAs about the organization of the course, lectures, understanding of the material, and so on, will help graduates on their path toward professional status. Faculty may also be asked by the TA, or by the department, to observe TA sections and, in some cases, write observation letters for TA teaching files or dossiers. In return, TAs often have a closer relationship with the students in a class than does the instructor. This makes them an excellent resource to consult in both the planning and running of the course. Although TAs report to faculty members, they are also colleagues and fellow teaching professionals in the course, and as such can provide invaluable input and perspective into producing a seamless curriculum.

The duties of teaching assistants are varied and may include assisting the faculty member in the preparation of course materials, conducting discussion, quiz, laboratory, or field sections scheduled by the faculty member, assisting in the evaluation and grading of student work, holding office hours, and proctoring examinations. In some departments, TAs provide the entire instruction of a lower-division course under the supervision of a faculty member assigned oversight for the course. In addition, many of these TA functions now take place in an electronic environment and may, therefore, involve the TA in the implementation of instructional new media.
 

Teaching Assistant Categories at UCLA

Although this “Teacher’s Guide” and many University publications often refer to all graduate student teaching employees as “teaching assistants,” TAs at UCLA are actually appointed at different levels and titles depending on their experience and availability of positions. Appointments and advancements are not automatic but depend on the department and availability of funds. The teaching levels available to graduate students are as follows:
 

Teaching Assistant: This is the first step in the three graduate teaching positions available. A teaching assistant is a graduate student who may not have previous teaching experience, but who satisfies criteria established by the hiring department and any relevant language criteria established by the Graduate Division. Teaching assistants serve as course assistants for undergraduate courses and are supervised by regular faculty members.

Teaching Associate: A teaching associate is a graduate student who has completed the requirements for a master’s degree, or at least 36 units of graduate course work and has had at least one year of approved teaching experience. Like teaching assistants, they are supervised by the regular faculty member in charge of the course to which they are assigned.

Teaching Fellow: A teaching fellow has been formally advanced to candidacy and has at least two full academic years of approved teaching experience. Teaching fellows are advanced course assistants and apprentice teachers who are expected to be able to provide the entire instruction of a lower division course, but they are permitted to do so only under the general supervision of the regular faculty member in charge of the course.

The Teaching Assistant and the Faculty Supervisor

Faculty member with Teaching Assistants (TAs) are well advised to actively establish open communication with their TAs from the very beginning of the course and maintain good communication throughout the quarter. Misunderstandings occur between faculty and TAs when they do not communicate or when either one takes the other for granted. It is important for faculty to express the exact nature of their expectations regarding their TAs’ role in instruction prior to beginning the course. The following are some issues that should be discussed before the course begins:

  • How much latitude does the TA have in the course?
  • What exactly are the goals of the course?
  • Is there a guiding methodology for the course with which TAs and students should be familiar?
  • Are there any additional materials that would help the TA be better prepared for the course?
  • What is the procedure for handling student complaints, issues of plagiarism, or cheating?
  • Who will make up the exams?
  • What kinds of exams will they be?
  • Exactly how are grades to be determined?
  • When will TAs be expected to turn in grades from midterms and the final to the faculty member?
 

Percentage and use of TA time

Teaching assistants, associates, and fellows are customarily employed for 50%, or 20 hours of work per week. Some departments hire TAs to work fewer than 20 hours per week, such as 25 percent, or 10 hours per week. University regulations prohibit the employment of students in apprentice titles for more than 20 hours per week; exceptions are possible only through requests by the department to the Graduate Division, and are not routinely granted.

The 20 hours per week of a typical TA appointment is intended to include time spent in preparation, teaching, office hours, reading, grading, and attending lectures by the faculty member in charge of the course. It is the responsibility of the instructor to design the course so that the TAs’ appointment-related duties do not take more time than the hours of their appointment. In some cases, faculty members will help with grading duties to ensure that their TAs are not overworked. With the increasing use of technology in undergraduate instruction at UCLA (such as maintaining email communication), the need to help TAs carefully define their use of time has become even more sharply apparent.

Their teaching load should allow time for TAs to fulfill their own academic obligations as graduate students. Teaching assistants are required to take at least eight units per quarter for the duration of their appointments. This minimum course load establishes their full-time enrollment status for academic purposes. If a teaching assistant must take a leave of absence or withdraw from the University, his or her appointment is terminated. A TA’s request for a leave of absence will not be processed until the department terminates the appointment.

For complete information regarding basic academic regulations for graduate students, see the General Catalog (available on-line at http://www.registrar.ucla.edu/catalog) and the Standards and Procedures for Graduate Study at UCLA, available from the Student and Academic Affairs Section of the Graduate Division, 1255 Murphy, http://www.gdnet.ucla.edu/

 

The UCLA TA Training Program

The Office of Instructional Development’s (OID) campuswide Teaching Assistant Training Program (160 Powell, extension 62622, http://www.oid.ucla.edu/training/ta) funds and supports individualized training programs in approximately 40 departments and schools on campus. The campuswide TA Training Program works closely with department faculty through the approximately 45 TA Consultants (TACs) hired each year. TACs are experienced teaching assistants, appointed by their departments as lead TAs, who train new TAs and serve as a teaching resource. In a two-tier system, all TACs are first trained centrally, and then return to their home departments to run discipline-specific programs there. Thus an instructor who has suggestions for aspects of teaching that he or she would like included in departmental TA training, should contact their local TAC. If the department is one of the few without a TAC, the department might consider contacting the campus-wide TA Training Program to discuss applying for a departmental TAC in future years.

In addition to supporting departmental programs, the campus-wide TA Training Program offers several university-wide TA services. For example, the program conducts a one-day conference for all beginning teaching assistants each September, just prior to the beginning of the academic year, and organizes further workshops for advanced TAs throughout the year. The program also offers the Test of Oral Proficiency (TOP) exam, and appropriate subsequent referrals, for non-native English-speaking TAs who need to satisfy University of California-mandated language proficiency requirements before taking up their appointment. In addition, the program maintains a large supply of publications and resource materials for TAs. All TAs may also apply to the TA Training Program for mini-grants to improve and enrich undergraduate instruction in their classes.
 

Departmental TA guidelines

Some departments have recently developed written documents that guide the interaction between their supervising faculty and teaching assistants. These documents outline the general and specific responsibilities of TAs in the department, and they often specify frequent and routine meetings between faculty and TAs to discuss examination content, grading criteria, laboratory or discussion section problems, and other matters that may arise. Instructors supervising TAs are advised to review a copy of their departmental guidelines prior to designing the role TAs should play in their course.

Other graduate student teaching roles

In addition to the three levels of teaching assistant described above, graduates fulfill several other important teaching-related roles at UCLA.
 
  • Collegium of University Teaching Fellows (CUTF) - As a CUTF fellow, a graduate student may design and teach their own undergraduate seminar on a one-time only basis. The selection process for fellows is very rigorous. Prior to teaching their course, fellows are mentored through a seminar developed specifically for the Collegium by a past chair of the Academic Senate Committee on Teaching. Faculty may wish to encourage their most experienced graduate TAs to apply for this program, which is administered through the Office of Instructional Development.
  • Graduate Student Researchers (GSRs) - Faculty members may also receive GSRs for research assistance. Although GSRs are not teaching positions, they may use their time in helping faculty members with course enhancement and development. They may do background research for a class, collect materials for a course reader, and fulfill any other duties that do not directly involve teaching or grading. GSRs also assist instructors in non-teaching-related professional research. This position can provide valuable experience for a graduate student. Faculty members interested in hiring a GSR should contact their department.
  • Guest Lecturers - The University recognizes that graduate student guest lecturers can enrich courses and be advantageous to both the students enrolled in them and the graduates themselves. However, this is only the case where the guest lecture is treated as a professional development experience with the faculty supervisor giving input and feedback both before and after the class. This does not work well if, for example, the instructor merely uses the guest lecture to fill in while he or she is away at a conference. In addition, only the regular instructor can be responsible for course content, teaching methods, supervision, and evaluation of students. Instructors should refer to their department for campus policies on reporting guest lectures.
  • Readers - As a general rule, readers are appointed on an hourly basis to assist with the reading and grading of students’ papers and exams under the guidance and supervision of faculty members. Readers must have earned at least a "B" grade in the course for which they are reading, and are not to be used as teaching assistants or graduate student researchers. However, the School of Public Health is an exception to this, since its “Special Readers” lead discussion sections and essentially fulfill the duties of TAs. In all cases, service as a reader does not count as qualifying experience for TA or GSR appointments. In addition, a reader cannot be a student enrolled in the class.
 

Suggested Readings:

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Curzan, A. and Damour, L. (2000). First day to final grade: A graduate student’s guide to teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Lambert, L.M., Tice, S.L., & Featherstone, P.H. (Eds.). (1996). University teaching: A guide for graduate students. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Nyquist, J.D., & Wulff, D.H. (1996). Working effectively with graduate assistants. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Office of Instructional Development. (1997). The TA handbook. University of California, Los Angeles: Regents of the University of California.