How to be a great postgraduate teaching assistant

It doesn’t seem long since you were struggling to finish essays in time or wrestling with problem sheet after problem sheet and yet here you are preparing to sit the other side of the table and guide the next cohort through a module. How can you best support and teach your undergraduates, acknowledging that it is just something you’re doing on the side while you work on your Masters or PhD? I went from being a “real” teacher to my PhD and from my experience, this is how I think you can be a great PTA:

1) Make yourself familiar with the course content. It might seem obvious, but if you know where the course is going, you can work out what bits you should be emphasising and how strict you need to be on different marking criteria.

2) Ask for advice. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask fellow PTAs or the module leader how they teach a topic or even how to answer a tricky exam question. You’re not paid enough to know everything! It’s better for your students if they get the right answer and they will be more confident if the person teaching them is more confident.

3) Be understanding. Don’t assume that they understand everything or see it the same way you do. Something might seem obvious to you now but doing a degree is hard and students will all struggle at times. Take care not to humiliate them or make them feel stupid.

4) Don’t just give them the answers. Yes, it can make both your lives easier in the short term but it doesn’t help them learn. Break down the big question into mini questions that guide them through step-by-step. This can take time to get the hang of and requires you to have a good understanding of the topic.

5) Involve the whole group. Work to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable contributing and asking questions. This is an article in itself – learn how to do this, ask lecturers how they do this, be kind!

6) Respect. It’s an odd relationship – they’re probably close to your age but you’re not their friend. Treat them with dignity and save socialising for your peer group!

7) Be discrete. It’s not ok to talk about stuff a student said or did to your colleagues or other students in a way that identifies them. In addition, many students will grumble about their lecturer to you when there isn’t a genuine problem. Think about how to handle this so you don’t get drawn into unfairly criticising the lecturer. Basically, be professional.

8) Be proactive. Has a student missed a lot of sessions? Contact their tutor. Is the room you’ve been allocated too small? Book another one. Is a student panicking that they can’t do an exam question? Arrange an extra tutorial. A small effort on your part will make a big difference to the student.

9) Don’t take on too much. Your Masters/PhD comes first. If you commit to too much teaching you won’t be able to do it well and your research will suffer too.

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