First Time TA in GaTech

This past semester, my second semester in Georgia Tech as a PhD student, I TAed for CS4660 Educational Technology. This was not my first time of being a TA. When I was still a master student, I TAed twice for two graduate classes in my major. I took these classes before, so it was not too difficult for me to TA them. Plus I was not the only TA. This time, not only I was the single TA, but I didn’t take this class before. All the students would be undergrads, and I was no familiar with the undergrads in the US at all. Being a PhD student in School of Interactive Computing, I would say I knew a decent amount of knowledge of technology, but I was in no means an expert in education. How could I be a good TA with all the barriers above? I had to say TAing for this class definitely posited a challenge for myself.

I didn’t know a lot about pedagogy. Therefore, I didn’t perceive myself as a structural TA with many intellectual rationales behind. Nevertheless, from my previous experiences as a TA, I knew what would always work was to be kind, be responsible, and work hard. I cared about students in a sense that I would like them to learn well. Because most of my responsibility for TAing CS4660 was to grade students’ reading critiques, I wanted students to know that I cared about what I was doing through giving meaningful feedback.

What did I learn? The first thing that came to my mind was that being a TA carried a whole lot of responsibility. I knew some of the responsibilities before I started, but I learned other ones later. I expected students to care more about grades than to learn new knowledge (I used to be like this when I was an undergrad). Yes, there were students that were like this, but there were other students who were eager to learn. What could a TA help? To help create a more inviting learning environment and a more friendly learning experience – for each individual student. As a student myself at GaTech, I often felt the learning environment around me was more competitive than nurturing. Therefore, to encourage students to really learn instead of competing, I left notes where both insights shined and weaknesses shown in their critiques. I also thanked them for willing to share their own stories with me. My positive feedback strategy worked out when students told professor that they felt it was okay to really have opinions in this class, not the opinions that they “should” have, according to the textbook or the instructors.

As I said earlier, I didn’t know anything about a typical undergrad’s life or how he/she learned in class when I started. Because of this lack of understanding, I was afraid that I would not be able to be understanding. However, to my surprise, I soon (a week of into the semester) found out that these undergrads were in fact very similar to myself: they worried about their grades, they wanted to have fun outside of class but they didn’t really have much spare time, they worried about their job and they also worried about their future, etc. Initially, I though American undergrad culture would be very different from the one I experienced in China before. But according to what they wrote down in their critiques, no big difference really. Being able to identify these commonalities between myself and these students made me feel I could empathize them better.

Throughout this entire semester, I cared about the students and I graded each assignment cautiously. This was something that I would continue to do if I would be a TA in the future. What’s more, after 2 or 3 weeks, I could recognize each one of the students and their critiques. Since then, I started to give more individually-tailored feedback. This worked. I remembered giving this feedback last time and then saw this student worked on his/her assignment this time accordingly. I was happy about this and I was also proud of myself – for really worked hard on the class materials that I didn’t have previous exposure to. Another thing that I would love to keep doing was to keep promise. Never once did I handed back their assignments late.

In terms of improvements, there were a few things that I wanted to work on. I noticed students having problems inside and outside of class, but they didn’t come to my office hour for help. Did I reach out to them? No. Because I was not sure whether it was okay for me, as a TA, to email them and check in. I regretted for not acting earlier since one student came to meet towards the end of this semester and asking me questions about the requirement of the assignment. I wondered why this student did not come earlier, and maybe I should encourage students to come and ask any questions. In addition, my own student life became pretty stressful in March and April. At that time, I realized I wasn’t able to grade as carefully as I earlier did. I tried to change, but I failed. I guessed this was more a problem of myself other than the students, but still I hoped I can figure out some solutions to balance my workload.

Overall, I had a great experience of being a TA this semester. I felt lucky to be trusted by both the students and the instructor. Most likely I will continue to be a TA next semester. Hopefully I will have another great time with students again.