Contributor Simi Juriasingani
“I wasn’t able to get to the lab today because I was sick. Will I get a 0?”
“Is there any way I can get 2 more marks on this report so that my final grade works out to a 90%?”
“Are the references really that important?”
Being a TA can be difficult. You get asked a lot of questions, marking takes forever, and you have to balance TA responsibilities with the workload of a full-time research position. I’m TAing a lab course I took as an undergrad for the second time this year. Having experienced both sides of the TA-student equation, I can definitely say that I didn’t understand the challenges TAs face when I was an undergrad.
In an attempt to help undergrads understand their TAs better, here are 5 things your TA wants you to know:
1. Check the course syllabus before asking a question via email.
In general, I believe that there is no such thing as a stupid question. However, the questions TAs get that have been answered in the syllabus may be an exception to this.
If I had a dollar for every time an undergrad asked me a question that’s answered in the syllabus, I’d be able to buy a lot more steeped tea from Tim Hortons. Questions about due dates, extensions, what to do in case of absences, etc. are usually answered in the syllabus. A TA can feel like a peer mentor but by asking such questions you're increasing their already overwhelming workload. Do your TA a favour - check the syllabus before you ask a question.
2. Ask questions sooner rather than later.
Imagine if an acquaintance interrupted you during a phone call with your boss to ask you a question… That’s how TAs feel when they get a lot of questions via email a few hours before an exam or deadline.
Most undergrads don’t realize that their TAs have full time research positions. They aren’t paid to sit by a computer and answer questions. TAs answer questions once they can amidst their research workload, which is their top priority. It’s in your best interest to go over your assignments or exam content sooner. If you identify and ask questions a few days before the actual deadline or exam,your TA will have enough time to answer them meaningfully.
3. Don't expect your TA to be your editor.
If you're submitting a lab report or essay, it can be frustrating to account for the subjectivity of your TAs interpretation. However, this situation is actually much worse for your TA. They are going to spend HOURS marking MANY different papers based on one specific marking scheme, which is one of the most gruelling demands of TAship.
When it comes to long written assignments, TAs try their best to be consistent and provide useful feedback. Don't expect paragraphs of feedback on your paper because it’s impossible for them to explain every single mark deduction or point of contention. If you have questions about your grade, ask your TA to explain the comments or deductions that are unclear because most of them will gladly do so.
4. Point out marking errors, but don't negotiate for marks.
TAs are human and they may accidentally add up your marks incorrectly or forget to assign a mark to a question. They will gladly fix any genuine mistakes pointed out to them. However, haggling them for additional marks is inappropriate. Even if you don’t see eye to eye with your TA, remember that most TAs are expected to follow strict guidelines or marking schemes - they don’t deduct points unnecessarily.
If you want to get a higher grade, ask your TA how you can improve. If you suspect that your assignment or exam has been marked incorrectly, request that the professor re-mark it and be prepared for a higher or lower grade that won’t change. The bottom line is this: TAs are intermediaries between profs and students, do not direct your frustration with the marking schemes at them.
5. If you liked your TA, promote them.
Every once in a while, you’ll meet a TA who leaves you a lasting good impression. They may have enriched your experience in a course with how they answered questions or showed willingness to talk about their academic journey and career.
If you want to thank your TA, nominate them for departmental TA awards so they get some recognition and earn some extra cash. If that’s not an option, tell the course coordinator they did a good job. You can also tell younger students about them to promote them since many of them TA the same course several years in a row. Most importantly, let them know they did a great job personally because it’ll mean a lot to them!