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FAQs for Teaching Assistants

Browse our list of frequently asked questions, scenarios, and resources for graduate student instructors. CTL also makes available an Orientation to Teaching for Graduate Students, available on-demand to all Teaching Assistants and Teaching Assistants at Columbia.


What should I do if…


…a student wants to turn in an assignment late because the due date falls on a religious holiday?
Encourage students to inform you about such conflicts at the beginning of the semester. If you have difficulties working out accommodations, discuss with the faculty course leader. See pertinent information in Columbia’s handbook for Officers of Instruction and Research. Related links: Columbia’s Academic Calendar, a convenient listing of religious holidays.

…a student gives me a letter certifying a need for an accommodation?
Often a student will approach you with a proposed accommodation. In some cases you may need to discuss this accommodation with a faculty course leader. Columbia Health Services publishes an informative faculty guide to disability services.

…an athlete or a musician requests a change in a due date because of a game or performance?
Scheduling accommodations for sports or performances are generally worked out before the beginning of a term. If a conflict arises during the semester, discuss with the faculty course leader.

…a student with a broken leg is having a hard time getting to my class on time?
Suggest that the student reach out to Disability Services for support and documentation. See the Disability Services website.

…a student wants to withdraw from the course two months into the term?
Make sure the student is aware of available support services, considers alternatives, and discusses withdrawing with their advisor.
Columbia students can drop classes with a tuition refund during the Change-of-Program period. After this period, they can still drop a class or switch from a letter grade to Pass/Fail, though no money is refunded for the class. The deadline for dropping a class or switching to Pass/Fail varies across schools. See the Registrar’s website for details.

…a name shows up on my final grade sheet for a student I’ve never met?
The official roster for your class or section is available through Columbia Student Services Online (SSOL). Once you have met with your students a few times, it is a good idea to check this roster to see if it matches students attending your class or section — and to alert your faculty course leader to missing students.

Course Management

…grading is taking twice as long as I planned? Efficient grading depends on defining clear rubrics or standards up front. It is great to give students attention and feedback, but there are strategies for keeping this manageable, such as office hours consultation, peer evaluation exercises, and the use of online feedback tools. Discuss with other TAs in your course (if any) and your faculty course leader. Attend grading-related workshops at the CTL or, for more immediate help, request a consultation by emailing CTLgrads@columbia.edu.

…I disagree with something the faculty instructor has said in class? This can be an occasion for a lively and informative conversation for both of you. Don’t mutter to yourself — talk it out after class. If for some reason you don’t feel comfortable discussing your disagreement with the faculty member, consider approaching your department’s Director of Graduate Studies, the Chair of your department, or the GSAS Office of the Dean.

…a student has clear difficulty with the mechanics of writing, more than I can address? Undergraduates come to us with a wide range of writing skills; some may not have deep experience writing in English. The University Writing Center offers workshops and one-on-one consultations; students may arrange appointments or come by during drop-in hours.

…I realize my students have little or no experience with research libraries and they need these skills for their papers? Columbia’s library holdings are vast and complex. Luckily there are many ways for you and your students to ask librarians for help. Your class may benefit from research guides customized for your subject, which are available in CourseWorks. A library subject specialist in your discipline can discuss research support for your students in the context of a particular assignment.

Academic Integrity
…a student turns in a paper that seems familiar—I think it’s plagiarism but I’m not sure from where? A Google search of a few passages can be an easy way to identify material swiped from the web. Columbia also has an institutional license with a plagiarism-detection service called Turnitin. If you find evidence of plagiarism, discuss with faculty before confronting the student. Academic integrity is built on assumptions and standards that may be unfamiliar to your students. To avoid misunderstandings, discuss academic integrity with them early in the semester. See information about academic integrity on the Columbia Collage website
…I witness two students cheating on an exam? Document this serious violation of academic integrity, and discuss with faculty. You can help prevent occasions to cheat by spacing students apart during tests and limiting passage in and out of the testing room.
…I get propositioned from a student, offering favors in exchange for a grade change? Make clear your grading rubrics or standards from the start, and keep the application of these standards fair, transparent, and professional. Discuss egregious lobbying for grade changes with faculty.
Personal Issues

…a student comes to my office hours and starts talking about difficult personal problems? Columbia has robust support for undergraduate and graduate students seeking counseling. Rather than get drawn into a student’s personal problems, suggest that they contact Counseling and Psychological Services . Go Ask Alice also has a helpful collection of information online.

…I feel overwhelmed by responsibilities and challenges in my own life? You are not alone: over 60% of Columbia graduate students draw on Columbia’s Counseling and Psychological Services during their time at the University. CPS is a good first step.

…I am tempted to develop a romantic relationship with one of my students? To quote Columbia’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office, “It is the policy of the University that no faculty member shall have a consensual romantic or sexual relationship with a student over whom he or she exercises academic or professional authority. It is also the University’s policy that no faculty member shall exercise academic or professional authority over any student with whom he or she has or previously has had a consensual romantic or sexual relationship. This policy applies to all officers of instruction, research and the libraries, including student officers of instruction and research and graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants.”

…I feel I am being harassed by a student, a fellow graduate student instructor, or a member of the faculty or staff–or I see harassment between students? See pertinent definitions and policies published by the EOAA. Columbia’s gender-based misconduct policies may also pertain. Contact the EOAA to report an incident or to request a consultation. In some cases it may be best to talk to a faculty course leader or your department’s Director of Graduate Studies before taking this action.


…I get to my classroom and the door is locked?
Contact your Department Administrator, or call Columbia Facilities at 212-854-2222.

…I get to my classroom and technology in the room does not work?
Columbia University’s Information and Technology office (CUIT) maintains classroom technology. Instructions for reporting problems with equipment are often posted in the classrooms themselves. Urgent requests for electronic classroom support can be made by calling 212-854-3633.

…I run into problems using CourseWorks?
The Center for Teaching and Learning offers a series of workshops, trainings, and documentation to help instructors make good use of CourseWorks, as well as other teaching tools available at Columbia such as blogs, media production tools, and multimedia analysis platforms. You can look through a collection of CourseWorks documentation for instructors, search a CourseWorks knowledge base, or contact CTL directly with any pressing access or technical questions.


…I need ideas about teaching strategies, writing a teaching philosophy, or designing a syllabus.
Online advice about teaching strategies abounds! Whether you are interested in ideas for making your instructional practice into inclusive, exploring a range of pedagogical strategies and approaches, improving your grading and assessment practices, or drawing on technology to teach effectively, the CTL Resources section is a great place to start. If you are thinking about developing teaching-related materials for the job market, browse our Approaching the Job Market offerings

We also offer a great amount of live CTL programming every semester — ranging from workshops and services to help you come up to speed on the fundamentals of teaching, to advanced seminars and institutes in a range of topics, to a number of informal Lounges, Journal Clubs, and Learning Communities

The CTL researches and experiments.

The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of resources and tools for instructional activities.