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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 under “Student Officers” in Columbia’s handbook for Officers of Instruction and Research. Related resources: Columbia’s Office of Religious Life and Columbia Registrar’s Academic Calendar.

…a student gives me a letter certifying a need for an accommodation?

If a student has registered with the Office of Disability Services (ODS), a department of Columbia Health Services, and has received an accommodation it is very likely that the student will approach you with a letter certifying their accommodation. In some cases you may need to discuss this accommodation with a faculty course leader. ODS publishes an informative online guide to the supports, accommodations, and services they offer. 

If a student believes they need accommodation due to a disability, but does not have a letter from ODS, direct the student to register with ODS and reach out to ODS to see how they can support you and the student in the meantime.

…an athlete or a musician requests a change in a due date because of a game or performance?

Schedules for sports activities and performances are generally worked out before the beginning of a term and students should speak with you at the start of the semester if they anticipate a conflict. 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 at the Berick Center for Student Advising (CSA). If a student does not know who their Advising Dean is, you can find that information on your course’s CourseWorks. Under the “Photo Roster” tab on the left hand menu, choose the “List/Advisors” tab at the top. CourseWorks will display the name and contact information of the Advising Dean for each student. 

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 expectations 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. Visit our website to find grading-related workshops at the CTL or request a consultation.

…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 contacting 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. For students in Columbia College (CC) and the Columbia Fu School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the University Writing Center offers workshops and one-on-one consultations; students may arrange appointments or come by during drop-in hours. Students at Barnard College may receive similar support from Barnard Writing Fellows.

…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 plagiarized or generated by AI?

Academic integrity is built on assumptions and standards that may be unfamiliar to your students. To avoid misunderstandings, discuss aspects of academic integrity with them early in the semester— including the ethics of using artificial intelligence (AI) tools in your course (as students may be navigating different rules across each of their courses). 

You can see a list of Academic Integrity resources at Columbia on the Academic Integrity website, under the Upholding Integrity tab. The CTL’s website also offers a resource on Promoting Academic Integrity as well as a resource on Considerations for AI Tools in the Classroom.

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 (more information is here). 

If you find evidence of plagiarism, discuss with the faculty instructor before confronting the student and reporting the incident to Center for Student Success and Intervention

…I witness two students cheating on an exam?

Document this serious violation of academic integrity and discuss with the faculty instructor. Incidents of cheating should be reported to the Center for Student Success and Intervention. During in-person tests, you can help prevent occasions to cheat by spacing students apart during tests and limiting passage in and out of the testing room. In online courses, some departments are using online proctoring services for midterms and final exams. Check with the faculty instructor and your departmental administrator if you have questions about this.

…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. Depending on the nature of these propositions you can report the incident to Center for Student Success and Intervention or the Gender-Based Misconduct Office. If the case is particularly severe and feels like harassment or discrimination, you can also report the incident to the office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. These offices are in close communication. If you file the report to the wrong office, they will forward it along to the appropriate office to ensure you get appropriate and timely support.

Personal Issues

…a student starts talking about difficult personal problems in office hours or over email?

If you believe a student is in immediate danger and is in NYC, call 911 first, then call Public Safety — Morningside (212-854-5555); Manhattanville (212-853-3333); and CUIMC (212-305-7979). If the student is elsewhere in the country, please determine the student’s location, then contact Public Safety, which can help identify the appropriate emergency resource.

You can call Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) at 212-854-2878 and Student Health on Haven (CUIMC) at 212-305-3400; both are available for virtual consultations and support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Dean of Students or Student Affairs in your school, or the Director of Undergraduate or Graduate Studies in your department, can also help you connect a student to support. 

Additionally, the Office of University Life has compiled a Blue Folder that you can download where they’ve collected guidance on responding to and supporting students in distress as well as campus resources available to support mental health and wellbeing for our whole community.

…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 (CPS) during their time at the University. For whatever stress, challenge, or personal concern you are having, CPS is a good first step to improve your mental health and general wellbeing.

…I am tempted to develop a romantic relationship with one of my students?

To quote Columbia’s office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, “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 saw/was told of/overheard an act of harassment/discrimination between students?

As a TA or graduate student in any instructional capacity—even as a grader—you are a mandatory reporter. Mandatory reporters are required to report any instances of discrimination or harassment—whether it be gender-based or identity-based (e.g., racial or religious identity)—to the University. You may report these incidents at http://bit.ly/GBMOMaxient. Remember, as a mandatory reporter your responsibility is to report any incidents of harassment or discrimination that you witness personally, that are related to you by a student (even if it is not your student), or that you overhear students discussing. 

Gender-based misconduct includes sexual and gender-based harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence, stalking, and similar conduct.  After you make your report, a case manager from that office will reach out to the student(s) experiencing the misconduct with information about resources and other services. Students retain full control over which, if any, services or supports they would like to pursue and always have the option not to participate in any investigation or additional process. The various offices that handle these incidents, like Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA), Title IX, and others, work closely together. If you report to the wrong office, they will make sure your report is transferred to the appropriate office.

…I feel I am being harassed by a student, a fellow graduate student instructor, or a member of the faculty or staff?

If you feel that you, personally, have been discriminated against or harassed by a student, fellow graduate student instructor, or a member of the faculty or staff, you may report this at http://bit.ly/GBMOMaxient. You can also use this link to report sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking. If you do not wish to report, but would like to know what resources are available to you in response to gender-based misconduct (including sexual and gender-based harassment), or you wish to speak with someone confidentially without reporting at this time, see this list of confidential and non-confidential resources on the Sexual Respect website.  For resources and support regarding other forms of discrimination and harassment, speak with your supervisor or Director of Undergraduate Studies or Graduate Studies or a member of the Student Affairs Office in your school.


…I get to my classroom and the door is locked?

For help accessing physical classroom spaces (e.g., door is locked), contact your Department Administrator, or call Columbia Facilities at 212-854-2222. For digital classroom spaces (e.g., Zoom rooms), try logging in through http://columbiauniversity.zoom.us or contact your faculty or the Department Administrator in charge of setting up online class links.

…I get to my classroom and technology in the room does not work?

Contact the faculty instructor you are working with and/or the Department Administrator to inquire about ways your department can support your equipment needs. 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 need equipment (webcam, microphone) to teach my class online?

Contact the faculty member you are working with and/or the Department Administrator to inquire about ways your department can support your equipment needs.

… I am having trouble with my equipment at home or run into problems using Zoom?

Check CUIT’s Zoom Support page where you can find links to email CUIT or call their help desk.

…I run into problems using CourseWorks?

If you have pressing concerns about access or have technical questions about CourseWorks or another digital teaching tool, you can contact the CTL directly Monday through Friday from 9am-5pm via phone (212-854-9058) or via Zoom (https://columbiauniversity.zoom.us/my/ctlhelp) and speak with one of our learning designers for immediate support.

The CTL also offers a series of workshops, trainings, and documentation to help instructors make good use of CourseWorks and you can always look through CTL’s collection of CourseWorks how-to documentation for instructors on our website.

CTL also supports your use of other teaching tools available at Columbia such as blogs, media production tools, and multimedia analysis platforms.


…I need ideas about teaching strategies, writing a teaching philosophy, or designing a syllabus.

Advice about teaching strategies abounds! Whether you are interested in ideas for making your instructional practice more 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 Teaching Development Program is a great way to navigate all these offerings, document your pedagogical growth in graduate school, and get credit for sustained teaching development on your transcript. Visit the TDP website to learn more and sign up.  

The CTL researches and experiments.

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