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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, which houses the Office of Disability 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 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 lefthand 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 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 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. Plagiarism reports should be filed with the 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. Check the Faculty and Staff tab at the top of University Life’s website for additional information.

…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. 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 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?

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.

If you see discrimination or harassment involving a student or someone makes a complaint about such discrimination or harassment to you, you must report this to your supervisor. If the discrimination or harassment involves gender-based misconduct, you must also report this to SCCS or EOAA via this form http://bit.ly/GBMOMaxient. 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.


…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?

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.