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Graduate Student TAs: Adapting Your Teaching

CTL offers support to graduate student instructors who are shifting to remote teaching, as well as professional development for graduate students who are interested in deepening their capacities for online teaching.

This resource page is for Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, and other graduate students who are assisting faculty with remote instruction. Though this page will help you get started, we encourage TAs and Teaching Fellows to enroll in CTL’s Supporting Hybrid & Online Learning & Teaching (SHOLT), a self-paced course designed to help graduate student instructors in support roles develop effective teaching practices in online and hybrid courses.

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2020). Graduate Student TAs: Adapting Your Teaching. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/grad-students/

CTL Office Hours

Remote one-on-one support for questions regarding the use of CourseWorks, Zoom, and Panopto:  

Time: Monday – Friday, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Call-in: 212-854-9058
Via Zoom: https://columbiauniversity.zoom.us/my/ctlhelp

For support with designing learning activities and engaging students online, request a consultation or email CTLgrads@columbia.edu.

Adjusting to Teaching Remotely

The unexpected relocation of classes, recitations, labs, and office hours in 2020 creates many challenges to students as well as instructors. Special care needs to be taken when communicating expectations, distributing materials, and managing learning activities. Running classes online takes practice and patience, and nobody should expect a perfect experience right out of the gate. We encourage you to reflect, share insights with peers, and seek support from CTL as you work to improve your online teaching practice.

It is important that TAs communicate regularly with course instructors to determine effective ways to translate core elements of TA work to online platforms. These determinations will depend on comfort levels with available technologies, but they should also be informed by consideration of students in the class who may be working from a great variety of settings and conditions. 

Consider what aspects of a recitation, discussion, lab section, or office hour session are important to run synchronously (for example to continue class cohesion), and what may be more effectively managed asynchronously (for example to facilitate reflective discussion or small group work). Discuss the feasibility of adjusting meetings and deadlines to help students across time zones balance requirements from other courses. Think together about how students might be invited to decompress or informally interact during this stressful time.

Since everyone is adjusting to changed logistics for teaching and learning, it may be best to introduce just a few new tools and procedures, and then make adjustments and draw on additional features in Zoom or Canvas as necessary. In the end, you may find that decisions made out of necessity during this time of disruption lead to insights about clarity, participation, and convenience that you can apply to in-person teaching contexts in the future.

Engaging Synchronously With Your Students

Protocols for activities commonly performed by Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, and graders are often set within departments, as is access to platforms and tools. TAs should make sure to keep connected with the instructor of record and the instructional team in the course throughout the semester to maintain a common understanding of how synchronous online tools are being used in a course.

Live Class Sessions

For synchronous interactions during live lectures, discussion sections and recitations, or labs, video conference tools can be a good solution. They facilitate many instructional activities such as class-wide discussion, discussion among breakout groups, screen-sharing of slides and other material, and live access to documents and whiteboards. Bear in mind, though, that not all your students may have access to the internet and equipment that will allow them to fully participate in live sessions. This might necessitate thinking of alternate ways to engage them with the class session, such as recording the session and making it available later in CourseWorks, and allowing for ‘follow-up’ participation that is documented via discussion boards or journaling. 

Be explicit with your students about your expectations for participation in a synchronous session. Budget time to review and revisit with them protocols you set for asking questions, contributing to discussion, submitting comments, and documenting during the class session. It is a good idea to test synchronous tools ahead of time and, if possible, have a peer or delegated student ready to handle technical issues that individual students have, so that these don’t interrupt the session for everyone.






Check with your department about supported use of Zoom video conferencing tool. Some departments have Zoom Pro accounts for graduate student instructors, while others have not. The free Zoom Basic accounts have  limitations. 

Alternatives to Zoom

A number of other web conferencing tools can be used to run discussion and lab sessions, and some are integrated into platforms students are already using. Graduate students teaching in departments without Zoom Pro accounts or wishing to look at alternatives may be interested in exploring the following:

BigBlueButton is available as a web conferencing feature in CourseWorks. All students in a course can be invited into a conference within CourseWorks.

Google Hangouts Meet is included in Google Suites, such as Google Apps for LionMail. Its integration with Google Calendar can facilitate individual or small group interactions.

Office Hours and One-on-One Mentoring 

Depending on how you’ve been holding office hours to support your students, or otherwise providing one-on-one mentorship and guidance, the transition from face-to-face to online may prove smoother than moving into an online classroom. 

Since you and your students may now be dispersed across time zones and countries, you might want to revisit when and how you make yourself available to meet with your students for one-on-one consultations. Consider providing multiple avenues for your students to seek support, including synchronous options (such as regularly scheduled sessions in Zoom or other video conferencing) and asynchronous options (such as discussions in CourseWorks or using Piazza), to help you meet your students where they are.



For scheduling office hours, consider using the Scheduler tool in CourseWorks as a way to offer students an array of slots they can sign up for, so you can better pace office hours and prepare for individual students. You may also wish to set up a discussion board or invite direct email from students with questions who cannot participate in live office hour sessions for logistical reasons.

For live contact, in addition to the tools listed above in the live class sessions section (Zoom, BigBlueButton, Google Hangouts Meet), consider other virtual tools that you have used before for communication and have a discussion with your students about what platforms may be convenient for them. Other possible and widely-used tools include Skype, FaceTime, and WhatsApp – though if you use any of these alternative tools, you may want to consider what personal information you are willing to disclose to your students. Note that Zoom Basic accounts are able to host one-on-one meetings for any length of time and are a viable option for these meetings.

Engaging Asynchronously With Your Students

A lot of learning happens outside of synchronous meetings, when students can reflect and produce work on their own time or in small groups. In addition, shifting teaching to asynchronous interactions may be preferable and even necessary with instructors and students scattered across time zones and countries.

To help students make the most of their time beyond class meetings, think about how you can structure this out-of-class time to help them learn. This could mean introducing online tools or activities that help students engage with course content and interact with each other on their own time.






CourseWorks / Canvas offers a wide range of features for class discussion, assignment submission, group work, quizzing, and grading. Set up and management of these features is configurable by instructors. If you are a TA, connect with the instructor of record to understand how moving to remote classes may require adjustments in the way these features are being used in the class you are teaching.

Google Apps

LionMail offers a great many tools that can be used for both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration between students. 


Panopto is Columbia’s media platform featuring full storage and streaming functionality for audio and video content. Panopto supports recording and live streaming of classes and other events and can be integrated with CourseWorks/Canvas. It can be particularly useful for creating mini lectures and demonstrations that students can watch on their own time.

The CTL is here for graduate students.

The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of support for graduate students in both their current and future teaching responsibilities.