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Working with TAs Online

Teaching Assistants can be invaluable partners for faculty and other course instructors.  As with all partnerships, this one depends on clear communication and shared expectations. This page offers recommendations and considerations for faculty who are working with TAs to run courses online.

The CTL encourages TAs to enroll in Supporting Hybrid & Online Learning & Teaching (SHOLT), a self-paced course designed to help Columbia graduate student instructors in support roles develop effective teaching practices in online and hybrid courses.

General Recommendations

    • Clarify roles and processes. Moving a course online entails shifts in access, presence, interaction, and documentation that, in turn, reshape TA activities. Review and keep revisiting the course syllabus with your TA(s), discussing modifications to student activities, assessments, and grading. 
    • Check permissions and access. If you want a TA to support you in Zoom by managing class participants, sharing a screen, setting up breakout rooms, or accessing other features, designate them as a co-host. If you want a TA to post feedback and grades in CourseWorks, check that they are Enhanced TAs.
    • Attend to the technology together. TAs should not be assumed to be “digital natives.” They also need to learn how to choreograph, support, and assess learning online. Their comfort interacting with students online will depend on time, practice, and collegial exchanges with the faculty instructor before and during the course.
    • Discuss office hours. If TAs will be holding virtual office hours, share your expectations for how and when they should make themselves available to students, and refer them to this resource for guidance on managing and scheduling.
    • Monitor areas of concern. TAs are often the first point of contact with students who may be struggling to access or understand or complete required elements of a course —they are important conduits of what is working and what needs adjustment. Regular check-ins or reports can help catch issues and operationalize adjustments.

Remote one-one-one help from CTL staff is available to Columbia faculty and TAs with questions about setting up and managing online classes.

Going Deeper

When planning for an online class that is actively supported by TAs, it may help to consider and discuss with them four areas of focus: instructional presence, class interactions, course materials, and assessment.

Instructional Presence

Since online learning can seem more isolating to students who are more used to human interactions in a classroom, it is important to consider how everyone with an instructional role in the course will identify themselves and engage with students in a welcoming and motivating manner. This pertains as much to TAs whose role in the course is limited to grading as it does to those who are active in discussion sections or asynchronous communications. Some considerations:

  • How will TAs introduce themselves to students? How can that introduction and subsequent presence cultivate an inclusive and encouraging course climate?
  • Relatedly, how and when will students “see” TAs during synchronous interactions? Should TAs be visible via live video, an image, or other means during lectures or discussions? Will the TAs be designated co-hosts for Zoom sessions, granting them privileges and controls that are similar to the instructor’s?
  • What should TAs specify to students regarding ways to reach them with questions or concerns, during and in between classes? You may suggest that TAs develop policy sheets listing times and ways that students can reach out to them, and setting expectations for when and how the TA replies.
  • What can a TA do during synchronous sessions to efficiently address technical issues so that they don’t delay or interrupt a class? How will students reach a TA to signal issues? Some possible options include private messaging in Zoom or allowing TAs to take students into a breakout room during a class session.
  • Of the various virtual spaces set up in the course (such as video rooms, breakout spaces, chat and/or discussion boards, collaborative documents, feedback areas in CourseWorks), which will be covered or monitored by the faculty instructor, and which by a TA? How will a TA bring to the instructor’s attention ideas, questions, or concerns cropping up in the areas they’re watching?
  • What is the best configuration and timing for office hours? Should a TA set up scheduling, open up a virtual space for individual drop-ins, or encourage group attendance? Should alternative or asynchronous office hours be available for students in different time zones?

 

Class Interactions

In even the most lecture-centric class session running online, instructors have to consider and facilitate ways to help students engage, interact, and provide indications of how much they’re learning. Providing students with active learning opportunities — activities enabling them to reflect on new knowledge, recontextualize and apply it, solidify their understanding — requires even more strategic choreography. This again requires careful communication with TAs so they can support interactions and report back on their success. Some considerations:

  • What is a TA’s role in ensuring expectations for student behavior? Is there a set of policies or a community agreement that will help the TA guide students to appropriate and productive ways to discuss or otherwise interact with each other online? Making TAs co-hosts in Zoom can allow them to help you manage security features (waiting room, screen sharing and chat settings) and, if necessary, mute or eject participants.
  • How proactive should a TA be in reaching out to students who seem to be checked out or are having other problems engaging in activities? Should TAs send individual, private messages to such students during synchronous meetings, or is it best to follow up after class?
  • How should a TA support efficient use of polling or other classroom assessment techniques? If TAs will be starting polls and sharing results in Zoom, they will need to be made co-hosts.
  • How should a TA monitor and support collaborative or group interactions among students in chat rooms, discussion boards, breakout rooms, or collaborative documents during synchronous class sessions? How about between classes?
  • If there are multiple TAs in the course, how and when are they checking in with each other and the faculty course instructor to normalize procedures and expectations? Should they be documenting questions and issues in a common space?

 

Materials

There are many reasons why reading lists, datasets, study guides, or other resources at the heart of a course may need to be adjusted when moving a course online. Access to content may be easier for some students than others; students across time zones may need ways to catch up or review materials on their own schedules; some materials lend themselves more readily than others to active learning activities online. TAs may well have a more direct sense of how and when students are able to engage in required course materials. Some points to consider:

  • Should TAs be ensuring that all materials in CourseWorks are properly linked to assignment modules and accessible to all students? If so, they will need to be designated in the course as TAs or Enhanced TAs; if you find they are not, you can change their role.
  • As TAs monitor discussion boards, run office hours, or hear from students in other ways, they may learn about course material causing particular confusion or concern, or difficulty locating resources, or technical issues with opening or running software. How and when should a TA relay these issues to the faculty instructor?
  • Is the TA seeing that some students are having difficulty accessing or submitting materials in a timely fashion, thanks to interactive or deadline-driven assignments running across time zones? Delineate what TAs should be doing when they see problems occuring. 
  • How, when, and where should a TA provide remediatory help necessary in order to keep students moving together as much as possible through the class? Should breakout rooms or discussion boards be set up for this purpose?
  • Should TAs be referring to recordings of class sessions for their own reference or with students in office hours?

 

Assessment  

In addition to typical assessments like quizzing and testing, in-person classes provide any number of informal clues that help instructors get a sense of where students are in their learning. Online, indicators as simple as puzzled looks, laughter, and attentive or inattentive behavior are often unavailable. Testing and graded assignments therefore can take place in a vacuum and carry with them surprises and extra stress. Because they may be engaging more directly with testing and grading, TAs are often in a position to surface problems. Some points to consider together:

  • In the TA’s opinion, are assignment or test instructions clear to students? Are students signalling to TAs any confusion about when and how to submit their work?
  • Could ungraded quizzes or polls, or entry/exit tickets from students provide a way of checking for understanding before lectures or graded activities, and if so how can the TA collect and share that data? See more on Audience Response Systems
  • Could students be provided with opportunities for self-assessment (workbooks, reflections, journaling) that a TA could spot-check and identify problems?
  • Are there ways that TAs could help to vary the frequency and types of assessment in the class, in order to increase engagement and better structure and leverage digital formats? When and how should a TA be checking in on project progress while one is in development?
  • Does the TA have reasons to suspect that academic integrity is being compromised, and if so are there particular issues around the way answers, models, or papers are being accessed and shared online? What should a TA do first if they suspect cheating or plagiarism? Advice is available through the CC/SEAS Academic Integrity office.

Related Resources from CTL

For specific guidance on online teaching tactics and tools, faculty instructors and TAs are encouraged to visit other pages on CTL’s Contingency Planning: Teaching Online portal, including:

Additional Resources

Working with Online Teaching Assistants. (2018, August 31). Retrieved April 7, 2020, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/working-with-online-teaching-assistants/ 

Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, Indiana University – Purdue University. (2011). Preparing Guidance for Online Teaching Assistants. Retrieved April 7, 2020, from https://www.pfw.edu/dotAsset/95590dbc-7703-489e-9933-503cf045ebe1.pdf

Kennedy, A. (2016, February 8). Making Online Teaching More Effective: Advice from a Student Perspective. Retrieved April 7, 2020, from http://blog.online.colostate.edu/blog/online-teaching/making-online-teaching-more-effective-advice-from-a-student-perspective/ 

Miller, M. D. (2017). Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: the key to active online learning. London: Routledge.