The Teaching Assistant, or the TA, is a vital part of the educational experience at universities across the country. They play a key role in helping to educate students, offering aid to the professor in constructing a successful and positive learning environment. We decided to take a closer look at this role, asking how the TA can differ from institution to institution and how this specifically applies to labs.
Lexi Wachtell is a Biology Labs Teaching and Learning Strategist at Macmillan Learning. Prior to joining Macmillan Learning, she spent several years teaching introductory biology labs at the University of Washington, as well as conducting biology education research with Dr. Scott Freeman. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Washington, where she studied Environmental Science & Terrestrial Resource Management and Marine Biology. We asked Lexi to answer a couple of questions on how the lab space utilizes TAs and how we can support them so they can continue to provide a significant contribution to labs.
1. What is the contribution/difference Teaching Assistants make in a lab program?
To put it simply, lab programs wouldn’t be possible without TAs! TAs are typically in charge of teaching hands-on labs, grading (lab reports, exams, etc.), and providing personalized instruction and feedback to students in a smaller setting. In large courses, TAs can also make a huge difference in students’ sense of belonging in STEM disciplines (which is important because research shows that sense of belonging is critical to students retention in STEM fields). So TAs play a crucial role in lab programs and lab-based courses!
2. How does the Teaching Assistant role differ at institutions across the country?
Broadly speaking, there are a lot of similarities among Teaching Assistant roles across institutions - most TAs will be teaching, holding office hours, and grading assignments. Things that differ are the amount of time allotted toward each category - so TAs at one institution may teach 1 or 2 lab sections each term, while TAs at another institution may teach 3 or 4 lab sections per term. Time spent grading also differs because some courses will use multiple-choice question exams and scantrons (which are very fast to grade or auto-graded), while others will rely solely on open-ended free-response questions (which are very time-consuming to grade). Likewise, some TAs may be in charge of maintaining the course website, from updating content and assignments to handling the grade book. Other TAs may not do this at all, and the course website maintenance will be done by the professor or another staff member. Even within a single institution, the role and workload for TAs in different departments can vary pretty substantially - so a TA’s role in the Chemistry department can be pretty different than a TA’s role in the Biology department.
3. What kind of tasks or activities might a TA be responsible for in a standard day of lab?
TAs set up and clean the lab space, take attendance, teach lab, help run experiments, hold office hours to answer questions (related to lab or lecture content), and grade lab reports. TAs also act as the first line of defense to identify students who are struggling or at-risk and often provide support to students who need help (such as helping students who are struggling, either in the TA’s classroom or with college in general). This is especially common in introductory courses with lots of first-year students, as first-years may not have formed a support system yet - TAs in intro courses have more face-to-face time with students, so it is common for them to take on this support role in addition to their other duties.
4. What kind of technology do you see TAs using in the lab currently? How does it help them?
TAs will sometimes use computers for presentations/lab instructions, or excel and statistics software if the lab requires data entry and analysis. However, there are a lot of labs where computers and other technology are not allowed on the lab bench due to possible exposure to chemicals, spills, and other hazards.
5. How else can we support the Teaching Assistant role and save them time on those tasks so they can provide a more significant contribution to the lab?
One of the first things that come to mind is grading because it can be pretty time-consuming - anything we can do to make grading faster makes a big difference. So would features that would allow TAs to grade lab reports electronically (such as adding comments/specific feedback along with point values). The amount of time spent grading is important because typically TAs are graduate students who are contracted to work for the university for a set number of hours each week. The more time they spend grading, the less time they have for teaching and interacting with students.
TAs are extremely important in the lab space. They play a crucial role in lab programs and lab-based courses. They help with so many different aspects of the educational experience, from teaching hands-on labs to providing personalized instruction and feedback to students. To put it simply, these programs wouldn’t function properly without the TA to help out. So don’t forget to show some appreciation for your TAs!