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Why you should make friends with your teaching assistant

For all those first-year freshman students that are ready to take their first leap into college life, there is an important factor you must take into consideration.  Many of you have probably overlooked how to connect with professors and teaching assistants.  It’s central to understand how to communicate with them if you want your classes and the rest of your college career to be successful.

What is a teaching assistant?

A Teaching Assistant (TA) assists the professor in marking tests, papers and exams, putting lectures together, putting tests together, running discussion groups and pretty much anything else the professor wants.  Most teaching assistants are graduate students and are therefore quite busy with classes, teaching and doing their own research.

Why is it important to know your teaching assistant?

I’m about to give you a bit of a hard pill to swallow here to prepare yourself.  Most first year classes have hundreds of students in them and are run by young professors and inexperienced teaching assistants; this creates a situation where it is impossible to know most students on a personal level.  Therefore, when that paper or test comes along that you didn’t study for; having a connection with the TA is CENTRAL to your academic success.  With this in mind here are some strategies that will help you make that connection so that when you do get in trouble with the course load you have help.

  1. Don’t Be Scared: This is a big problem for most first year students when they try to approach teaching assistants.  I’ve seen kids have nervous breakdowns in my office while trying to work up the courage to refute a mark I’d given them.  If you feel nervous, just remember TA’s are only a few years older than you and they probably only have a few more years education than you, you don’t have to feel intimidated.
  2. Introduce yourself early: During the second week of classes go around to all your TA’s and ask them a specific question about the course.  It would be a good idea to have the question prepared before you actually show up to his/her office hours.  Here are some good sample questions if you can’t think of anything specific.
    • “Which of the readings would you start with to get a good grounding in the course?”
    • “Are there any secondary readings you would suggest to give me a good base in the course?”
    • “Are there any secondary readings you would suggest to me if I wanted to learn more about (subject X)?”
    • “I’d like to get started on the paper early; can we talk a little bit about what I’d like to do?”
  3. Stay in contact: If you have a legitimate question that won’t waste the teaching assistant’s time, go into his/her office hours and ask it.  This will show your TA that you are interested in the subject matter and making an effort to actually learn something!
  4. Be precise and prepared: Nothing is worse for a TA than a student who comes to their office hours and isn’t prepared. This wastes both your and my time and will only paint you as an ill prepared student. So come with a pre-formed question that you’ve done research on and directly state.  Also, don’t ask a question that a 5-minute google search will answer!

If you’d like more information go check out my blog on study skills and drop me a line if you have more questions.