Take the 2-minute tour ×
Academia Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for academics and those enrolled in higher education. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I have seen a number of résumés of doctorate students, but only a few of them mention their TA grade points alongside their teaching experience.

  • How important are these points in evaluating the teaching capabilities of a student?
  • How does one ensure that the students are sincere in their evaluation?

In case a professor does a slipshod work of a course, not teaching in depth or cramming a lot of syllabus in a short time, there is only so much a TA could do to salvage the course for the students.

  • How does the TA make the best of a bad job in such a situation?
  • Apart from holding weekly office hours and lenient grading(!), what is the maximum a TA can do, after all?
share|improve this question
    
By "grade points", do you mean scores from student evaluations? –  JeffE Mar 22 '12 at 22:49
    
Yes... is there a different, more popular name for that? –  Bravo Mar 23 '12 at 6:04
1  
I think the most common term is "student evaluations". See Wikipedia or Inside Higher Ed or The Onion. –  JeffE Mar 23 '12 at 9:26
    
Thanks Jeffe, have changed the title. –  Bravo Mar 24 '12 at 17:51
add comment

3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

This is an excellent question, for faculty as well as students!

  • How important are these points in evaluating the teaching capabilities of a student?

Obviously this varies significantly in different departments and institutions, but in my experience, the scores themselves are not that important.

My department does pay attention to these numbers when allocating future TAships, but definitely not in isolation. Narrative reviews from the instructors carry significant weight. The people doing the assignments also know which courses are unpopular, and which instructors are irresponsible, and adjust the evaluation accordingly, at least in principle. In practice, there are only three evaluations: (1) truly outstanding TAs, who are considered for teaching awards; (2) truly abysmal TAs, who are not rehired, at least without retraining (and since we have a TAship requirement, this has teeth); and (3) everyone else.

When we evaluate tenure-track faculty candidates, teaching ability is usually a second-order concern, but it is a concern. Poor evaluations on an applicant's CV are a red flag—why didn't they just omit them? Good evaluations are mostly a signal to look further. Teaching awards carry more weight. Recommendation letters that directly praise the applicant's teaching ability — with concrete and credible details — are even better. Similar issues arise when evaluating faculty for tenure, with one big difference: omitting the teaching scores is not an option.

  • How does one ensure that the students are sincere in their evaluation?

You can't. Sorry.

However, I believe you can increase the fraction of sincere (and positive) responses by consistently treating your students with respect. Make your expectations clear from day one, and enforce them consistently. Invite feedback throughout the semester, and respond to it quickly and appropriately. Apologize quickly for mistakes, thank students publicly for useful suggestions, but do not buckle on high standards. Give timely, consistent, and useful feedback on coursework. Above all, do not waste your students' time; the correlation between hard work and low evaluations is much higher if the students don't see any benefit to doing the work.

<Insert standard confirmation bias warning here.>

  • How does the TA make the best of a bad job [if the instructor is irresponsible]?

First, do your own job as best as you can.

Second, raise your concerns with the instructor; be respectful but brutally honest. If the instructor is unresponsive, raise your concerns with your instructor's boss; be respectful but brutally honest. (Note: Disagreement is not the same as being unresponsive.) If your instructor's boss is also unresponsive, your department doesn't really care about poor teaching; they're likely to ignore your evaluations, even if they are low.

  • Apart from holding weekly office hours and lenient grading(!), what is the maximum a TA can do, after all?

There are many more things that TAs can do. At a minimum, hold office hours that the students actually find useful; don't just show up. Distribute practice problems, and offer feedback on the students' solutions. Hold weekly review/discussion/problem-solving sessions. As aeismail suggests, write review notes. If the instructor covered too much, distill down their main points; if the instructor didn't cover enough, expand on the key ideas they missed. Offer to give a few guest lectures, and then give fantastic guest lectures.

More self-servingly: Make sure the students see you working to overcome your instructor's shortcomings. If the students don't see you fighting on their behalf (even if you are), they'll write you off as yet another useless academic, like your instructor. But if you can make them believe you're on their side, they'll reward you. I think this is why students often reward "lenient grading"; if the students think the coursework is a waste of time, they'll see lenient graders as their allies.

Obviously this all takes time. As aeismail says, TAs usually have many other responsibilities, especially to their own classes, projects, research, families, and sanity. It is frighteningly easy for committed and caring TAs to find themselves being abused by less committed instructors (or even departments). Set limits.

share|improve this answer
    
Did you intend to say "the correlation between easy courses and high evaluations is much higher when the students don't think the course is actually valuable."? I would have thought the opposite (although you would know better than me) ... –  Andy W Mar 23 '12 at 17:03
    
Revised to clarify. "Everyone knows" that evaluations are inversely correlated with difficulty. I claim the correlation is stronger for courses that students don't find valuable: "The instructor didn't make me work hard to pass this stupid hurdle; he must be cool." I prefer to aim for "Wow, this course was a ton of work, but I really learned a lot of cool stuff." –  JeffE Mar 23 '12 at 20:49
add comment

From my experience, student evaluations are simply a measure of how well the students think you are doing in teaching them. Keeping in mind the phrase attributed to Henry Ford,

If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have said "a faster horse".

note that the students can often give feedback on your current teaching methods, but they rarely suggest better teaching methods. From my experience, the evaluations are not viewed as important, but are meant more for the TA to improve their teaching skills. You can ensuring sincerity by being sincere in your teaching. If you're appropriately enthusiastic about teaching the material, the students will notice and appreciate it. Beyond that, some students will be cynical and apathetic to the process, and there's really not much you an do about it.

The best way to make use of the situation is to use it as a learning experience, as it's intended! Chances are, you'll be asked to teach in the future, may as well use this opportunity to try out different teaching methods to see what works for you.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Frankly, I don't place much weight on an isolated number; it doesn't tell me much in practice about a student's teaching abilities. That would have to be judged via direct interaction—watching them teach or otherwise interact with students. It's really impossible to expect students to be honest in their evaluation, unless they've provided comments; then you can at least see how much they've written; the more extensive the comment, the more likely it is to be sincere.

As for what to do when a professor does a bad job, I don't think that it really makes that much of a difference in the nature of the TA's responsibilities; the main change is in the intensity of the work required. The TA, along with the professor, is responsible for helping students learn the material. If the professor isn't doing an adequate job, then that means the TA will probably need to work a bit harder and dedicate more time to achieve that goal. However, the TA should make sure she is taking care of her other requirements and needs at the same time. The TA position shouldn't consume someone's entire life (unless they are paid accordingly!).

One possibility for how to do things, though, might be to prepare review sheets and guides based on the lecture material (or what the lecture material should have been). This will be good review, both for the TA and for the students!

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.