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I am an international student and doing Ph.D. in Physics at a US university.

My teaching assistant (TA) duty is to tutor undergrad students. I am supposed to solve whatever problems undergrads bringing to me. The problem is that I do not know which problems they are having to prepare in advance. Every undergrad from every lab, class in the physics department can bring whatever homework they have to me to ask. Also, I am an International Student and when I was an undergrad, I did not use the textbook undergrad here in US use and many problems are totally strange to me. Sometimes I cannot solve their homework problems. I felt very embarrassed and sorry since I wasted their time, sitting there for 15 -20 minutes to wait for me to solve it.

I am not a terribly bad student, I consistently perform about 80 percent for all the courses as well as standard exams like GRE Physics. But I feel like I am not smart enough to pursue a Ph.D. Sometimes I can come up with very good solutions for grad problems but I am not a fast thinker to solve some undergrad problems which might be solved in a very simple way.

Do grad schools train grad students to be teaching assistants? I think the Ph.D. students need to be prepared to do good TA jobs, isn't it? For example, if someone teaches labs, they should know the content of the lab for that day to come in preparation? How can I become a better TA given my described task?

  • Do you prepare for your office hours? e.g. by going through the homework that they are supposed to do on your own beforehand? – ff524 Feb 19 '18 at 23:38
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    @oldman " undergrad from every lab, class in the physics department can bring whatever homework they have to me to ask." Does that mean that undergrads could potentially bring you questions about E&M and special relativity in the same office hours and you'd be expected to answer them?? Forgive me, but that sounds borderline insane. I'm not sure that most faculty could solve all problems that quickly. – chipbuster Feb 19 '18 at 23:45
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    @oldman I'm no expert, but I'm starting to think that you're not the problem here. There's a reason we don't expect professors to randomly give lectures on any subject in the curriculum on a one-hour notice--there's a difference between having taken a class in something and having it fresh enough to be able to teach it........ Have you tried asking other TAs in the department how they handle it? – chipbuster Feb 20 '18 at 0:06
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    @chipbuster: But this sounds similar to an open "math lab" situation, where TAs have hours and are on tap to answer any possible questions on undergraduate mathematics -- and exists at every institution I've been part of. – Daniel R. Collins Feb 20 '18 at 1:28
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    "to tutor undergrad students" and "I am supposed to solve whatever problems undergrads bringing to me" contradict each other, I'd say... – Dirk Feb 20 '18 at 5:24
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How do grad schools train teaching assistants? Some graduate programs offer specific workshops to teach the fundamentals of teaching. However, being a good TA usually comes down to 3 things:

  • Proper understanding of the material
  • Experience in teaching beforehand (I am a much better TA now compared to a few years ago)
  • Preparation (this is necessary even if you are experienced)

Nonetheless, the content of your actual question (and corresponding comments) is quite worrisome. It is absolutely not the responsibility of a TA to be prepared to answer any question from students of every lab, especially without previous preparation. I would dare to say this is not even the responsibility of the professor teaching the course. I have yet to meet a professor who doesn't feel the need for previous preparation when teaching a course for the tenth time, nevermind teaching new courses for the first time.

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From what I see, no one actually trains TAs. There may be a workshop or two that will tell you to be consistent when grading and to not get into unnecessarily close relationships with students, but that's it.

As for your particular situation, I find it weird that you have to solve whatever problems students bring you; perhaps, you're misunderstanding your duties. First, students are supposed to do their homework themselves. Second, you cannot possibly know the contents of all courses. I'd imagine that your actual duties are: 1) if you know the material the student is asking about, you help them navigate through it but you do not solve the problems for them; 2) if you don't know the material, you send the student to some other TA. Anyway, try speaking to other TAs about these issues, they'll likely give you some advice.

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    I would add a third, possibly more likely duty: To help the student find the resource they need to learn how to solve their problem. These are usually the sorts of skills that grad students have already mastered to some degree, and often have little to do with the content of a particular course. – Bryan Krause Feb 21 '18 at 0:27

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