I'm a TA who is assigned to help grade papers for an upper level course. In the first assignment, I realized that I do not know how to do one of the assigned problems. The professor has requested that I grade all of the assigned problems. I don't think I will get a grading rubric (showing the answers to the assigned problems). I'm extremely nervous since I don't know how to do all of the problems on my own.

Should I ask professor directly about the problem in his office hours? The alternative would be to look at all of the solutions submitted by the students and analyze which answers are correct.

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    The alternative would be to look at all of the solutions submitted by the students and analyze which answers are correct. -- That's silly; if you can't solve a problem after a reasonable amount of effort, of course, you should ask the instructor for the solution (or, at least, a hint).
    – Mad Jack
    Jun 22, 2018 at 17:14
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    Are you sure that the formulation of the problem is 100% correct? I was once in a similar situation, and after some time I gave up and asked the professor about the solution. It turned out the problem was trivial - once I learnt that he used the same symbol twice to denote two different things...
    – user68958
    Jun 22, 2018 at 17:36
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    I had a similar situation to Corey’s and it was a differentiation problem very long... Did it 3 times, got a mate to do it - went back to the prof who looked and said no-one in 5 years had checked it well done!... So, go ask you are either right or not - humble pie is fine...
    – Solar Mike
    Jun 22, 2018 at 17:40
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    Of course ask the professor. Do you attend the professor's lectures youself? Maybe he explained in one of the lectures about that type of problem...
    – GEdgar
    Jun 22, 2018 at 17:44
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    While the answer of @Melissa is completely correct, you should also work to avoid the situation in the future. If you aren't an expert in that topic, your suggestion of attending all the lectures is also very good.
    – Buffy
    Jun 26, 2018 at 17:53

2 Answers 2


You should ask the professor to show you how to work the problem. It is also fine to ask the professor to confirm that all of your solutions are correct.

The professor is responsible for making sure the students' work is scored correctly, and since he wrote the questions, it is his responsibility to either provide you with the solutions or to check your solutions before you assign final grades.

Besides being responsible to the students in the course, the professor also has an obligation to support your development as a TA, which includes helping you work through any gaps or obstacles in your own learning.

Since you have already taken the initiative to work through the assignment on your own, the professor will likely be happy to help you, and you should not feel intimidated or embarrassed to ask.

  • +1. Also note my comment on the question.
    – Buffy
    Jun 26, 2018 at 17:53
  • I agree with @Buffy: part of being a TA is professional development, and attending as many lectures as possible will help you in your TA duties as well as furthering your background in the topic.
    – Melissa
    Jun 27, 2018 at 0:45

You should ask the professor (I wouldn't necessarily wait for office hours: those are for the students, and working with a TA is a different matter), and don't be ashamed by the fact that you couldn't solve the problem. In fact, apart from a trivial mistake/misprint/missing condition in the problem statement, there is also a possibility that the professor missed something more conceptual, seriously underestimating the difficulty of the problem (e. g., thought of a solution that does not actually work in that particular case). I've been there in all roles: as a student and as a TA and as a professor :).

If, in fact, you regularly fail to solve problems that some students do solve, then its another issue; you should follow the lectures and read books etc. to be at least at the level of the best students.

Discussing with TAs is understood to be a part of the professor's workload when giving a course. See mister Feynman doing this:

Feynman discussing with his teaching assistants

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