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Has anyone tried this technique and how has it worked out for you?

Essentially, there are several problems with doing teaching assistant work (TA),

  1. You might not even be from the institution where you are doing the TA, you are unfamiliar with the course structure and the textbook, but you have learned some equivalent courses before.

  2. Courses can have several lecturers, each going at a slightly different pace. You don't know what your students know and get blank stares from them during tutorial hours.

  3. You want to enhance your teaching material by identifying spots where students might be more easily confused, where in the lecture might question for exams be drawn from, the emphasis of the lecture versus textbook, and so on.

I think an easy way to overcome these problems is by sitting in the lectures with the students. I have never done this because it sounds too time-consuming, also it might look "strange" to the professor AND to the students.

Has anyone tried doing this and how has it worked out for you?

For lecturers/professors: do you think it is a good idea for your TA to sit in your lectures?

  • 25
    Student's perspective: It is not weird at all to see your TA at the lecture. The immediate thought is that he is doing exactly what you are trying to do: Understand how material is taught and what to expect from students (or maybe help the professor). – problemofficer Aug 24 '18 at 8:01
  • And for the option of “it was explained like this xxx xxx xx” but consider this explanation “yyy yyy yy”... – Solar Mike Aug 24 '18 at 8:04
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    It is a good idea to attend the lectures when you are new to the course or the teaching methods. But most TAs will not have to time to continue attending the lectures when they do the same course again and again. – GEdgar Aug 24 '18 at 11:40
  • 1
    Variant on point 1): you don't actually know the material, you learn it at the same time as the students (but faster). I've been in a place that required me (the TA) to attend the lecture, and I was paid for it. (I am not answering if this is good practice) – Marc Glisse Aug 24 '18 at 17:45
  • 1
    Do you mean "sit in on" (definition 23) or do you mean "sit" as in "be in a seated position"? – shoover Aug 24 '18 at 18:57
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I have been a TA myself, and I can highly recommend doing that. I had been facing the same problem as you (In my case, I attended the same course before joining it as a TA, but it was restructured in the meantime) and it really helped me to understand the lecturer’s concept and the connections between single course elements.

While this may vary from discipline to discipline and country to country, at my university in Germany it is good practice to attend the course you assist with and not regarded as strange, neither by the professor nor by the students. In my department, it is just common to see the teaching assistant(s) among the students in the lecture hall and viewed as totally normal, from both the professor’s and student’s view. If you’re unsure however whether this applies to your department as well, I guess it is totally fine to ask the lecturer.

In addition, I can relate do Buffy, there is never a reason not to attend. It helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the course content and besides, I learned quite a lot from the professor.

  • 2
    I am in the US. When I was a PhD student/TA, we were generally expected to be in the classroom and the students regarded this as normal and were not phased. In addition, the professor generally appreciated us chiming in to keep the discussion going when the actual students were not really participating (early morning class). We were able to count in-class time as part of our hours. – Dawn Aug 24 '18 at 14:48
  • @Dawn I actually once had a TA annotate a small audit (basically) assignment that was turned in at the beginning of lecture so students could better ask questions at the end. – LinkBerest Aug 24 '18 at 15:25
  • @Dawn yep, I can totally confirm all of that. Was also appreciated by the professor and it counted as part of my hours. – bagadosh Aug 26 '18 at 11:05
38

I have seen TAs do this, but generally don't ask my own TAs to do it. As you say, it's a (very) time-consuming way to solve the coordination problem. I personally prefer to just sit with the TAs for a few minutes (< 30 minutes) every so often to coordinate, which in my experience has been completely adequate. Of course this means that I have to invest a little of my own time, but I find it completely appropriate to invest a few minutes of my own time every so often to save my TAs quite a lot of time - but of course your milage may vary with other professors. I certainly wouldn't find it strange if a TA sat in the lecture, I just don't find it necessary.

However, I do strongly suggest that the TAs take some time to go over the teaching material, so that they get a sense for what I am covering in the lecture, and how far I have gotten by the time their tutorial or supervision session rolls around.

Finally, we have also used a joint Slack channel where TAs can ask questions and expect a fairly immediate response. This has been useful for me to communicate if I, for instance, needed to skip a section due to time reasons, or if I felt through in-class exercises (or blank stares) that a certain topic needs deeper exploration in the supervision sessions.

8

It is good but not usually essential that you attend lectures, but it can depend on the field. If your only task is grading the course, it probably isn't very useful, but if your task is to actually interact with students it can be worthwhile if you have the time for it. You may not need to pay the same attention while there that the students do, of course, if you are already familiar with the material.

One reason that it is good if you intend a career in academia is that you get to see some other professors and how they work with the material and the students. This can help form your own teaching style.

However, outside mathematics and the sciences it may be more important to attend lectures, at least occasionally. In a Literature course, for example, you may need some way to know what the professor is saying about a book or genre for you to be able to be effective.

But there is, IMO, never a reason not to attend, if you have the time. You might even learn something or deepen your knowledge of things learned long ago. That opportunity to "think back" on things can be valuable even if you have already formed an understanding of them.

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    I am pointing out the obvious, but there is a reason not to attend: it may be time that could be better spent doing something else. – Federico Poloni Aug 24 '18 at 12:29
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    @FedericoPoloni, if you find it a burden, don't do it. Simple. – Buffy Aug 24 '18 at 13:31
4

One consideration: At some institutions the TAs are unionized, and the union will be very concerned that TAs are paid for the number of hours they work (or equivalently work only the number of hours they're paid). Spending this kind of (highly visible) time outside of what you're paid to do may draw their attention. This could lead to you being told to spend only paid hours on TA-related tasks, or to the union taking it as an example of how TAs aren't given enough hours to do their jobs.

Likewise, if your academic supervisor ever decides your project work isn't proceeding as fast as it should, these hours you spend in class "needlessly" may become an issue.

I think one variable is the relative level of the material in question. If you're a PhD student TA'ing first year mechanics, you probably shouldn't need to audit the class. If you're TA'ing a 300- or 400-level class being taught by your own academic supervisor, things may be different.

1

If the professor wants you to attend lectures, she should explain her reasoning. Otherwise, you could be spending that time working on your research.

0

It is perfectly fine to sit at lectures, if it suits you, as long as you are having fun. If you're not, you might as well go do something that stimulates your curiosity. Either way, don't stop learning.

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