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I am first-year graduate student doing teaching assistance for an introductory calculus course.

The course is taught by four instructors, with 12 teaching assistants in total and I am one of them.

Each instructor has three assistant underneath him or her and I am associated with one of the instructors along with two other TAs.

At the end of each hour long tutorial, the TAs will conduct a 20 minute mini-test. Each test has two computational questions selected by the professor. The test questions are related to the lectures prior to the test, and the time prior to the test is for the TAs to review concepts in the lectures and do some examples and exercises from the book. The exercises are drawn from the same source as the test questions, but they are obviously not supposed to overlap in any way.

I don't have strong evidence, but I believe that the other two TAs (who have been doing this course for longer than me) are giving the student answers, and their students are outperforming those students in my section because of it.

What aroused my suspicion was when I graded the tests from their tutorials. We grade these tests on a rotation. There have been 9 tests so far, so at this point I have graded three of the tests.

What I found is that the students of their sections will give perfect, textbook solution like answers. All the students would make the exact same assumptions, almost as if all 30-40 students are copying from one another. In my section, the students struggle with their questions, sometimes not finishing them. When they do provide answers, there is a large variety of responses as expected of a calculus course. Therefore the students in my section have lower averages.

I don't believe that they are giving students answers directly. Some students would have sounded the alarm by now. What I suspect to have happened is that these TAs are doing the test questions during the tutorial and mixing them into the reviews. This would explain why so many students would follow the exact same procedure, yet still making some mistakes.

I wonder if these TAs are gaming the system. The system being the TA reviews at the end of the semester. These reviews are internal and are used to promote or select future TAs. I also feel bad for the students in my section. I feel that they are being cheated by the people who are supposed to instruct them.

I don't have firm evidence, but I fear that the professor is also in on it. When I first observed this large disparity between student performance, I mentioned to the professor. But there was no reply. Therefore I am afraid of talking to her about this. I am new to the school therefore I don't have anyone I can trust.

What should I do in this case?

  • Can you ask for student class notes when other instructors taught? You could find test questions solved in class – DS R Nov 11 '18 at 9:35
  • I hate to say this, but is there a chance that you're simply not as good at teaching the material as the other two TAs? I have seen first hand the big difference a good instructor can make, compared to a bad one (not saying that you are, just a suspicion). – YiFan Nov 11 '18 at 12:48
  • @DSR Hm that's is going to be difficult randomly asking a first year student for their notes. But I can try. – Olórin Nov 11 '18 at 20:06
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    @YiFan Even if I am not good at teaching, there are students in my class who who well on these tests. Plus this doesn't resolve why so many students would make the exact same assumptions for the quiz and have exactly same steps. – Olórin Nov 11 '18 at 20:07
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    @YiFan At first I thought these students were cheating off of one another, but 12 in a row? Can't be possible. – Olórin Nov 11 '18 at 20:22
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You say there are four professors teaching this class, have you tried reaching out to the other three?

At the end of the day - if the professor is aware of it and condoning it, then there's not much in the way of academic misconduct, but arguably a bad teaching methodology. If the tutors are acting against the policy set out by the professor and they don't care/aren't acting themselves, then there's little you can do about it I think. At the end of the day, you have done your due diligence and reported the matter to the professor.

If nothing happens and your tutorial groups suffer a significant grade disadvantage due to this, and the professor is still ignoring it, then perhaps a slightly underhanded way of handling it is casually mentioning this to your own tutorial groups. The students would undoubtedly be furious to hear that their poorer performance is due to other tutorial groups cheating!

A 'meta' remark. A lot of times issues like these are extremely difficult to prove and press forward, even if your fellow instructors are in the wrong. They often have implications outside the class, and often the party raising the issue (you) will simply be remembered as a 'troublemaker' (good luck trying to run a research project with graduate students/professors that you accused of academic dishonesty, let alone if they suffer disciplinary action). So there is the question of how much is this bothering you and how much you'd like to push it forward.

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Is it possible that the other TAs, by having done the course before, have a better overview of the kind of questions asked in the exam (based on those of previous years), and therefore are better able to train students for those exams? That would explain the facts as well, without anybody consciously in the wrong (and it is always worth to explore such possibilities).

I can also understand that your professor is not actively doing anything about it as long as the difference is not too big. Some TAs are better than others, some groups are better than others, there is always noise and some differences between groups are to be expected. I was a TA for several math courses where we would grade weekly assignments of our own groups (that counted for 10% of the final grade, next to a 90% final exam). I would grade harsher than other TAs and my group's average of the homework would be lower than that of other groups. However, my group tended to do better at the final exam, I believe in part because they were pushed harder to make an effort. What I mean to say is that worse intermediate test results don't say everything.

Unless you have hard evidence that your fellow TAs are 'gaming the system' I would be hesitant to attach too much meaning to the present facts. If, besides this, their manners are unpleasant or the group atmosphere isn't right, the easiest solution would definitely be to avoid them by not TAing the same course next year.

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    Like I said, the students are all having the exact same steps and answers. The crazier part is that even if the student did not know how to approach the question, they are able to write down the final answer. How is this possible? I am looking at one of the quiz now, it has three sub parts and the last part sums up the two previous parts. The student didn't know how to compute the integral, yet still gives a fairly non-obvious final answer. – Olórin Nov 11 '18 at 20:09
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Well, you could roll with the system and make sure the review does cover necessary material...

Also, can you change the course you TA for ? If not immediately, then for next time?

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    Well, it wouldn't make sense to cover the exam questions before an exam! But Yes I will keep in mind not to touch this course again if the same instructors and TAs are still teaching. – Olórin Nov 11 '18 at 20:14
  • As you say "it wouldn't make sense..." but either they gave you all the stupid students and kept the best for themselves or something else is happening... – Solar Mike Nov 11 '18 at 20:18
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    Exactly. We also just had a midterm, and the students who got perfect on the mini-tests in their tutorial sections do not seem to fare better than the students in my section. – Olórin Nov 11 '18 at 20:20

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