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I am (with a few fellow TAs) helping a prof with an online course in STEM that has a discussion forum/board. However, it seems to me that this wasn't really thought through and now we have reached a very difficult situation in the course.

  1. The prof assigned these duties to us on top of all the regular duties during the non-covid years, e.g., grading and tutorials. However, answering questions is a very unregulated task, which can easily go over-time depending on the difficulty of the more or less spontaneous question we get from the students.
  2. We have 2 TAs answering question each week. However, my fellow TAs don't really care about answering questions (maybe they think it is a waste of their time?) and the bystander effect rans rampant among the course staffs (all waiting for someone else to answer). The prof do not enforce the TAs to answer questions.
  3. All of us have to follow every minute detail about the course because the question can come from anywhere. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on us as compared to non-covid years, where all technical course related questions are assigned to one designated TA. Now all of us have to be experts in everything.
  4. The students are not well trained on how to ask questions, and many questions essentially boils down to "my computer is doing the wrong thing, help!"
  5. Aside from that, the students also ask a wide range of questions. TAs essentially have became personal tutors, online IT technicians, mental health professionals (to answer general grade-related concerns from stressed-out students), and career counselors.

As of right now, the discussion forum has entirely been taken over by questions left unanswered (and students do not bother to mark which question that has already been resolved, so we may be wasting our efforts). Where did things go so wrong and what can we do (in the future)?

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  • Have you read your employment contract? – Anonymous Physicist Nov 25 '20 at 7:04
  • If students have mental health problem, you should refer them to an actual professional. And it's quite likely they do have mental health problems. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 25 '20 at 7:05
  • @AnonymousPhysicist It has a vague section on "TA-student interaction time". It was something ridiculous like 6 hours in total, but we've spent way more than that already and its not even close to the end yet. – Rodrigo Amarante Nov 25 '20 at 7:08
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    You are obligated to follow the contract; if you have done that, now you can do what you want. Managing the course is the professor's job. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 25 '20 at 7:10
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I wish it was that easy. I've spent days/weeks grading poorly designed exams when I'm merely allocated hours and I was never compensated a penny extra, and I can't just say I don't want to grade anymore. Doing over-time seems to be the normal at my university. They just tell us to work faster. – Rodrigo Amarante Nov 25 '20 at 7:12
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You ask "How should a professor assign duty ..." which is really an unanswerable question. I think the real question is "How can the team of TAs handle this workload in a way that is fair and not overwhelming?"

As other people have said in the comments, I think you need to set some boundaries about amount of time, but also that you will not answer all individual questions. For example say there are multiple questions about problem 8. You do one answer for all of them. That's one reason not to rush in immediately, rather wait until you see what the pattern of questions are.

It's a little hard to address this without knowing the subject matter or the kinds of questions. Also in covid times it is important to be kind to and understanding of students and the way that technology challenges are now a hundred times greater. Further, problems that used to be solved in 2 minutes during a live class now take hours, both for you and them.

I know you are limited by what your supervisor will allow but I'd like to make some suggestions. But before that I will also say that it is okay for you to set boundaries on when you will answer questions and response times. Don't be mean, but explain. For example, maybe a TA will come in at noon every day and try to answer questions, and another will come at 6.

  • First, discussion boards are not really a great way to do questions and answers, and definitely not for expert answers (and the TAs are the experts). They can be great for peer to peer support and that's what I'd suggest you encourage. Can you ask your supervisor if you could give extra credit (or even credit) for students who answer questions? Or even without that, can you encourage students to jump in and help each other? (I've found that my students can often answer the technology questions really well, maybe they have the same brand of phone or computer with the same OS which I don't have.)

  • Second, notice on how Stack Exchange -- which is a set of sites devoted to answering questions -- there are well defined rules including obsessive refusal to answer duplicate questions. Get yourself and the students in the habit of searching for an existing answer first. Teach them how to search effectively.

    Also, write up a document "how to ask a good question" and revise it as you get better at managing this. Put links to it everywhere.

  • Third, build up your documentation and knowledge base. You could potentially use other features of your LMS for this (e.g. Blackboard has so many ways of doing things that no one can use them all). For example, if the class is not using the wiki feature, start using that. Or you could use Google docs. Or a lot of other things. You could do FAQ but you can also start other things. Again, you can also get the students contributing if it makes sense. Also if you are answering questions that are strictly informational, post the information prewritten (or less good, with well described links) at the top of every page or in your signature. Try to do this in a way that it can be used again next semester.

  • Fourth, teach students how to answer their own questions by showing how to find information online or in their textbook or syllabus. Many actually don't know how to use the index or table of contents of the text books. Or, for example, "I searched with keywords x, y, z and found this useful video." This gets to asking good questions, but also, don't just answer, do things like say read page 329 and then come back with questions based on that.

  • Fifth, once you have figured out how to actively sort questions where students are really having complicated problems from the rest, consider going into a meeting 1:1 or with a small group. It's much, much easier to answer the questions that way because you go back and forth in real time. If you record (and everyone involved is comfortable) you can also post the recording of the answer.

  • Sixth, provide structure (and you may have to experiment with what works. For example set up separate boards for questions about technology, questions about due dates and other syllabus related issues, and then questions about each topic or chapter and then you can have others like "careers" and "random."

  • Seventh, have some prewritten templates so you can just fill in specific information.

I'm sure that there are lots of other things you can do too.

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