Your Teaching's Impact on Undergraduates

Whether you teach a lab, recitation or lecture or work with students in a resource room as a tutor, you function as a role model and a mentor, serving the needs of undergraduate students in ways that many faculty can’t. But how? How do you, as a graduate teaching assistant, impact your undergraduate students? Do you influence their choice of major? How about their enthusiasm for learning the course material? How about their decision to stay until they complete their undergraduate degree?

Although many TAs are responsible for introductory courses or labs that often determine if a student will major in a particular subject area, O’Neal et al. (2007) found that TAs don’t generally influence an undergraduate student’s decision to major in one subject area over another. However, their research suggests that TAs can control certain factors students do use to make a decision. Here’s how you can impact your undergraduates’ learning experience at UNL.

The Personal Touch. Students at a large university can become overwhelmed or lost by the size. They become “little fish in a big pond.” As a graduate teaching assistant, you are an important contact point for students, and you can make the university community feel smaller and welcoming. In addition, students tend to be more engaged in their coursework if they believe someone is interested in their performance. Undergraduate students look up to you, the graduate student. These interactions can greatly improve student satisfaction.

Positive Learning Community. Students learn best in an inclusive environment, a factor that as a TA, you control in your classroom. Seek opportunities to learn more about creating a positive environment in your classroom. The annual Campuswide TA Workshop, designed for both new and seasoned TAs, offers ideas for building rapport with your students and creating a friendly classroom community.

Participation in UNL’s Teaching Documentation Program can help you keep a pulse on students’ expectations and experiences. Not only can you learn ways to improve your teaching, your students can provide feedback on your teaching, giving you time to identify and respond to any issues that might surface.

Establishing and maintaining a positive and inclusive environment keeps students engaged and interested in your class. Most important, however, it demonstrates you care about teaching and your students.

Fair Grading Practices. Although you may not have a say in determining grading policies for your course, you do have control over how the policies are communicated to your students. Make sure students are informed about your grading policies (e.g., absences, participation and late work) and if there will be any opportunities to earn extra credit.

Provide comments on students’ work so they know the ‘why’ behind their grades. There’s nothing more arbitrary to a student than a paper returned with just a grade on it, accompanied by no comments or merely perfunctory ones. The feedback you provide to students should help them improve their writing as well as explain why you graded the work the way you did.

Be sure students know their overall grade at midterm and invite them to ask you for their overall grade at any time during the semester.

Explicitly explaining grading policies, practices and allowing students to know their grades throughout the semester reduces anxiety and allows students to concentrate their attention on the course rather than their grade.

Future Career Decisions. When choosing a major or deciding to continue in an already declared major, students want to know they have a future in that area. Talk to your students about your research when the opportunity presents itself so they can see your undergraduate education at work. If you’re teaching a lab or recitation, ask to teach a lecture once or twice during the semester to give your students a chance to see you in a different environment.

Take time to have a discussion with your students about what motivated you to choose and stay in your field. Invite them to ask you questions about resources available to help students choose a career and about alternate careers in your field. You also may want to ask faculty or members of the community in your field to visit your class for a discussion about future careers.

What’s In It for You? For graduate students, teaching provides several important professional development benefits. As you gain more experience and take on greater responsibility in the classroom, you develop “transferable” skills that are applicable in various professional positions. For every assignment you grade, email you reply to, or lesson you prepare, you’re developing the ability to manage a multitude of tasks. Well-developed time management and multitasking skills can be applied to any job.

Teaching well also means you’re developing effective presentation skills. Even if you’re not planning an academic career, most organizations will expect you to give presentations. And, if you’re able to demonstrate you can teach effectively, it’s likely you’ll have an edge in the job search.

Graduate teaching assistants, however, also benefit the department as well as the institution. Svinicki (1995) notes that teaching assistants provide invaluable support to busy faculty and, if prepared to teach, can improve the quality of undergraduate education as a whole, which, in the end, contributes to the university’s primary mission.

As is the case at most major research universities, teaching assistants make a significant contribution to undergraduate education at UNL. By promoting an atmosphere of trust and respect, creating a positive learning environment, implementing fair and reasonable grading practices, and sharing your enthusiasm and excitement for your field of study with your undergraduate students, you have an opportunity to impact undergraduate students’ learning and development well beyond their time in your classroom.

Resources for Teaching Assistants

Handbook for Graduate Teaching Assistants
Motivating Students
Sample Syllabus
Scoring Rubric
Teaching Strategies

O’Neal, C., Wright, M., Cook, C., Perorazio, T., & Purkiss, J. 2007. The impact of teaching assistants on student retention in the sciences. Journal of College Science Teaching, 36, pp. 24-29.

Svinicki, M. 1995. A dozen reasons why we should prepare graduate students to teach. Journal of Graduate Teaching Assistant Development 3 (1): 5-8.