Learning to Break Barriers Between TAs and Students
Teaching assistants, or TAs, are a large part of how universities such as UCI run their classes. They facilitate discussion sections, labs, and even take on the large responsibility of leading an entire class. Most of these teaching assistants are graduate or doctoral students who take on the position in order to help supplement their school expenses, but they can also be undergraduate students who take on the role when they have shown exceptional work in a certain field. However, the quality of these teaching assistants vary widely. The enthusiasm, knowledge, and teaching ability of a TA can make or break the learning experience for UCI students. But even an exceptionally excited and motivational TA that facilitates student learning can still carry negative connotations. For the high price of tuition that students pay, is it fair that a fellow student takes over responsibility for your learning instead of a faculty member?
For most TAs, teaching is not the end goal of their career. Many have no formal training at all in educating individuals and intend on having a career in their desired field that doesn’t involve teaching in the future. This can lead to a lot of problems. While there is no doubt that TAs are usually knowledgeable about the information being taught in class, sometimes there can be a disconnect when it comes to sharing their expertise with students. At UCI, where large lectures are brought down to more manageable sizes in class discussions, the role of the TA becomes crucial to a student’s understanding of the class material. Discussion sections led by TAs provide students with a smaller and more personal environment where they can ask questions and clarify points in the lecture they didn’t understand. If a TA is unable to properly explain what is going on in lecture and answer questions in a way that fosters better understanding, there is little good being done in these discussion sections.
In more than one discussion section at UCI, especially in STEM-oriented classes, I’ve had issues with language barriers between me and the TA of my class. It was obvious to me that they knew the material, but it felt as if they were reciting and copying the math problems without proper explanation. I realized, after struggling to understand certain words they were saying and watching them search for the right words to say at times, that their language barrier could be affecting their teaching.
They were clearly very knowledgeable in the material, however, it was difficult for them to relate this information to students, especially in a more simplified way for us to understand. While English by no means has to be the first language of any instructor, it becomes an issue when the teaching is being hindered by a language barrier that, at times, can make the course material seem more complicated than it is. Simply knowing the information of the course well is not enough to be an effective TA. TAs have to take on the complex responsibility of making sure their students know it as well, and that means being able to communicate effectively.
Certain classes are directly taught by a TA without much oversight by a member of UCI’s faculty. I’ve had graduate students as instructors for English classes, and this has given me mixed feelings. For the amount of tuition I’m paying for out-of-state expenses, I would ideally want a member of the faculty who is a professional in the field I’m studying. In my HumCore discussion, I had a professor as my instructor, and I truly felt as if I got the most knowledge out the material in that experience. I never appreciated their seemingly effortless expertise until I was taught by a graduate student who made it very apparent that they had little teaching experience. This graduate student was very smart, and very knowledgeable of the subject they taught. However, the entire class felt jumbled as the TA attempted to fit everything into the syllabus and relay this knowledge to us. Their lack of experience in fostering discussion in a natural way and giving relatable feedback was obvious. It made clear to me that being on the other end of the classroom is very different from being a student, and some of these graduate students struggle with this role-reversal. Perhaps a simple training course before beginning to teach could better prepare these students for taking on this role, however, there is no doubt that it takes years of hands-on experience to mold someone into an effective educator.
Overall, I have had no horrifying experiences with TAs at UCI. What constitutes a good teacher is up for interpretation, but engaging students in a way that makes them excited and learning effectively is a tall order. Graduate student TAs have a large job, and while being on the other side of the learning spectrum may be a difficult transition for some, it is always apparent that they are at least trying their best. While I wish professional educators could teach me every step of the way, I accept that other students will aid in my education here at UCI. There may be barriers to how effective student teachers can be, but overall they have an important role in the university that allows UCI to function.
Claire Harvey is a second-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.