Students should not be afraid to approach teaching assistants

Dolph Briscoe IV

It’s that time of the semester — the first round of exams and papers are here. Preparing for tests and assignments can be stressful, especially for freshman students. I have had the privilege of working as a teaching assistant during my years in graduate school at UT. In my experience, students who make an effort to visit with their TAs about course material generally have a better understanding of how to succeed in class. I hope the following advice will benefit students as they face midterms.

First of all, do not be afraid to visit TAs, or professors for that matter, during their office hours. We keep office hours for students’ benefit. Teaching assistants are here to help students succeed in their courses. I have heard those anecdotes about TAs on so-called “power trips” whom undergraduates loathe, but this is largely a myth. Most TAs genuinely want students to enjoy what they are studying and excel in class. As graduate students, we have a passion for what we study, and the opportunity to impart knowledge to others is what drew many of us into academia in the first place.

Talking with TAs helps clarify questions students have about coursework. This is especially true in large classes. Sitting in a huge lecture hall filled with students can be intimidating and prevent individuals from asking questions. Meeting one-on-one or in small groups with a TA helps eliminate anxiety some students may have about speaking in front of so many people. Many times, TAs have worked with the same professor in past semesters. TAs answer directly to the professor in charge of the course and therefore have an understanding as to what is expected from students for the semester.

Reviewing course material on a regular basis with a TA further reinforces what students learn in class. TAs can answer questions about lectures and assigned readings. We recognize that you are coming into class with a limited knowledge of the subject, and that you naturally will have many questions as you listen, read and write. As graduate students, TAs are experts in their fields and can provide you with added understanding. 

TAs grade most students’ tests and assignments, so talking with them about expectations can be very beneficial. Visit with TAs before assignments are due, as well as afterwards if you have questions about your grade. Read over and think about comments TAs write on your work. If you are unsatisfied with your grade, talk with your TA and ask how you can improve your work to make better grades in the future. On a side note, don’t angrily approach your TA and demand an explanation for a grade lower than you expected. This may sound like common sense, but be aware that allowing your emotions to get the best of you only makes matters worse. My personal experience has been that most students are very respectful, even when making disappointing grades. Believe me, no TA wants to get into an awkward argument or shouting match with a student over grades.

Get to know your TA early on. Do not wait until the end of the semester to start worrying about your grade. Most TAs truly find their course material interesting and want students to make the most out of the class. As I tell my students, we are here to help you.

Briscoe is a history graduate student from Carrizo Springs.