Students deserve equal footing in lab classes

Denise Emerson

Two students could sit next to each other in lecture, have the same work ethic and intelligence, and yet, at the end of the semester, one barely passes while the other flies by with an easy A. 

Many students at UT will have to take a class with a lab or discussion section. These sections, often led by teaching assistants, are intended to provide a hands-on, one-on-one learning experience for courses that sometimes accommodate hundreds of students. They can provide amazing learning experiences, but in many cases they do just the opposite. Lack of guidelines for TAs has caused disparities in grades and has created an unfair environment in an already competitive atmosphere. 

Professors have the authority to run lab and discussion sections as they see fit. Assignments, grading and due dates often get delegated to TAs, so even though students are taking the same exact course, the workload varies from section to section.

Joey Gurrentz, a chemistry graduate student, has been a TA for three chemistry courses under different professors. He has seen the same courses redone by different professors, each yielding different levels of grade distribution.

“I think that is hugely unfair,” said Gurrentz. “The other TAs who don’t care about (fairness) love TA-ing these classes.” 

One of the courses he was a TA for was very lax — much of the freedom was handed to the TAs. At the end of the semester, the professor would change grades to make them more consistent across labs. In another course, the TAs were given strict rubrics to follow. Students just have to hope to get lucky when registering for courses, since they have no way of knowing which TA they’ll get.

“Having more rigorous rubrics in general helps. But I’ve also noticed that the TAs who care more about doing their research than TA-ing will oftentimes overlook that because of time.” Gurrentz said.

The problem isn’t isolated to just STEM departments. Radio-television-film sophomore Cindy Xu has also noticed issues in her discussion sections.

“If our project isn’t necessarily to the TA’s preference, then we may not get that good of a grade no matter if it’s creatively good or technically good,” Xu said. “Their opinions and preferences really shape each section differently. Some TAs might grade on a stricter rubric, and some TAs might not even have a rubric.”

TAs should be in agreement with each other over grading criteria and workload. If one TA deviates from the standards set, the professor and other TAs should hold them accountable. 

There’s nothing in the Handbook of Operating Procedures policy 9-2020, UT’s policy concerning teaching assistants, to address lack of standard criteria for TA sections within courses or departments.

“My office hours were just booming. I had so many people because nobody would trust any of their other TAs.” Gurrentz said. “And then they would get frustrated that the other TAs weren’t giving their grades back on time.”

I witnessed this first-hand. We set up this interview during his office hours, and he had to alternate between my questions and tutoring a group of worried students.

All of this is unacceptable. Colleges within UT need to create standardized guidelines for TAs. Creating equal criteria would translate to due dates and assignments being the same across labs and discussion classes. TAs would be held to the same standards, including releasing grades on time and providing equal assistance to students.

UT needs to prioritize quality of education over anything else. It’s impossible to make every TA have the exact same mindset and opinions, but students shouldn’t feel unfairly disadvantaged because they happened to pick a bad section. 

Emerson is a journalism and radio-television-film sophomore from San Antonio.