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A Student's Guide to the Classroom's TA
TAs Impact Your Learning
A TA? What's the Big Deal?
Teaching Assistants can be upperclassmen, graduate students, or specially trained adults who have taken the class and done well or have covered the material extensively in other classes. In addition to knowing the subject material, they often have a relationship with the professor by having taking the class from him or her, being in his or her research group, or having been a TA for him or her before. At the vary least, they're employed by the professor. And, if the TA's relationship with the professor weren't enough already, they are frequently involved in grading. In other words, they're a wealth of knowledge on the class subject, the professor, and how to do well on the assignments and prepare for tests. This is someone you want to have a good relationship with!
How helpful do you think TAs are?
How do you feel about your experiences with your TAs up to this point?
Utilizing the TA effectively
Schedule an appointment, go in during his or her office hours or send him or her an email to find a time that you can introduce yourself and make sure you are starting the semester off on the right foot. Be prepared to ask any questions you have about the structure of the class when you go to meet him or her. Be respectful of his or her time and don't take up more than about 10 minutes unless you have a lot of legitimate questions or he or she really wants to talk. Whether you have questions or not, be sure you go in. Don't just be another name on the roll, put a face to your name!
At the beginning of the semester
Towards the beginning of the semester you should attend your TA's office hours and ask him or her how he or she would approach the material in the class. Ask how he or she approached the class when he or she took it, what worked for him or her, what didn't work for him or her, and what he or she would do differently if he or she were to do it again. If he or she didn't take the class, ask what he or she has noticed were helpful for students who succeeded in the past and what students who struggled weren't doing.
In addition, ask what's most important to study, how to do well on tests, what studying habits you should be building, what people usually struggle with and how to avoid those struggles. And, use the time to clarify the syllabus if you have any questions about it. Make sure you have thoroughly read through the syllabus before going to the TA's office so you are prepared to ask as many of the questions that may arise during the semester as possible. You should have a good general understanding of the layout of the semester and the expectations when you leave this appointment.
A TA a Day Keeps the Failed Classes Away
Have your TA help you identify the best learning plan for you. Talk to the TA about techniques that have worked for you in the past and ask your TA if there are additional study skills you need to develop and which of your preferred skills work best for learning in that class.
Also, ask where the professor tends to draw his test questions from. Be sure to double check if he will test on materials that are presented in the textbook, but not in class, so you know how to study and prepare.
And, ask the TA what other resources are available. Double check the use of the textbook and that you have the right one. You should also ask the TA if he or she knows of places you can get practice questions, watch helpful videos or access other resources that you may not know are available to you.
Return as needed to modify or enhance the plan as the semester progresses. Continually re-evaluate what parts of your plan are efficient and beneficial and what parts need to be tweaked. Consult with your TA on how to make the most effective changes throughout the semester.
Before the first big assignment
Double check that you understand all the instructions and ask the TA if they have any specific advice. Complete the assignment early enough that you can take it to the TA and ask for feedback and make necessary corrections before turning it in. Don't just ask if it will get a good grade. Have the TA double check that you understand all the material you were supposed to learn in the material, in addition to making sure you will get the desired grade.
Points and Grading
No one likes people who whine and complain about the 1/2 point they lost and demand it be given back. However, there is nothing wrong with double checking the addition on the test and notifying the grader, professor or TA of the mistake. There is also nothing wrong with asking your TA why you lost points, what concepts you need to spend more time on and what you could do to do better on upcoming assignments. Your TA wants to help you learn. This is a great opportunity for him or her to do that, so let them!
Before the Test
Attending TA reviews can be very helpful, especially if he or she has seen the exam before the review. However, most reviews are more helpful if you bring a list of things you don't understand, whether or not your TA has seen the test. Thoroughly go through the material and make a list of questions to take to the review. If you don't get through all of them, try to schedule time to go through them before you take the test.
Meeting with the TA and asking him or her if you can explain concepts you are shaky on to him or her can be very beneficial. Having to teach something is one of the best ways to identify what you don't know, which can be one of the hardest parts of taking a test. And, your "student" will know the answers, so he can tell you the answers in this process, in addition to the questions!
How You Utilize Your TAs Will Effect Your Grades
After the test
After the test, go through your test and try to understand why you missed the questions you missed. Schedule a time with the TA to go over concepts you don't understand. This is important because difficult mid-semester test questions have a tendency to end up on the final. Once you have been shown how to work each problem type, ask the TA if he or she knows where you can find additional problems for practice. Practice each type of problem until you're comfortable with it.
When to See the Doctor, I mean TA!
Be proactive. It's much easier to stay caught up than it is to catch up. Air on the side of seeing the TAs too much in the first two weeks and then back off as you can as you get comfortable with the pace of the class. However, lots of classes begin with a review and get significantly harder after a few weeks into the semester. Double check with the TA that this is isn't going to happen or that it has already happened before you relax. And, if you need the help later in the semester, get it before it's too late!
The Perfect Group Member
Doing homework and studying in groups has lots of benefits. It's more fun than studying on your own. It gives you someone besides yourself that you're accountable to. It's a great way to get other perspectives on concepts you didn't understand and clear up incorrect understanding.
What's even better than a study group? A study group that meets near the TA's office and takes any questions to the TA during the last 15 minutes of their time together. You'll have just gone over the material so it's fresh, you'll have other people there to help you in case you don't understand what the TA says, and you'll have answers to your questions! It's like inviting Superman to be in your study group!