Grad School 101: Tips for TA-ing Virtually

By Emily Elia: Easy-to-implement tips to help your virtual TA experience run more smoothly this semester.

People in a cartoon zoom meeting

A big part of graduate school is serving as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for undergraduate classes. How often one will serve as a TA depends largely on the graduate program and department, but most graduate students can expect to TA at least a couple of times. The duties of a TA will also differ with every program. Sometimes TAs work solely behind the scenes, but other times TAs will have sizable responsibilities teaching the class, often in smaller discussion sections or modules outside of the main lecture with the course professor. This semester, first time TAs and veteran TAs alike are trying to navigate the “new normal” of virtual or dual-delivery classes. TA-ing in a virtual format poses lots of new challenges to an already challenging job. Read on for some easy-to-implement tips to help your virtual TA experience run more smoothly this semester.

Prepare ahead of time with your physical set-up

Working from home will be a little different than simply walking into a classroom on campus and pulling up a presentation or writing on a whiteboard. With virtual TA-ing, it’s important to dedicate time to preparing the physical set-up of your classes as well as the technological logistics. Is your lighting adequate? Is your computer in a comfortable position, and is your webcam set at a good angle? Are you in a quiet area? Do you have headphones on hand should they become necessary? Setting up your physical space before your class session begins will ensure that you are not constantly shifting things around while trying to teach. Making sure you are physically comfortable before beginning class will help you remain locked in and organized while teaching.

Likewise, it’s important to have all your necessary electronic materials up and ready before class. If you are sharing your screen to show a presentation, have that presentation ready to go on your desktop. If you are using notes to guide a lecture, need to access a spreadsheet to take attendance, or need to reference an assigned reading, make sure all of those files are already open on your computer before class starts. Again, this will help keep you organized, and it will ideally help you to avoid hunting for files on your computer while trying to teach.

Make your participation expectations clear

Participation on Zoom can be hard! Students who are outgoing in person may feel much shyer in a virtual format. Zoom also has many features for participating, which can make it confusing for students to know what they should do in your class specifically. Make your participation expectations clear for your students. Firstly, how do you want students to signal that they have a comment to add, a question to ask, or an answer to give? Students can use the “raised hand” feature in Zoom, they can physically raise their hand on camera, they can write in the chat, they can even start speaking without any signal at all. It’s important to let your students know your preferences so that everybody is on the same page.

Let your students know what form of participation counts in your class, especially if your students earn participation grades. Does participation have to include talking, or is writing in the chat feature also considered to be a form of participation? Remember that speaking aloud for some students may be more difficult if they are working in a setting where they feel uncomfortable talking frequently due to potentially disturbing those around them, such as in a dorm room or common area. Being flexible will be important. Be sure that your students understand your participation rules so that they know what they need to do to earn a good participation grade.

Utilize Breakout Rooms in Zoom for discussions

Discussing in a virtual format is much harder than discussing in person. Even with smaller groups, it can be difficult to establish a natural flow of conversation without any accidental interruptions, awkward pauses, or the now-infamous “wait, can you hear me?” moments that we have all experienced. Dividing your students into smaller groups in Breakout Rooms can help facilitate discussion that is not achievable as a full class. Provide a discussion prompt to students, give them a set time interval for discussion, and then randomly divide the class into Breakout Rooms. Three to six students per room is likely a good number to facilitate engaged discussion where everyone in the group gets a chance to speak.

While your students are in Breakout Rooms, you can broadcast written messages to them, such as “Breakout Rooms will close in 5 minutes.” You can also still communicate with everyone in your class via the chat feature. As the host of the call, you have the ability to “stop by” Breakout Rooms, so you can make your way around each room to check in on the discussion or ask additional questions to each group. While discussions in Breakout Rooms may still be more difficult than in-person discussions, they definitely make discussion much more doable than it is when the full class section is together. Breakout Rooms can help class be a bit more engaging, and it can also help students get to know one another better.

Review and quiz with online polls

It can be difficult to gauge how much students do or do not understand when class is held in a virtual format. With in-person classes, it is a bit easier to pick up on confusion in the room. Using virtual polling features can help you measure how your class is handling the material, especially when polling features are anonymous and thus encourage more honesty from your students. Zoom has an anonymous poll feature that is easy to use during Zoom sessions. Another popular polling site is PollEv, which also includes other fun features like word cloud generation from open response answers. You can construct a poll on PollEv and then share the URL link during your class session. Through that link, the class gains access to participate in the poll on their web browsers, and they see anonymous answers register in real-time. Polls can be a great way to quickly review some basic questions. Polls can also be utilized as a way to administer quick pop quizzes if need be.

Schedule breaks for long classes

If your class session is on the longer side, it is beneficial to schedule in a break about half-way through during every session. Focusing in front of a computer screen can be difficult, and Zoom fatigue can be very real! With shorter class sessions, time for a break is not feasible, but longer sessions should definitely include a 5-10 minute break that allows students to shut off their cameras and step away from the computer. This break also allows you to take a breather. Stand up and stretch, get a glass of water, maybe even step outside your front door for a moment of fresh air. Taking a break will help everyone reset for a moment and revitalize their ability to focus for the remainder of class.

There will be bumps in the road, and that’s okay!

Remember that everybody is doing their best to make virtual learning work. If things don’t go perfectly, that’s okay! As a graduate student, you are juggling how to be a good virtual student and a good virtual teacher right now. There are bound to be bumps in the road. Though undergraduate students may not understand everything that goes into virtual teaching, remember that they are also learning how to adjust to this highly abnormal academic year. Your students are probably not expecting you to have everything operating smoothly, either. However, setting yourself up for as much success as possible will hopefully help both you and your students navigate virtual learning with less stress.

Further Reading:

Grad School 101: Learning from (and through) COVID-19

Grad School 101: What to expect during year one

Grad School 101: New challenges in the time of COVID

5 simple steps to organizing an online journal club

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a third-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.