The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday December 2nd

Preparation for teaching assistants varies across departments

Often the pressure put on undergraduate students to navigate academia can be influenced by the interactions between the student and the teacher — and student evaluations, which fill students' inboxes at the end of the semester, can help.

Many students at UNC encounter course sections taught by a teaching assistant instead of a professor. Teaching assistants sometimes supplement professors' work in larger classes or teach their own sections, depending on the way the course is structured. Often classes led by a teaching assistant are meant to facilitate student discussion in a closer, recitation setting. 

Molly Sutphen, associate director and teaching and learning coordinator for the Center for Faculty Excellence, works to ensure teaching assistants have the proper preparation and assistance to ease any possible concern. She said she has worked closely with professors and teaching assistants to learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to teaching, and student evaluations provide important feedback. 

“They’re prepared, and they are always undergoing that formation to be an excellent teacher,” Sutphen said. “They have the professor, they have students that give them feedback all the time, and we do offer lots of resources; we have workshops, books, individual consultations, the fellowship program and they have each other.”

Training for teaching assistants varies between departments but typically includes a mandatory workshop. The training can include an optional course that gives instruction on teaching the subject. 

Joseph Stieb, a teaching assistant for the history department and former high school teacher, has experience with handling student dynamics, as well as strategies for remaining objective and unbiased in the classroom setting. 

“There’s no rule that says you can’t bring your personal opinions into class,” Stieb said. “What my rule of thumb for myself is to make sure that if I’m facilitating a discussion amongst the students, in which they don’t know what my position is … like United States involvement in Syria, I wouldn’t want that to leak through.”

Junior Elizabeth Davidson said she has had mixed experiences with classes she has taken taught by graduate students. 

“In my music class, my TA takes the time to talk to us about our work, and not only to tell us how to improve, but to tell us we’re doing a good job,” Davidson said. “I’ve never had a science TA tell me I’m doing a good job.”

Stieb said it's valid for a student to resubmit an assignment that's been graded because everyone can grade differently. He said most students don't end up resubmitting assignments because often, the work is resubmitted to the professor, who may grade more harshly.

“If I have a student say that white Americans hated Muhammad Ali, well, a lot of them did, but I need to know what were the different types of people that hated him, liked him, or something in the middle,” Stieb said. “It’s not necessarily wrong, it’s just incomplete.”

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