What TAs don’t realize they can do to help students in the classroom

Recently, I gave a talk to graduate students about a physics education project I worked on with Ido Roll. (Slides embedded in Appendix I below.) Briefly, the idea for the project was to evaluate which teaching assistant (TA) behaviours could be used to predict student engagement and learning in a first-year physics lab. Our main result was that the frequency of TA-student interactions during a lab was significantly and positively correlated with student engagement in the lab. Given this empirical fact, the main message of my talk was that TAs should be as active as possible in the classroom, interacting with many students. In this post, I will not go into detail about this work. (Please keep your eyes open for a future blog post about it or check out the preprint on the arXiv.) Rather, I will report and discuss results from an activity I used during my presentation.

A snowball fight for TAs

The audience consisted entirely of graduate students in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UBC, all of whom have had experience as a TA. I prompted the audience with the question, “What do you do as a TA that helps students learn?” I asked them to put themselves in the classroom or lab and think about the actions they take to help students. After a couple minutes for thought, I asked the audience to write down their ideas on provided scraps of paper, crumple them up, and toss them to the front of the room. This activity is called a “snowball fight”, in which the scraps of paper are the snowballs. It was a fun way to solicit anonymous responses to my query.

I had three main reasons for using this activity: 1. For me to see what the TAs think they do to help students; 2. To activate the audience and bring their thoughts into the discussion, and; 3. To help frame the subsequent discussion of my work. I was really interested to see what the group of grad students feel about how they TA and to compare and contrast it with my own thoughts and perspective. In addition, I feel that the activity did effectively activate the audience. With very little persuasion, I believe that everyone contributed a response to my poll. (It certainly helped that I personally knew almost everyone in the room. Would it work in a room of strangers? I think probably yes, given the same context and some encouragement from the speaker.)

The results, or, “What do TAs do while interacting with students?”

I present the results of the snowball fight in word cloud form here. The full set of responses is given below in Appendix II. I note here that the group of TAs giving responses here were self-selected as people who are interested enough in physics education to attend a talk about it. Therefore, it’s likely that these results are not representative of the entire TA population in the Department.


The vast majority of the responses are related to things the TA would be doing during an interaction with a student. Some examples of responses along these lines include “ask them questions to figure out what they are thinking,” “ask questions to guide them to the answer,” and “rephrasing their explanation.”

As you can see, “questions” figured prominently across the set of responses. Of the nine times “questions” showed up, three referred to answering student questions, while six referred to asking students questions using the socratic method. (I should note that two more responses referred to the socratic method using the term “questioning”.) That “questions” was the most frequent response can likely be traced back to the TA training program in the Department. During the two-day core TA training workshop, which is mandatory for every incoming grad student, the most practical module, in terms of skills immediately applicable in the classroom, is that on socratic questioning. From this group of grad students, we see that the TA training program has been at least somewhat successful in propagating the utility of the socratic method.

I very much appreciate the set of responses related to social things the TA can do to help the student feel at ease. In addition to the few “be approachable”s, these include “encourage them” and “smile when talking to them.” I really feel that things like this can make the classroom experience more enjoyable for both the TAs and the students and I try hard to maintain a positive environment in my classroom.

The idea everyone missed, or, “What can TAs do while not interacting with students?”

As mentioned above, the main concept I was pushing in my talk was for the TA to be as active as possible in the classroom, approaching as many groups as possible and in general making their presence felt. As shown in our research, the frequency of interactions (with no regard to quality) has a positive and measurable effect on student engagement. However, the majority of the ideas given by the group of TAs focus on what they do during an interaction, and not in between. In fact, there was only one response that overlapped with my message: “approach/bug them”. It is clear that this group did not give considerable attention to other aspects of the TA process that could have a positive effect on learning, such as how much they approach or don’t approach students.

Now, it’s nice to believe that the quality of TA-student interactions should play the main role in student learning in a lab. My question is, Is this focus warranted? As class sizes swell and TA-student ratios shrink, the individualized interactions with TAs become less and less frequent. (In the study, 2 TAs facilitated lab sections that contained about 40 students working in pairs. If the TAs split their time evenly and are always with students, each pair will only be working directly with a TA for 1/10 of the lab period.) If the TA only interacts with a student once (or less) per lab period, an argument can be made that those individual interactions may not have much effect at all on the students.

Based on the results of our research, something that does have an effect on students is the frequency of TA-student interactions. Based on the results of this informal survey, this is not an aspect of TA facilitation style that is given any precedence. Then, I argue that, at the least, the prompting question starting any discussion about TA style should be expanded to also include the parallel question of “What can TAs do away from the students that will help them learn?” While our research does suggest one possible answer for this question, the goal of this post is not to provide answers (despite the suggestive title). Instead, it’s to point out that, for the most part, it seems that this parallel question has been ignored and that, in doing so, we might be missing out on important opportunities to positively affect students and student learning in the classroom.

Comment/question starters

Some possible comment starters for your (and my) convenience:

  • Why is the socratic method emphasized so in your Department?
  • Of course quality of TA-student interactions is paramount! You can’t discount it like that because …
  • Another aspect of TA facilitation style that is often overlooked is …
  • Looking at the responses, I see a great trend towards …
  • Looking at the responses, I see an interesting trend towards …
  • Looking at the responses, I see a disturbing trend towards …
  • I always put an interactive component in the talks I give. My favourite technique is …
  • I would never poll the audience during a talk! This is because …

Appendix I: Presentation slides

Appendix II: Full TA responses

  • Be aware when students are struggling and offer to help
  • Be relaxed and friendly, have a personality
  • Take time to think before responding to questions
  • Make them explain their thought process to me
  • Relate things to concept/ideas they are familiar with
  • Ridicule them
  • Think in examples easier to understand
  • Answer questions
  • Guide them through hard problems
  • Give them detailed feedback in marking
  • Figure out what student don’t understand (questioning)
  • Write feedback on homework
  • Be _prepared_ for teaching material at hand
  • Ask socratic questions
  • Giving examples
  • Rephrasing their explanation
  • Ask them explain the points that are not clear to them
  • Answer their questions the best I can
  • Ask them questions to figure out what they are thinking
  • Ask questions to guide them to the answer
  • Encourage them
  • Be confident in my own knowledge of what’s going on
  • Figure out what they know to know what they need to know
  • Explain thought process instead of just giving answers
  • Talk to them
  • Ask questions
  • Comments when marking
  • Explain physics concepts clearly
  • Be approachable, friendly
  • Give as much help as needed
  • Be excited about what’s happening
  • When showing how to solve a problem, I say “this should remind you of (a common in-class problem)”
  • Get them involved
  • Smile when talking to them
  • Encourage conversations/dialogue
  • Ask questions
  • Approachable
  • Structured labs/learning environments
  • Ask good questions and follow up on confusions
  • Questioning
  • Be approachable
  • Explaining
  • Be nice/smile
  • Approach/bug them


  1. Jared, how many responses were you getting per TA on their snowballs? I imagine that, given the same prompt, I would have focused on the interaction with students as well or perhaps preparation (lack of preparation can really destroy student confidence in a TA or instructor). But if pressed to make a longer list, something along the lines of making sure I interact with every group would come up pretty quickly.

  2. Thanks for the comment Joss! I encouraged the TAs to provide multiple responses and I believe I received about 2 to 3 responses per TA.

    I agree with you that it’s not surprising that they focused on the interaction with the students (and that this could have been exacerbated by the specific prompt or the way I presented it). Certainly that’s an important part of facilitating a classroom, and it would have been my first response also.

    I believe also that an experienced instructor (like you) would be able to come up with the need to interact with many groups. But, I’m not sure that the average TA would get to that. In my experience, if this aspect of facilitation comes up, it’s only as an afterthought. A couple years ago, I was a Head TA for a first-year course here. As part of the job, the other Head TA and I developed and facilitated a course-specific workshop. The modules mimicked those of the start-of-year TA training workshop: we talked about learning goals, formative evaluation, socratic questioning, and some course-specific information. No where did we mention a “between-interaction” facilitation strategy. (This was of course before my work with Ido.) If someone asked, we probably would have said that yes, they should approach the groups. But, it certainly wasn’t a main takeaway from the workshop.

    So, perhaps the way I prompted the audience did lead them to mainly think about interactions. However, I think there is a lack of discussion about what else to do as a TA and that the responses I received here do help to illustrate that point.

  3. […] I highly recommend checking out my friend and colleague Jared Stang’s blog for other good TA ideas, especially this one and this one. […]

  4. […] between teaching assistants and students boost engagement in physics labs (and touched on in a previous post), proactive TA interactions do have an effect on student engagement (at least in the physics lab). […]

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