Reflections on Being a Physics TA

I’ve been a Physics TA for the past 2 years and have learned a lot about myself, my teaching styles, and how to develop course content. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve gleaned:

  1. Review all of the material beforehand, even if you think you know it thoroughly. There were many times where I brushed off looking at homework questions because I assumed I would be able to solve them off the top of my head since they were “simple.” Nope. This is especially critical if you’re a TA for a class you took long ago or don’t have direct exposure to anymore.
  2. Your demeanor can make or break a student’s experience. I’ve seen two “stereotypes” of TAs: the ones who are hard, rigid, and follow the rules to a T, and the ones who are more lax but probably don’t care about the class as much. It’s possible to be a great TA in either stereotype, but it’s also important to think about it from the students’ perspectives. It may be appropriate to be strict if students are misbehaving, but I personally see no reason to not be relaxed in the classroom/lab. It makes the atmosphere less tense and students can focus more on learning the big ideas rather than fretting over minor details.
  3. Frequent communication with professors is vital. It builds a strong rapport, makes it much easier to suggest course or grade changes, and you can probably ask for a reference at the end of the semester.
  4. It’s okay to make mistakes. Students typically hold the misconception that TAs are subject matter experts and may become frustrated when TAs can’t immediately solve their problems. Making mistakes is human, and sometimes, it may help students to learn what they shouldn’t do. I vividly remember setting up a problem incorrectly because I made a faulty assumption. Some students approached me after class and said they would’ve made the same mistake, so it’s possible to still help them even if you don’t arrive at the right answer.
  5. TAs don’t receive SPOT scores, so implement alternative methods to obtain feedback. I had students fill out a Google Form regularly, and that helped me gauge my strengths/weaknesses. Regular feedback is important because it allows you to experiment with pedagogy to help as many people (yourself included) as possible.

I’ve had a great time being a TA and would definitely like to try being the Instructor-of-Record for a Physics course one day. I hope you can find these tips useful, implementable, and attainable!

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