Tips and Thoughts on Starting as a TA

Erika Kustra, McMaster University, 2003

If you would like any additional information or help there are great resources at the Centre for Leadership in Learning, T-13, Room 124, Ext. 24540.

Preparation Before the First Class

Your Purpose

Talk to the instructor and think about: What is your purpose? What do you want or need to do with your TA-ship?

  • What are the instructors expectations for your role? Will you have your own class to meet with?
  • The answer will influence what you do, your teaching style and choice of teaching methods.
  • Examples: generate interest, answer questions, provide additional information, discuss ideas, problem solve, demonstrate experiments, provide hands on experience, mark assignments and exams, provide grades


Many policies will be determined by the professor, so meet with the professor before classes start.

  • Ask about policies for late assignments, missed exams, cheating.


If you lead a tutorial, prepare an outline, especially for the first class when you will be most nervous.

  • Do not script everything you will say, but instead have a clear idea of the topics and the activities.
  • What would you like to do? What will the students do?
  • Why is it worthwhile? How will you let the students know why they should learn this?
  • How long do you think the different parts of the class will take?
  • How will you move from one topic to the next?
  • This will give you something to refer to, it will also ensure that you are prepared for the tutorial. Be flexible with your outline if things do not go the way you planned.

Active Learning

Most people benefit if they are actively involved in thinking or doing something with content.

  • Think, before you start, about how you can actively involve students, rather than just talk at them.
  • Talk to other TAs and faculty and contact the CLL for ideas.
  • Start the first day the way you wish to continue. For example, include questions, problems, discussions (small and large), real life examples, activities.

Evaluations OF Students

Think about how students will be graded - so that you can give them a clear picture the first day of what they have to do for their grades. This is very important to students.

  • Grading may be determined by the professor, you may be responsible for some of the mark or you may be in a course where students have options about their grading. What ever the situation is, make sure you are clear, and that you can make the information clear to the students.

Evaluations BY Students

Most courses do not have specific evaluation forms for feedback on your teaching.

  • Decide ahead of time how students can provide you with feedback, and then tell them on the first day.
  • It is a good idea to have some way for students to tell you anonymously how things are going, early in the course. This gives you time to improve. Student evaluations are also useful later, when you apply for jobs.


There is no policy at McMaster, it is up to you and the type of environment you wish to establish.

  • Be true to yourself. Consider what will most help you feel confident and comfortable.

Room Set up

The room can influence your success in a classroom.

  • Check the room before the first tutorial, and prepare it so that it suits your preference.
  • Do you like to walk around? Then make sure there is space. Will you trip over cords? Do you like to sit with the students? Do you use an overhead, blackboard or other equipment?
  • In some rooms you can change the desks in order to promote discussion.
  • Sometimes just asking students to move from one location to another can stimulate discussions.

Your First Class


It is important to set the tone and pattern that you want for the whole course during your first class.

  • If you would like students to discuss, it is usually best to have them interacting in the very first class. It is hard to change students from listening and taking notes to discussing later!
  • Will you be relaxed or formal?
  • Will you use open discussion, traditional lecture format or other teaching methods?
  • This is also the time to choose your presentation style, such as clear speaking and enthusiastic.

Ice Breakers

Consider using an ‘ice breaker’ that is relevant to your topic in your first class.

  • These are activities, that are an excellent way to introduce students and start them talking.
  • Choose one that suits your personality, and is relevant to the purpose of the tutorial.
  • Groups are a good way to get students talking. If people are in small groups or pairs, then they must talk to each other.... and after that it is usually easier to get them to talk to you!


Remember that you are working with real people and group dynamics.

  • Be prepared to change some things to reflect your students' needs better.
  • Some things will take more time than you expect, others will take less time. Try to build in some activities or topics that can easily be added or removed.


Let students know how they can contact you. This can be done by setting TA hours, by providing an office phone number, e-mail, coffee hours, etc.

  • As a TA, you take on a real responsibility. Students will give you a great deal of respect, so be professional and follow through with commitments you make to be available to students.
  • Some people provide home phone numbers, but think carefully before you decide to do this. It will depend on you and the type of tutorial that you have.
  • When arranging appointments it may be a good idea to ask for contact information for the student in case something happens and you are unable to make the meeting.
  • Post important notes for students who are unable to contact you.


Go slow with the information the first day, because many students will forget, or miss the first tutorial.

  • Most people will forget some of what you say, even the most dedicated students. For essential information, try to make sure that it is available for students later, and be prepared to remind them.


Consider providing critical information on handouts, or making it available on the web, or by e-mail.

  • Always make sure that you keep at least one copy of anything that you hand out to the students.... there is always at least one person that will need a copy later.


A good way to get people interacting may be to set up an e-mail list or an on-line discussion.

  • Marks can even be assigned on a participation basis - this may be a good option for students who feel uncomfortable speaking in class.


Remember that you really are the expert - both in the content and in the skills a good student needs.

  • Students will generally give you the benefit of the doubt, and automatically give you some respect as an authority. BUT do not betray that confidence - ensure that you prepare for the tutorial.
  • If you do not know an answer (which will happen!), indicate that it was a good question and you will find out the answer. Then, follow up with the answer the following tutorial or by e-mail.


Always show respect for the students, remember what you felt as a student.


Think about the success of your tutorial: What worked well? What did not?

  • Try to write comments on your outline or overheads during the class or immediately after class and then you can improve the next time.