Review: #EconTEAching Seminar 19: Conversation with Star TAs, by Yuqi Jin

2020 was unofficially the most challenging year of higher education and little light has been shed on one group, Teaching Assistants (TAs) who play an irreplaceable role in shaping students learning experiences. For universities, TAs are valuable sources of bottom-up knowledge, as commented by Dr. Ramin Nassehi. To get to know them better four star TAs, Ahmed Saade (UCL), Eman Abdulla (University of Warwick), Aoife Horan (UCL) and Stefani Cellini (University of Surrey), with an abundance of experience in various fields, were invited to this EconTEAching Seminar, ‘Conversation with Star TAs: a view from the trenches’ on 27 October 2021.

Why become a TA?

A question that I’m also curious about! Eman answered by stating that it’s about the rewarding feeling after the seminars when students acknowledge how much they have learned. Plus, different questions and opinions are so fun to her. Ahmed considers that being a TA is a step out of his comfort zone but essential to making a transition from being a student to becoming a lecturer.

From Ahmed’s answer, it’s not difficult to see that being a TA suits those who are eager to devote themselves to a teaching career. What about for other fields? Some comment that a TA-ship might not be as helpful for other future career paths. In response to this, Stefano said that may be ‘short sighted’ and that many TAs are pursuing degrees at the same time of teaching and the purpose of the academic field is to contribute knowledge so teaching is the best way to do it. Aoife, as a former TA and a consultant at the European Central Bank, agreed about personal growth and development available from taking part in a TA-ship. Teaching is presenting and delivering, connecting with people, and getting them engaged. Moreover, as an economist herself, revising core economic concepts when teaching undergraduates is beneficial.

Tips for current TAs

What are ways to keep students engaged in class? Stefano revealed a key rule: being anonymous motivates participation. Polls and breakout rooms are great tools. Especially polls, Eman mentioned that nothing fancy is required, and TAs can just use the chat in an online session, provide several options and students will respond to that easily. And if you teach mathematics, you could stop in the middle of a procedure and ask what’s next. More importantly, it could be an opportunity to make students think beyond the math question and link the math techniques to real world topics in economics. Apart from the relationship with students, consideration should be taken on communicating with fellow TAs. For TAs, working in a large team to exchange ideas and methods can help a lot in giving students a consistent learning experience. This could take the form of communicating about marking methods or observing each other’s sessions. Sometimes asking a friend to observe your class is helpful as they could give more constructive suggestions.

The role of the TA

The position of a TA is sometimes confusing and may need to be reconsidered. The relationship between TAs and lecturers should be the main objective of the institution. Meetings on a weekly basis should be organised, as lecturers could share their knowledge on previous years’ teaching and potential difficulties students may face. For lecturers to share their enthusiasm on teaching and the subject could encourage TAs on their work.

Ramin said that his first mentality of a TA is a teacher who is charismatic and good with students. But now he considers a TA-ship as something far beyond that – it is a role of an educationalist. To transform views on TA-ships, and further connect TAs with a career in education, the institution must do something. Making available training sessions and even master’s degrees in economic education would be useful. Flexibility in teaching is important, to allow TAs to use different methodologies in the seminars, to collaborate and form innovative teaching systems together with senior faculties. Rewards should also be given for being an excellent TA. While a professor can progress on the career path, having a clear career track for TA-ship and a title to progress should be considered seriously. Apart from research, the university should attach greater importance to a teaching career.

Summing up

You may be able to recall your first year’s professors, but your TAs? Much less likely. The TA ship is a piece of unpolished jewellery, they are undeveloped resources for higher education. Suggestions for the institution mentioned above are abundant, while what should students personally do? Maybe the first thing is to attend all your tutorials! And now, I will email my TA and discuss two questions from the last tutorial…

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