January 27, 2016

TAing

As a grad student, you can also work as a Teaching Assistant (TA). Generally, a TA is someone who marks a large group of assignments/tests for a professor or instructs a small group of students in a lab. There are several good reasons to TA:

  1. You get money! And for those coming in on minimum funding, this source of income is very, very necessary.
  2. It looks good on a CV.
  3. You’ll learn stuff. We may know more than our students about physics and astronomy, but you’ll still learn something new.
  4. In the case of teaching labs, you become better at public speaking, something you will do time and time again in academia (or elsewhere).

 

What duties are involved in teaching/marking?

 

Lab TA:

You should run through each lab yourself before teaching it! Seriously! Do not assume you know what to do. Do the lab!

At the start of the lab, you will likely give your students a short lecture on the subject (bringing the lab into context – most are non-astronomy/physics majors! Senior students may even share their slides with you!) and then walk them through the exercise.  Labs run for about 3 hours, though some are shorter and some are longer.

Astronomy: If you are a lab TA, then you will teach a lab to a group of students (~15) and grade their lab reports. For A101 and A102, there are 5 labs each semester, so you end up teaching your section every other week. A101 labs will run one week, then A102 labs. These count as half TAs, so to make a full TA you teach a section of each or two sections of one. A150/250, on the other hand, will be once a week for 10 labs but you’ll only have one section. You only have 98 hours allotted to do “1” TA position.  There is one outdoor night (yes, at night) lab (where the students look at stuff through telescopes) and the rest are indoors. Lab reports are due a few days later (though, the exact time is decided by YOU) and your students are expected to follow the lab format, i.e., include an Introduction, Procedure, Observations, Conclusions, etc.

Physics: If you are a lab TA for Physics 102/110/111/120/130, you will teach a lab to a group of students (max 24) and grade their lab reports. In each course there are 5 labs per semester per lab section, so you end up teaching your section every other week. One TA unit is teaching two of these lab sections. For Physics 102 (physics for non-majors) the labs are fill-in-the-blank worksheets and students rip out these pages in their lab manual to be graded by you. Students in Physics 102 are not expected to use uncertainties when determining or measuring quantities in every lab. For Physics 110/111 (physics for engineers/chemistry/math) and Physics 120/130 (physics for majors), the lab reports are written in black physics laboratory notebooks. Students are expected to follow the lab format as outlined in their lab manual ie. Write calculations, observations, discussion, conclusion, etc, and calculate/measure uncertainties. Lab reports are due at the end of the 3-hour lab section, although some TAs have allowed students to hand in their lab reports late at their discretion. No grading scheme is provided, so you have to make one up yourself. One of the full-time lab instructors (usually Doug McKenzie) depending on the physics course will contact TAs for setting up a lab meeting time to learn the lab. If you are new to teaching the course it is mandatory to attend.

Marking TA:

 

If you are a marking TA, then you will mark assignments, quizzes and or tests for a single class. For first-year classes, this means that you mark roughly 100 papers. In larger classes, they may have more than 1 person TAing. As such you and that other person would decide how to divide up the marking.

Generally, the professor in charge of the course will provide you with the papers, an answer key, and a deadline to get the grades back.

For the most part, you could mark the papers without the answer key, but try to stick to it. If the professor wants specific key works in the answers, then the students need to give those words.

Also, you likely don’t have to worry about students asking you for more marks. They will bother the professor for this instead.

It is very easy to go over your allotted time of 98 hours by providing lots of feedback on their homework. Make sure you manage your time wisely to get all the marking done in a timely matter. They can go to the professor or other students for help if they are really struggling. You won’t get paid for overtime.

Tutorial TA:

If you are a tutorial TA, you will have to prepare an exercise-based lesson in coordination with the professor in charge of the physics course. Usually, this involves finding problems online, in textbooks, etc and then walking students through solving the problem. Courses that involve tutorials are some 2nd year and 3rd-year courses in subjects such as thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, and occasionally PHYS 110/111 where there are ESL students enrolled in a special Pathways program. The best way to save on tutorial preparation is to contact the previous student who led the tutorial to obtain their teaching materials and ensure that it is up to date. Tutorials are usually scheduled once per week. One con about tutorials is that it can be easy to go over the allotted hours in prep time, and can be challenging. The nice thing about tutorials is there is no required marking!

 

PAS TA:

The department offers a Physics Aid Service (PAS) for students enrolled in physics courses to seek help. A TA is hired to staff the PAS, which takes place in a room at the McPherson Library, for 6 scheduled hours per week and helps out students with their homework problems or with understanding material in class. This type of TA can be really easy going as it can be quite empty, but also quite crowded during midterm/final season. There is no marking or public speaking involved with this type of TA, however, you must be prepared to help out with all physics courses so significant prep might be required.

Should I teach or mark?

Pros of teaching labs:

  1. You get some interaction with the students. This makes a lab TA more fun than just sitting around marking.
  2. You have more variety. You can teach the lab the way you want and mark the way you want (within reason).
  3. You learn a lot about speaking in front of a group and breaking down difficult topics for non-experts

Cons of teaching labs:

  1. You have less flexibility with your time. Each lab section has a time slot and you need to be there during that time slot.
  2. Labs, particularly your first time teaching them, will be a huge time sink. Keep that in mind if you’re taking 3 courses.

Pros of marking:

  1. Your time is more flexible. You can mark the work from home and when it is convenient. Unlike teaching labs which must happen at a specific time.
  2. Marking assignments is generally less time consuming than teaching.

Cons of marking:

  1. It gets tedious very quickly! When you have to mark the same questions 100 times, you really get tired of it.

 

Additional Info for Medical Physics students:
Students specializing in medical physics have the option to do a quality assurance (QA) internship at BC Cancer. This involves running tests on the linear accelerators and CT scanners after-hours (later than 4 pm) on a monthly basis. QA interns are paid the same as a TA unit except it’s paid over 3 months instead of ~4 months. QA internships start in January, April, July, and October for 3 months, so it can be difficult to plan out when you want to TA around when you want to do a QA internship. It is typically not recommended to concurrently do a TA and a QA internship at the same time. These positions tend to be offered to those students closest to defending so that every medical physics student gets this experience, however, newer students who show interest can get one if there is availability.

 

Meetings

Labs:

As of Summer 2019, Karun Thanjavur runs the Astronomy labs, and he will hold a meeting before a new lab starts to debrief you. It’s highly recommended that you go, particularly in your first year of teaching.  Alex van Netten/Doug McKenzie will hold meetings prior to each physics lab; in addition to going over the lab, you may have to set up the equipment as well.

Marking:

Meet with whoever is running the course and work out a schedule with them.

 

What opportunities are there for training?

The Learning and Teaching Centre at UVic will offer free training classes. Look for e-mails and visit their website here.

Once you have completed their training and have worked as a TA, there is an opportunity to be our department’s Teaching Assistant Consultant (TAC). TACs are paid the same as TA, but their responsibilities are to advise TAs in the department and organize workshops designed for Physics and Astronomy TAs. These workshops cover various topics related to teaching labs and marking assignments in physics and astronomy labs. They also provide tips, strategies and input from other experienced TAs in the department. The current TAC is David Stephens.

 

Midterm Review

As a TA you are paid per hour.  The number of hours you work in a term is determined before you start working; a typical TA in our department is 98 hours.  We are paid over 14 weeks, which means these 98 hours are divided into payments for 7 hours.  Over the ten weeks of courses (i.e. the amount of time you’ll actually be working), this averages out to 9.8 hours per week.  It is important that you keep track of how much you are working.  You do not want to work more hours than you are paid for!  This is why we have our Midterm Review process.

At the beginning of each term, you should sit down with your TA supervisor (typically Alex Van Netten, though you might be able to get others to do it) and fill out the Midterm Review form (see here for more info).  You then submit this form to Susan Gnucci.

As the semester progresses, you should keep track of your hours.  One idea is to make a spreadsheet and make a note whenever you mark, teach, talk to a student, prep for labs, etc.  If you find that you are working more than 9.8 hours/week, you should meet with your TA supervisor to discuss this and to fill out the second half of the form.  They will most likely try to suggest ways to reduce your hours, e.g. by spending less time marking if you are teaching a lab.  Ideally, they would offer you more hours, but this will most likely never happen.

Why is this step important?

If you are assigned a typical TA (i.e. marking for a prof who has taught the course before or teaching a very common lab) this probably won’t be much of an issue.  You’ll find that you get faster as you get more experienced, and it should all even out in the end.

HOWEVER, this is particularly important for cases when you are asked to, e.g., teach a brand new lab, mark for an unrealistic prof, etc.  You may be asked to do a TA that is impossible to do in the number of assigned hours.  You could discover that you need to spend 4 hours a week prepping for a lab (in addition to 3 hours teaching it) leaving you with only 2.8 hours a week to mark 40 labs.  This amount of lab prep work is unrealistic.  The department should recognize if the task is actually impossible; if they insist that you do the work, they are essentially setting you up to fail, and you have cause to get the TA union involved (see how to here).

 

TAing in the Summer

If you are interested in getting more funding, you may wish to TA over the summer.  Summer TAs are harder to come by since there are fewer of them.  Summer courses generally condense two terms into one; thus, e.g., for one course you would teach roughly one lab a week. Due to the variance, priority will be given to students who have not TA’d yet that year. Typically the call for summer TAs is done midway through the spring semester. Keep an eye out for the email.

TAing Multiple Sections

If you want more money and/or experience, you can apply for additional TAs.  You will only get these additional TAs if there are enough positions to go around.  Keep in mind that you don’t have to request only integer numbers of TAs; you can request 0.5 or 1.5 if you so desire.  The workload will be much greater, so you probably shouldn’t request more than one TA your first year.

TA in Another Department

Job postings will go around for other departments who have positions to fill.  For example Math & Stats Dept. could be a good option to get another TA position.