College freshmen are bombarded with tips on how to survive college from the minute they receive their acceptance letters. The eager new students hear suggestions on topics such as how to save money and how to avoid putting on the “freshmen 15.” One important tip that almost every older student shares is: get to know your professors.
Though the tip is valid, it is practically impossible for a professor with over 400 students in a course to get to know every student. Because professors often have a plethora of responsibilities, they rely heavily on their teaching assistants, more commonly known as TAs.
In fact, most professors ask their students to contact TAs for a course before contacting them. A TA is often a professor’s right-hand person. The assistants must understand the material being taught so they can explain it to the students, assist the professor with grading and be available for the students who need help with the course material.
TA responsibilities vary based on the professor and the course. Lizzy White, a teaching assistant for Computer Science 1050, goes to two lectures with the professor, teaches a lab and assists in a lab every week. White is very hands-on with the students.
Most TAs are graduate students. They are often paid and compensated through tuition waivers for their work. The position gives them experience teaching in the field they are studying.
Undergrads should reach out to their TAs for support, as they can empathize with their students because they were in the same seats only a few years earlier. TAs understand the struggles of the class and work to make it easy to comprehend. White said she and her fellow TAs want their students to understand the material and get it to click.
“I get to see their minds going and their excitement when they get a program to work,” White said.
A former teaching assistant in a genetics class, Molly Jo Leach, said it is important to take advantage of what your TA offers. A common complaint among TAs is that undergrads often do not take advantage of opportunities they provide for extra help. TAs offer help sessions to students because they want them to succeed.
“When students get that ‘ah-ha’ moment is the best part of the job,” Leach said.
White has become a support system and a friend to her students. Her students confide in her and appreciate the assistance she offers them.
“You get to know your students better than you think,” White said.
So, a better piece of advice for new undergrads, instead of “get to know your professor,” might be a more realistic tip of “get to know your TA.”