Effective Strategies for Working with Undergraduate TAs

Featuring instructor mentoring and UTA teaching strategies, including online and hybrid contexts

This newsletter was authored by Stefany Garcia ‘20.

By the time they graduate, almost half of Brown seniors report working as a teaching assistant or tutor (Brown Senior Survey, 2018). Although the vast majority (95%) of these students report being satisfied with their experience, the potential benefits of Undergraduate TAs (UTAs) for instructors, students, and the UTAs themselves provide worthwhile incentives for the continued and increased attention to the support of UTAs. Further, UTAs are a core component of Brown’s Open Curriculum, with the original concept document noting the recommendation that “undergraduates be used as discussion leaders” and “through this they would come to a greater understanding of the course material and area and of the educational process in general” (Magaziner & Maxwell, 1967, p. 242).

Benefits of a UTA-instructor partnership include: 

  • Students taking an active educational role: UTAs report a greater sense of responsibility for their education, leading to more impactful learning (Cook-Sather, et al., 2014).  
  • Increased self-awareness for students and instructors: By participating in conversations with “the other side,” both students and instructors are able to reflect on their practices and improve the educational process (Cook-Sather, et al., 2014). 
  • Increased support for student learning: UTAs provide additional support in the classroom.

Development of new/better teaching materials: UTAs can help give feedback on, or even co-develop, instructional materials  (Mercer-Mapstone, et al., 2017).

This newsletter aims to be a resource, primarily for instructors, but also for UTAs and anyone interested in this partnership model. Here we address: (1) principles for instructor-undergraduate teaching partnerships, (2) strategies for cultivating an effective working relationship, (3) ways to enhance equity in access to meaningful UTA experiences, and (4) how to work through potential UTA-instructor challenges. We also offer suggestions from Brown instructor and students for doing this work in online and hybrid contexts.

Strategies for Online/Hybrid UTA Mentoring

It “will be critical to have the expected activities and responsibilities for the undergraduate teaching assistants be extremely clear and specified. It will also be important to meet with them on a regular basis, probably every one or two weeks, to troubleshoot.”

-Professor Ira Wilson, School of Public Health

Framing the Conversation: Students as Partners
Employing UTAs can be rewarding for all involved. This partnership “positions both students and faculty as learners as well as teachers,” opening a space to redefine the roles of students and instructors in relation to each other and the institution itself (Cook-Sather et al., 2014, p.7). It is important to establish an instructor-UTA relationship based on respect, reciprocity, and responsibility (Cook-Sather et al.). 

Respect requires both UTAs and instructors to thoughtfully consider differences in viewpoints. Signs of respect include: “explicit and regular acknowledgement of the different perspectives students and faculty bring” (Cook-Sather et al., 2014, p. 3); honesty; consideration; and timeliness. Respect is necessary for effective communication.

Reciprocity requires UTAs and instructors to provide and receive information and feedback. Professor Monica Linden (Neuroscience) notes, “UTAs are in touch with what's going on with their classmates at Brown. They can provide insight that is just really hard to get any other way.” Student-instructor partnerships are most effective when students offer their perspectives on being a learner in a course and instructors offer their perspective on teaching that course (Cook-Sather et al., 2014).

Strategies for Online/Hybrid UTA Teaching

“The Zoom whiteboard feature has been a wonderful tool through which I can do mini-lessons. When doing problems, even though students cannot physically come up to a whiteboard and draw out their answers, we have found the annotation feature useful. I always send a summary email after our final meeting to highlight key points, as well."

-Anuva Goel '21 (Neuroscience and Public Health)

Responsibility means that students “have some responsibility for pedagogy and faculty share some responsibility for learning” (Cook-Sather et al., 2014, p. 5). In an instructor-UTA partnership, this shared learning means that students and instructors are both responsible for learning from each other and the experience.

Effective UTA - Instructor Partnerships

Five key roles of UTAs are as a student, informant, consultant, co-instructor, and co-creator (Jardine, 2010). As mentioned above, a collaborative instructional partnership does not mean UTAs and instructors must have equal power and responsibility. Instead, the two should work together to form a partnership that respects and leverages each other’s time, expertise, and goals. It is important to remember that, firstly, UTAs are students, with their own course load. UTA duties should comprise no more than 12 hours per week, as suggested by Brown’s UTA Guidelines.

Strategies for Online/Hybrid UTA Teaching

"What worked for me was doing a mini ice breaker before each session, so students could build a sense of community in a remote environment."

-Alyssa Rust '21, Neuroscience

UTA roles will vary depending on class size, subject matter, and even room layout. We have put together a few general guidelines for strategies that can make a UTA partnership more effective. 

Recommended actions for instructors include:

  • Look over the university UTA guidelines together. Clearly communicate to UTAs that any subjective decisions about student grades should be made in close collaboration with you. Take this opportunity to include UTAs in the creation of rubrics and/or discussions around what effective feedback looks like.
  • Inform UTAs that if they are supervising the work of their friends or family, they should let you know so that this work can be reassigned.
  • Be intentional about any task you set for a UTA, and ensure that they are supported throughout. This support can take the form of: 
    • A UTA orientation session well in advance.
    • Regular meetings with UTAs to discuss concerns related to the UTA position or to the classroom. Include regular sessions to review course material (Berglund, et al., 2019). Some Brown professors, such as Monica Linden in the Neuroscience Department, found that platforms such as Slack help with organization and provide “easy access to [the professor]” and between UTAs.
    • Faculty setting goals. This is important for evaluating outcomes and procedures.
  • Clearly communicate expectations and ensure that you are adhering to them.
  • Create an inclusive and respectful environment for students of all backgrounds, encouraging UTAs to bring their whole selves to the classroom (Smith, 2020).
  • Encourage UTAs to approach their experience with a growth mindset, acknowledging that struggles will occur but emphasizing the potential to improve (McGuire, 2015; Smith, 2020).
  • During meetings, be mindful of how meeting location and room arrangements influence interactions and relationships (e.g., sitting in a circle during meetings creates a sense of equality) (Jardine, 2020).
  • Pay attention to group dynamics, such as: Who speaks or stays silent? What ideas do you pursue? Who has access to the materials or time that the work requires? What are ways you communicate non-verbally? How are students treating each other? (Horn, 2012).

Strategies for Online and Hybrid UTA-Instructor Partnerships
The coronavirus pandemic is changing the ways in which we teach and learn. Although this is still a learning experience for all, we have a few early suggestions:

  • Practice flexibility and compassion for everyone, including yourself. According to former UTA graduate Julia Kiely ‘20 (Sc.B. Materials Chemistry), “Talking to students about their lives and home and COVID ... allowed for compassionate teaching.”
  • Take extra steps to maintain communication. Former UTA Arthur Borem (Computer Science, ’20) suggests instructors use surveys to gauge the “responsibilities [UTAs have] been engaging in, if they feel supported and sufficiently skilled to engage in these responsibilities, and how they feel about the amount of work they're putting in.” He adds that this practice could also be done outside of online/hybrid learning.

Strategies for Online/Hybrid UTA Teaching

"Virtual whiteboard software, such as Google Jamboard, provides an opportunity to prepare well-organized template slides prior to a session so that meeting time is utilized for interactive problem solving and questions. As an extra perk, these slides can be shared with students so that information is easily accessible long after the session!"

-Sima Arfania '22 (Applied Math/CS)

Gathering Feedback

As with any project, it is important to reflect on the effectiveness of UTA-instructor relationships with the goal of documenting and improving them (Cook-Sather, et al., 2014). This can take the shape of a formative assessment and a summative assessment (Cook-Sather). 

A formative assessment refers to a feedback process that occurs at least once and often at the midway point of the course. It allows for students, insructors, and UTAs to reflect and have time to work on their growth areas during the duration of the course. 

  • Ideally mid-semester, this could be accomplished through an anonymous survey. 
  • You could also schedule a Sheridan observation for third-party insight.

A summative assessment happens at the end of a course, and is an opportunity for instructors and UTAs to step back and analyze the whole process of working together. At Brown, UTAs can be listed as instructors in the course feedback form.

  • According to the Brown University Course Feedback FAQs, UTAs should be included in the course feedback form when “students worked with the specific TA(s) consistently (e.g., in recitations, laboratories, office hours).” 

Ensuring Equity
Students enter the university setting from various backgrounds, some more familiar with its institutional demands than others.  It is important to be mindful of which student and instructor voices are amplified or marginalized. One way to work towards inclusivity in UTA opportunities is by ensuring that UTA opportunities are available to all students. Here are a few strategies that can work towards that goal: 

  • Consider adequate financial compensation: For many students, being a UTA is as much about the financial compensation as it is about the academic opportunity (Berglund, et al., 2019). A larger-than-expected and under-compensated time commitment could make UTA positions inaccessible (Mercer-Mapstone et al., 2017). UTA obligations should not exceed the agreed-upon terms and should consider UTAs' ability to complete their own student work.
  • Broaden hiring qualifications: UTAs who did not receive an "A" in a course can be particularly effective at troubleshooting common challenges that students encounter with the material and learning strategies. 
  • Pay attention to group dynamics: As mentioned above, be mindful of subtle messages communicated. 
    • Respectfully elicit opinions of those who may not be comfortable volunteering (e.g., by asking for input one-on-one or setting up an anonymous form).
    • Make sure everyone has access to the same materials. 

Encountering Challenges in UTA-Instructor Partnerships
If a UTA-instructor partnership experiences a lack of respect, reciprocity, or responsibility, issues can arise that would make the partnership hard on one or more parties. In such cases that problems arise, the first course of action would be to communicate issues honestly and specifically. If the issue escalates, it might be best to involve a third party, such as a Director of Undergraduate Studies, an Academic Dean, or the Ombuds Office. Transparency is critical; we suggest that the initial instructor-UTA meeting address how to work through challenges in your partnership so all parties are aware of the proper channels to go through.


Thank you to Dean Besenia Rodriguez, Dr. Christina Smith, and other Sheridan Center staff for feedback. We would like to acknowledge the BrownConnect SPRINT Award Program for support of this project.

If you are working with undergraduates who are serving as UTAs for the first time, please forward to them information about the Sheridan Center’s UTA Orientation.

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Berglund, et al., (2019). A preliminary inquiry into the state of the Brown University computer science department’s undergraduate teaching assistant program. Unpublished report.

Brown University. (2018) Senior Survey. Office of Institutional Research. https://oir.brown.edu/institutional-data/surveys/senior-survey

Cook-Sather, A., et al. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. 

Horn, I. S. (2012). Strength in numbers: Collaborative learning in secondary mathematics. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Jardine, H. (2020). Positioning undergraduate teaching and learning assistants as instructional partners.  International Journal for Students as Partners, 4(1), 48-65.

Magaziner, I., & Maxwell, E. (1967). The Magaziner-Maxwell report: The seed of a curricular revolution at Brown. Available: https://library.brown.edu/libweb/papers/BrownCurriculum.pdf

McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Mercer-Mapstone, L. et al. (2017). A systematic review of students as partners in higher education. International Journal for Students as Partners, 1(1), 1-23.

Ryan, C. (2020, May 21). Teaching assistants go the extra mile to enable remote learning. Robert J. & Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science. https://www.brown.edu/carney/news/2020/05/21/teaching-assistants-go-extra-mile-enable-remote-learning

Smith, C. (2020, February, 1). UTA orientation [Unpublished Google slides].