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The Role of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education

Teaching assistants play a vital role in the classroom and there are currently 281,100 full-time teaching assistants working in the UK. But when we think of teaching assistants, we tend to think of those teaching assistants in primary schools who help teach children to read and eat lunch and bandage up knees that are bloodied in the playground. Fewer people consider, or are even aware of, the multifaceted and crucial role that teaching assistants play in higher education settings. But in reality, teaching assistants are often unsung heroes in the academic world, providing invaluable support to professors and enriching the learning experience for students.

The aim of this article is to share more about the role that teaching assistants play in higher education settings. From their diverse responsibilities and contributions to their impact on classroom dynamics, student success, and the overall quality of higher education. Here’s everything you need to know:

The Role of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education

Introduction to the Significance of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education

Higher education teaching assistants have a much more hands-on educational impact than those at lower educational levels. A higher education teaching assistant will facilitate both teaching and learning.

Student learning outcomes are raised when they have access to the support of a higher education teaching assistant.  Higher education teaching assistants are used across all subjects but they are particularly valuable in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This is because they can help students with experimental guided discovery in these subjects where more hands-on experimentation, and therefore more support from senior educators, is required.

In universities in the UK teaching assistants either work full-time in the setting or work as graduate teaching assistants who combine their duties with their own further education. Graduate teaching assistants are very common in this environment, as it provides vital employment opportunities for students who are still struggling to finance their own higher education.

The Role of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education

The Various Roles and Responsibilities of Teaching Assistants

Higher education teaching assistants undertake a diverse range of tasks on a daily basis. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Delivering a range of teaching and assessment activities. This can include supporting a professor or teaching independently. Examples of the teaching a higher education teaching assistant may undertake include tutorials, seminars and lectures.
  • Whilst often professors will provide teaching materials to their teaching assistants, in many cases teaching assistants are responsible for developing appropriate teaching materials for their students. They will need to ensure that these materials meet learning objectives.
  • Higher-level teaching assistants are also involved in student assessment. This could include marking or internal examinations, or supervising hands-on assessments. This could include providing advice on skills, methods and techniques.
  • Transferring knowledge to students in both formal and informal settings.
  • Engaging in regular professional development to ensure that you are up to date with the latest subject techniques, approaches and knowledge base.

Teaching assistants often bridge the gap between professors and students, and in many higher education institutions students will approach their teaching assistant for advice and support before they arrange to meet their professor.

However, the role can vary widely depending on the department and the course. Higher education teaching assistants in STEM subjects will spend more time being hands-on with their students, assisting with experiments or in laboratories, for example. And some professors will ask their teaching assistants to have a hands-on role, whilst others will prefer that they support them by taking charge of the behind-the-scenes, administrative tasks.

The Role of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education

Facilitating Student Learning and Engagement

No matter what their age or stage, teaching assistants play a vital role in supporting active learning and engagement in their students. At higher education level they can do this by encouraging group activities, discussions, and problem-solving exercises.

Engaging students in the classroom setting can help to motivate them and help them to grow academically. Students often enter courses and programs that they are not always excited about because they desire a university-level education but don’t have a passion for any particular subject. Whilst these circumstances are relatively common, they can cause an issue in the classroom or in the lecture hall. When students are disengaged this disengagement can sadly become contagious. To counter this it is the role of the teaching assistant to be enthusiastic and engaged in their approach to teaching to keep their students interested and motivated in the course material. For this reason, it is important to have a higher-level teaching assistant who is genuinely passionate about the subject that they are teaching.

Research shows that when teachers appear to enjoy what they are teaching, that impression has positive effects on the students in their classroom. In contrast, research shows that less engaged students expend minimal effort, have more negative emotions, and pay less attention compared to engaged students: these students have lower grades and a higher dropout rate. Their role in facilitating student learning and engagement, then, is perhaps one of the most important elements of the higher education teaching assistant role.

Teaching assistants can also provide one-on-one support to students who need it, or can help to clarify complex concepts which might otherwise be difficult to understand.  An example of how teaching assistants can contribute to improved student comprehension and academic success is by sharing their own research and experience and using this as student motivation. Giving a new perspective to the subject matter and an enthusiasm that may not come from a more experienced, often older, educator who has taught the subject matter many times before.

The Role of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education

Supporting Professors and Enhancing Teaching Quality

One of the main responsibilities of the teacher assistant is to support and assist their professors. A teaching assistant will assist their professor in different ways but the role often involves assisting the professor with creating and delivering learning materials as part of the course. TAs may help develop assignments, quizzes and exams to meet a course’s objectives. Lecturing and tutoring are also a big part of a teaching assistant’s responsibilities.

Because of the diverse range of responsibilities that fall under the teaching assistant umbrella, it is important that teaching assistants at this level have excellent organisational skills. They will need to organise not only their own schedule but also the wider schedule for all of the courses that their professor leads and that they support.

Often when a course is supported by a teaching assistant, the quality and overall standard of the course is increased. This is because teaching assistants serve as a valuable source of feedback on teaching methods and curriculum. As a result of this feedback, course quality improves. Teaching assistants are an often undervalued resource at higher education level but the importance of their role really can’t be overestimated. The contribution of the teaching assistant ensures an overall more efficient and effective educational experience.

The Role of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education

Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Classroom

Teaching assistants can play a critical role in creating an inclusive classroom environment. We know that unless a student possesses a basic level of social competence, they will find participation in classroom discussions difficult. When there are students within the classroom that have diverse needs, the teaching assistant is able to provide them with individualised support in a way that professors are often unable to, due to the large number of students under their care.

Teaching assistants can contribute to fostering a welcoming and respectful learning atmosphere. If necessary it is the role of the teaching assistant to set ground rules on how people of diverse groups should be treated within lessons, study groups, and all aspects of academic life. If these rules are not adhered to then it is also the responsibility of the teaching assistant to ensure that consequences are clearly laid out and that these are also administered.

Always challenge negative attitudes. Be aware of humour and jokes amongst students as these can sometimes be derogatory around stereotypes; challenge them. Create a classroom environment in which everyone feels both welcome and free to express their opinions and beliefs. Your learning environment should be a safe space where diversity, equity and inclusion are seen as standard expectations.

The Role of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education

Challenges and Opportunities for Teaching Assistants

Because many higher education teaching assistants are often graduate students who are providing teaching support in order to fund their own academic ambitions, perhaps the main challenge that teaching assistants at this level face is managing both their own coursework and their teaching responsibilities at the same time. A normal course load of 912 credits per semester equates to 27-36 hours of graduate school study time per week. When hours spent on teaching assistant responsibilities are added on top of this, we find that graduate students who choose to work as teaching assistants in conjunction with their studies are working considerably more than full-time hours on a weekly basis.

But for graduates who don’t shy away from hard work, there are many opportunities for professional development and growth within the teaching assistant role. Working as a teaching assistant presents an ideal opportunity for graduates considering a career in education or those who see their future working in academia. But if you see your career developing elsewhere, you will still learn vital skills that will make you highly employable in almost any sector. Those skills include: mentoring, leadership, organisation, time management and teamwork. You’ll also gain a great sense of meaning in your work when you choose to take on a higher education teaching assistant role. You’ll get the reward of helping to inspire students and enabling them to reach their potential. This reward and the sense of achievement that you’ll feel is near instant as you will be able to track the process that your students are making from lesson to lesson, throughout the academic year.

Some of the best ways that you can overcome the challenges of a career as a higher education teaching assistant and focus instead on the rewards of the role are to hone your organisation skills and focus on proper preparation. If you don’t have your course materials, your lesson plan, and your schedule in place then you will find that the role is much harder work and also much more time consuming. You should also ensure that you nurture your relationship with the professor that you are supporting and keep the channels of communication open: if you are struggling with any aspect of the role, or there is something they may be able to do that will make your role easier (providing you with copies of resources used in other academic years, for example) then don’t be afraid to ask. The professor/teaching assistant relationship works best when it is perceived as a partnership in which each party is adding value and helping to enrich the academic lives of the students that they are educating and supporting.

The Role of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education

Conclusion: Celebrating the Contributions of Teaching Assistants

Teaching assistants play a vital role in the academic success of students at all levels, including in higher education environments. Teaching assistants bridge the gap between professors and students and undertake the hands-on work of leading discussion groups, supervising examinations and sourcing appropriate course materials. Without the work that teaching assistants do, it would be near-impossible for professors to manage the volume of students, and to support them effectively on their own.

Teaching assistants also play a vital role in motivating students and ensuring that they are positively engaged in their courses. Engaging students in the classroom setting can help to motivate them and help them to grow academically, with students who aren’t engaged historically, performing more poorly in their final examinations.

Whether you are a student, a graduate, or considering embarking on a career as a higher education teaching assistant, it is important to recognise and appreciate the dedication and impact of teaching assistants on the academic community. Without teaching assistants, the educational outcomes for many students would be significantly poorer.

The Role of Teaching Assistants in Higher Education
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