ArticlePDF Available

Abstract

Teaching Assistants (TAs) play an important role in most major universities. Interest in the training and development of TAs has increased in recent years, particularly in the U.S.A. In Canada very little research has been conducted regarding the work and status of TAs. The study provides a portrait of TAs in Canadian universities: their number, roles, remuneration, preparation and train-ing, and policies governing their duties and responsibilities. Many universities had only a limited knowledge of the number of TAs employed, their qualifica-tions for the tasks they are assigned and their training and supervision. The need for improving TA experience is clear and the establishment of a National Clearinghouse of TA-related materials is proposed.
The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Vol. XXIII-2, 1993
La revue canadienne d'enseignement supérieur, Vol. XXIII-2,1993
Teaching Assistants in Canadian Universities:
An Unknown Resource
SERGE J. PICCININ/ ANDY FARQUHARSON.t
& ELENA MIHUA
Abstract
Teaching Assistants (TAs) play an important role in most major universities.
Interest in the training and development of TAs has increased in recent years,
particularly in the U.S.A. In Canada very little research has been conducted
regarding the work and status of TAs. The study provides a portrait of TAs in
Canadian universities: their number, roles, remuneration, preparation and train-
ing, and policies governing their duties and responsibilities. Many universities
had only a limited knowledge of the number of TAs employed, their qualifica-
tions for the tasks they are assigned and their training and supervision. The need
for improving TA experience is clear and the establishment of a National
Clearinghouse of TA-related materials is proposed.
Résumé
Les auxiliaires d'enseignement assument un rôle important dans la plupart des
établissements d'une certaine taille. Depuis plusieurs années, particulièrement
aux États-Unis, on observe un intérêt marqué pour les questions liées à la
formation et au développement des auxiliaires d'enseignement. Au Canada,
* University of Ottawa t University of Victoria ^ University of Ottawa
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Society for
Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, held at McGill University, June, 1990.
The authors express appreciation to the personnel in each responding institution for
their cooperation in providing data for this study.
Teaching Assistants in Canadian Universities 105
cependant, peu de recherches ont été effectués sur leur travail et leur statut.
Cette étude trace donc le portrait des auxiliaires dans les universités
canadiennes et analyse leur nombre, leurs rôles, leur rémunération, leur
apprentissage et leur formation, ainsi que les politiques déterminant leurs tâches
et responsabilités. On observe que certaines universités ne possèdent que très
peu d'information quant au nombre d'auxiliaires engagés, à leurs qualifications
en regard des tâches assignées, leur formation et à leur supervision. De toute
évidence, l'expérience de travail des auxiliaires d'enseignement doit être
améliorée, et l'établissement d'un Centre national de documentation portant sur
la question est proposé.
Teaching Assistants (TAs) play an important role in most major universities
(Diamond & Gray, 1987a). They are responsible for tutorials and some of the
teaching in the first two years of most undergraduate programs. Diamond and
Gray (1987a) estimated that from 30% to 50% of an undergraduate's contact
hours in the freshmen and sophomore years at U.S. research universities is with
teaching assistants.
Because of the increasing teaching role of TAs, interest in their training and
development has increased in recent years, particularly in the USA. An exten-
sive amount of research literature has been dedicated to TA training (Abbot,
Wulff, & Szego, 1989; Ervin & Muyskens, 1982; Foster, 1986; Garner, Geitz,
Knop, Magnam, & DiDonato, 1987; LeBlanc, 1987; Nyquist, Abbott, & Wulff,
1989; Puccio, 1988; Rava, 1987), to the special training needs of, and students'
expectations from international TAs (Bailey and Hinofotis, 1984; Gaskill &
Brinton, 1984; Gunesekera, 1988; Rice, 1984), to TAs' concerns, and perceived
needs (Reagan, 1988; Ronkowski, 1989), and to TAs' assessment and evaluation
(Angelo & Cross, 1989; Wood, 1988). The increasing interest in TAs is also
reflected in well attended national conferences on TA training (Nyquist, Abbott,
& Wulff, 1989).
A teaching assistantship is a complex task since TAs have a wide range of
duties (Nyquist, Abbott, and Wulff, 1989); they conduct quiz sections or labora-
tories for lecture courses, provide tutorial sessions, grade exams, review tests
and answer questions, hold office hours, and, less frequently, hold total respon-
sibility for courses.
In Canada very little research has been conducted regarding the number,
roles, training and development of TAs. Only two published Canadian studies
concerning TAs have been found in the literature (Martin. Marx, Hasell, &
Ellis, 1978; Marx, Martin, Ellis, & Hasell, 1978), and these deal with the
106 Serge J. Piccinin, Andy Farquharson, & Elena Mihu
implementation and usefulness of a new TA instruction program. Nationwide
surveys which would reflect an overall picture of the situation of TAs are
almost nonexistent. Only one national study on TAs in US universities was
found (Diamond and Gray, 1987a, 1987b), and no Canadian surveys. Findings
from a national Canadian survey could provide valuable information on TA
roles, training, development, and TA policies, which could have important
implications for the future training and development of TAs nationwide, and
ultimately for the quality of teaching in Canadian universities.
The purpose of this study was to provide a portrait of TAs in Canada: their
number, roles, remuneration, preparation and training, and policies governing
their duties and responsibilities. A survey of all major Canadian universities
was conducted to answer these questions, and to reflect the current situation
regarding TAs in Canadian universities.
Method
Instrument
The questionnaire used in the present survey was developed by the authors,
based on the relevant literature, particularly the US studies by Diamond and
Gray (1987a, 1987b), and the authors' own experiences as professors responsi-
ble for TA training. It is entitled "TA Development Practices at Canadian
Universities," and contains 14 questions concerning graduate TAs. The ques-
tions were formulated as objective checklists, but after each question a place
was reserved for comments. The last question asked for any additional com-
ments the respondents might have regarding TAs.
Procedure
The survey was sent to 45 Canadian universities chosen from an AUCC listing
so as to include all institutions considered most likely to use graduate TAs.
Thirty-four universities participated in the survey, a response rate of approxi-
mately 76%. Many of the institutions reported difficulty in tracking down the
information requested. In at least one instance the official involved commented
on his frustration at being unable to gather answers to the questions from within
his institution. Of the 34 universities that responded, eight did not make use of
TAs. The data are therefore based on the information provided by the 26 univer-
sities which completed the questionnaire fully or partially.
The response rate across provinces was uneven. Responses were received
from all universities in three provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Prince
Edward Island), and from most universities in five other provinces
Teaching Assistants in Canadian Universities 107
(British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia). No
responses were received from universities in two provinces (Manitoba and
Newfoundland). However, the data offer a good approximation of the TA situa-
tion in Canadian universities.
Results
In the analysis of the results, frequency distributions or means were calculated
for each question. The total number of graduate TAs in the universities that did
respond is 18,500, representing approximately 28% of the total (full-time plus
part-time) graduate student enrolment, or 48% of the full-time only. When the
universities are grouped by size, small universities (fewer than 10,000 students)
report an average of 70 TAs; medium-sized universities (10,000-20,000 stu-
dents) report an average of approximately 580 TAs; and large universities (more
than 20,000 students), an average of approximately 1100 TAs (Figure 1). Thus
the composite ratio of TAs to total full-time students is 1 to 64 for small univer-
sities, 1 to 17 for medium universities, and 1 to 18 for large universities.
The questionnaire asked universities to report on graduate student TAs.
Three institutions reported that they also used undergraduates as TAs; two of
these were small universities. While small universities report a 1 to 64 ratio of
graduate TAs, it could be that they make use of a number of undergraduate stu-
dents to serve this function. Given that smaller universities tend to have fewer
graduate students in proportion to undergraduate students, perhaps their need
for TAs is met by using senior undergraduates.
A wide range of activities may be subsumed under the category of
"Assistance to Teachers." These include assistance limited to the preparation of
instructional materials, assistance with teaching in laboratory settings, teaching
a section of a course under the direction of a faculty member, or complete
responsibility for teaching and evaluation of students within a given course.
The various roles of TAs were broken down into Leading Discussions,
Classroom Teaching, Lab Instruction, Grading and Other. The data were divid-
ed into two broad disciplinary categories, Humanities/Social Sciences and
Science/Engineering (Figure 2). Very little classroom teaching is done by TAs
(only 2% in the Humanities/Social Sciences, and none in Science/Engineering).
Grading (55%) and Discussion Leading (35%) predominate in the
Humanities/Social Sciences; whereas Lab Instruction (59%) and Grading (29%)
are the most common TA activities in Science/Engineering.
MEAN NUMBER OF TAs
(Total number of TAs reported = 18,500)
M
e
a
n
N
u
m
b
e
r
o
f
T
A
s
SMALL MEDIUM LARGE
Size of Universities
Figure 1
TIME ALLOCATION FOR TAs
INSTRUCTOR SUPPORT
GRADING 29%
HUMANITIES/ SCIENCE/
SOCIAL SCIENCES ENGINEERING
Figure 2
NUMBER OF HOURS WORKED
10 hours
63%
11 hours
4%
6 hours
, 4%
/ 5 hours
4%
12 hours
25%
Figure 1
PAY RATES FOR TAs
number of universities
under 9.99 10.00-14.99 15.00-19.99 20.00-24.99 25.00 & over
pay rates ($/hr)
Figure 2
Teaching Assistants in Canadian Universities 117
Gunesekera, M. (1988, March). The foreign teaching assistant and the office hour. Paper
presented at the Annual Conference of the Teachers of English to Speakers of other
Languages, Chicago, IL.
LeBlanc, L.B. (1987). Training for language teachers: A model program. College
Teaching, 35, 19-21.
Martin, J., Marx, R.W., Hasell, J., & Ellis, J.F. (1978). Improving the effectiveness of
university teaching assistants: Report II. Canadian Journal of Education, 3, 13-26.
Marx, R.W., Martin, J., Ellis, J.F., & Hasell, J. (1978). Improving the instructional
effectiveness of university teaching assistants: Report I. Canadian Journal of
Education, 3, 1-12.
Nyquist, J.D., Abbott, R.D.. & Wulff, D.H. (1989). The challenge of TA training in the
1990s. New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Teaching Assistant Training in
the 1990, 39,7-15.
Puccio, P.M. (1988, March). Graduate instructor representation in Writing programs:
Building communities through peer support. Paper presented at the Annual,Meeting
of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, St. Louis, MO.
Rava, S. (1987). Training teaching assistants. ADFL-Bulletin, 19, 26-27.
Reagan, S.B. (1988). Teaching TAs to teach: Show, don't tell. Writing Program
Administration, 11, 41-51.
Rice, D.S. (1984). A one-semester program for orienting the new foreign teaching
assistant. In K.M. Bailey, (Ed.), Foreign Teaching Assistants in U.S. Universities.
Washington, DC: National Association for Foreign Student Affairs.
Ronkowski, S. (1989, November). Changes in teaching assistant concerns over time.
Paper presented at the National Conference on the Training and Employment of
Teaching Assistants, Seattle, WA.
Wood, P.H. (1988, August). Evaluation that improves teaching. Paper presented at the
Graduate Student Orientation Program, Bowling Green, OH.
... TAs' contributions to the university students' overall academic and social development are well documented (Dawson et al., 2013;Jones et al., 2020;Korpan, 2014;Piccinin et al., 1993), and despite the 20-year gap between Piccinin et al.'s (1993) and Korpan's (2014) respective studies, they agree about the complexities involved in learning in a graduate program and fulfilling TA duties. For instance, Piccinin et al.'s summary observation that TAs "conduct quiz sections or laboratories for lecture courses, provide tutorial sessions, grade exams, review tests and answer questions, hold office hours, and, less frequently, hold total responsibility for courses" (p. ...
... TAs' contributions to the university students' overall academic and social development are well documented (Dawson et al., 2013;Jones et al., 2020;Korpan, 2014;Piccinin et al., 1993), and despite the 20-year gap between Piccinin et al.'s (1993) and Korpan's (2014) respective studies, they agree about the complexities involved in learning in a graduate program and fulfilling TA duties. For instance, Piccinin et al.'s summary observation that TAs "conduct quiz sections or laboratories for lecture courses, provide tutorial sessions, grade exams, review tests and answer questions, hold office hours, and, less frequently, hold total responsibility for courses" (p. ...
... Hence, students have a right to demand high-quality education from course instructors and TAs. Given that premise, although Piccinin et al.'s (1993) study is nearly three-decades old, their argument that "those who pay the fees expect to find a qualified instructor [and TAs] in the laboratory or classroom and, at a minimum, effective TA training and evaluation may allay some of their concerns" (p. 116) is still valid. ...
Article
Full-text available
Pervasive racial microaggressions (subtle and everyday racist acts) continue to challenge African international teaching assistants (AITAs) who strive to create conducive learning environments for students in a Canadian university. This qualitative study drew from racial microaggression theory and gathered data through semi-structured individual interviews to examine seven former AITAs’ experiences of racism in their teaching assistant (TA) duties. Findings indicated that non-Black students doubted AITAs’ subject-matter expertise, undermined their English communication skills, and often exhibited aggressive behaviours. Suggestions were made for current and future AITAs, course instructors, and universities that hire them to help improve the quality of AITAs’ duties and their students’ learning experiences. As previous studies largely overlook AITAs’ experiences with racial microaggressions, this study makes significant contributions to the literature that, in turn, can inform policy.
... There has been interest in the preparation of graduate students for teaching for some time (Andrews, 1985). However, the emphasis on Teacher Assistant (TA) training has largely been accelerated since the late 1980s in both Canada (Piccinin, Farquharson, & Mihu, 1993) and the United States (Sheridan, 1991;Wilkening, 1991). As explained by Hiiemae, Lambert, and Hayes (1991), training programs for teaching assistants, at least in the United States, were rare five years ago. ...
... Because of the above mentioned concerns, the issue of TA training, and specifically of the various approaches to training, has received considerable attention (e.g., Nyquist, Abbott, & Wulff, 1989;Piccinin et al., 1993). Hiiemae et al. (1991) distinguish two approaches to training: intensive and protracted. ...
... Having said this, however, more attention has been given to intensive approaches to TA training. Piccinin et al. (1993) recently conducted a study aimed at determining the state of the art of TA training programs in Canada and concluded from their survey that the TA day was the most popular type of training program. Similarly, Buerkel-Rothfuss and Gray (1991) also concluded from their American survey that the prototype of training was a one-day intensive training session. ...
Article
A survey of Canadian universities identified six offering graduate students credit courses on university teaching/learning. Limited resources restrict the numbers who take the courses. Half are sponsored by graduate schools. Benefits of the courses are noted and factors to consider in initiating similar courses are suggested. (Author/MSE)
... As a result, we now have more demographic data on TAs and on the teaching responsibilities which they undertake. For instance, based on a survey of 26 Canadian institutions who responded fully or partially to a questionnaire entitled "TA Development Practices at Canadian Universities), 28% of the full-time and part-time graduate student population or 48% of the full-time enrollment hold TA positions (Piccinin, Farquharson, & Mihu, 1993). We also know more about the role of TAs; the dual or transitory nature of this role due to the shift made from graduate student to teacher (Boehrer & Sarkisian, 1985;Stanton & Darling, 1989), and the range of responsibilities assumed by TAs. ...
... For instance, some TAs have complete responsibility for a course, others instruct discussion sections or laboratories, and yet others only mark assignments. In the Canadian survey (Piccinin, et al., 1993), data on the roles of TAs were presented under the two categories of Humanities/Social Sciences and Science/Engineering. In Humanities/Social Sciences, grading was proportionately the most engaging activity for TAs (55%) while in Science/Engineering, laboratory instruction was by far the most common activity (59%). ...
Article
Full-text available
Conceptualization and implementation of a program to train university teaching assistants at McGill University (Quebec) are described. The systematic approach to program development included needs assessment, planning and implementation, and evaluation. The relationship between various levels of the institution and the way in which they have strengthened the training program is highlighted. (Author/MSE)
... Professional development programs for teaching assistants (TAs) are essential to a quality undergraduate education (Piccinin, Farquharson, & Mihu, 1993). Several studies of TA training programs have been conducted but few have discussed specific techniques aimed at enhancing TA skills in a laboratory setting. ...
Article
Many Canadian universities have created professional development programs for their teaching assistants (TA) but may be uncertain about how to bridge the gap between TAs’ knowledge of effective teaching strategies and TAs’ confident applications of these strategies. We present a technique used in a two-day training workshop to enhance graduate students skills in using effective teaching strategies: role playing. This paper outlines a framework that includes five key elements (Icebreaking, Shared Experiences, Modelling, Acting and Debriefing) to strategically design role playing activities in a training program. We describe each of the 5 elements and explain how they support training through role play exercises. Participant written feedback collected in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 suggested that role playing was a useful and enjoyable technique. Pre and post workshop questionnaire data suggested that self-perceived competencies for specified tasks directly connected to a role play activity promoted greater positive differences between the pre and post groups compared to self-perceived competencies for specified tasks not directly connected to a role play activity. Based on these results, we assert that training programs which rely on strategic role playing activities will lead to a better overall TA experience of the training program and improvements in TAs’ self-perceptions of certain teaching competencies.
... Recognition of the need for training opportunities for TAs increased in the 1990s and was accompanied by the emergence of centralized programs for TA teaching development and national conferences on TA issues (Chism, 1998). Indeed, a diverse range of training opportunities for graduate students now exists across institutions in North America (Meyers & Prieto, 2000;Mueller, Perlman, McCann, & McFadden, 1997;Piccinin, Farquharson, & Mihu, 1993). ...
Article
In recent years, much attention has been given to the need for more empirical research to evaluate training programs that help prepare graduate students for their current and future teaching responsibilities. The present study investigated the effectiveness of a training workshop for graduate students who had varying levels of experience and diverse cultural backgrounds. Results indicated that over the course of training participants significantly increased their self-efficacy and effective teaching behaviours and decreased their public speaking apprehension. Although participants with varying levels of experience as well as participants with Canadian and international backgrounds benefited from the program, the results highlighted the need for additional teaching development opportunities for international graduate students.
Article
Although there has been increased interest in graduate teaching assistant (GTA) training programs recently, few examples of programs specifically for engineering GTA's are found in the technical literature. A survey of engineering schools in Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest region of the United States has been conducted to determine the extent of instructional programs. The results of this survey and the literature indicate that there are large differences in the amount of training that GTA's in different engineering schools receive. While some are involved in extensive training programs, many receive little or no instruction in teaching, and/or inadequate feedback to help improve their teaching skills. These findings are discussed, along with details of innovative instructional programs found in the literature, and suggestions for improving the state of engineering GTA instruction.
Article
Ce document présente les résultats de la seconde phase d'une évaluation expérimentale du programme de formation des assistants-professeurs à l'Université Simon Fraser. Quatre groupes d'assistants-professeurs qui ont participé à ce programme au cours de l'année 1976/77 sont évalués les uns par rapport aux autres, par rapport à un groupe de contrôle et par rapport à un groupe ayant participé antérieurement (1975). L'évaluation est faite en fonction de variables telles que les attitudes et les perceptions des assistants-professeurs, les attitudes et les perceptions des étudiants, les résultats relatifs au rendement de l'étudiant. Les résultats confirment bien l'efficacité du programme de formation des assistants-professeurs en améliorant la qualité de l'enseignement donné par les assistants-professeurs. Le document traite d'un certain nombre de questions relatives à l'offre de tels programmes.
Article
The study examined the teaching concerns of university teaching assistants (TAs) and attempted to identify changes in the ways in which TAs think about teaching as they become more experienced. The study surveyed 145 first-time TA appointees at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and 79 more experienced TAs from a wide variety of the university's departments. After a few background questions, the survey then presented F.R. Fuller's open-ended question from the Teaching concerns Statement (Fuller & Case, 1972; Fuller, Parsons & Watkins, 1974) encouraging expression of concerns about teaching. Nine categories of concerns were identified and grouped into three categories: (1) survival stage/adequacy concerns (e.g., what is expected of me?); (2) mastery stage/student learning concerns (e.g., How do I deal with student attitudes?); and (3) impact stage/improvement concerns (e.g., How can I foster critical thinking and learning for its own sake?). The study found stage one concerns to be dominant, not only for the first-time TAs, but also for the experienced TA group whose adequacy concerns were focused more on the system and the teaching situation. Only for TAs with 10 or more quarters of TA experience did stage two concerns begin to outnumber stage one concerns; for all TAs there was a notable lack of stage three concerns. Results suggest the need for further development and training of experienced TAs. (DB)
Article
This paper focuses on the content and evaluation of an orientation program for new foreign teaching assistants in an American college or university. The objective of the program is to familiarize the foreign teaching assistant with the sociocultural and academic differences in the university system that may cause a communication breakdown within the classroom. The program includes three major components. The first, Oral/Aural, was designed to develop comprehension and communication skills. Techniques for increasing reading speed and overall comprehension of academic and periodical literature comprised the second component. The third dealt with a cross-cultural orientation to the United States university system. A sample course outline, sample lesson plans, and classroom materials are appended. (JD)
Article
A survey of 50 college writing programs to ascertain what kind of training is being offered to student teachers revealed the significance of peer support and involvement and raised the following questions: (1) Can peers offer advice and support which is different from that offered by faculty and administrators? (2) Do graduate student teachers bring to their teaching a perspective which is different from that of the faculty and therefore valuable? and (3) How might graduate student teachers view their political position and their role as teachers if there were such a community of support? Although traditional modes of training such as preservice orientations and class visits by faculty are helpful, the addition of peer support in the form of class visits by peers, peer mentors, and peer involvement in writing program decisions could help immeasurably in creating communities where graduate students know that their work is creative, important, and rewarding. Peer involvement in training programs can provide a valuable and meaningful addition to an already successful program. (MHC)
Article
A survey of 303 teaching assistants and faculty about their attitudes toward TA training revealed definite priorities, some agreement, and certain differences in the respondents' perceptions. There was widespread agreement that such training should be very practical in nature, but there was less agreement among the respondent groups about low-priority needs. Furthermore, the concerns of native speakers differed from those of non-native speakers, and the responses of older, experienced faculty and TAs differed from those of younger respondents.
Article
With the development of disciplinary knowledge, greater student diversity, advances in learning theory, and an increased emphasis on undergraduate education, the design of effective TA training must consider the interaction of many dimensions that affect TAs' performance.
A one-day workshop in oral communication skills
  • K M Bailey
  • F B Hinofotis
Bailey, K.M., Hinofotis, F.B. (1984). A one-day workshop in oral communication skills. In K.M. Bailey, (Ed.), Foreign Teaching Assistants in U.S. Universities.
DC: National Association for Foreign Student Affairs
  • Washington
Washington, DC: National Association for Foreign Student Affairs.