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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
SMALL MEDIUM LARGE
Size of Universities
TIME ALLOCATION FOR TAs
SOCIAL SCIENCES ENGINEERING
NUMBER OF HOURS WORKED
/ 5 hours
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)
112 Serge J. Piccinin, Andy Farquharson, & Elena Mihu
It should be noted that some universities employ senior graduate students
as part-time lecturers. This is clearly a different function from the teaching
assistantship, and was not examined in this study.
The number of hours per week that TAs work was one of the more consis-
tent characteristics across universities, with ten to twelve hours being typical
(Figure 3). The hourly pay for TAs was much less consistent. Although the
average pay per hour was close to $19, the rates ranged from $9 to $29
(Figure 4). This amounts to a total of approximately $5000 on average over two
semesters. In general, rates of pay were higher in larger universities and in those
where TAs were unionized.
Among the universities which responded to the survey, seven (approxi-
mately twenty seven percent) employed TAs who were unionized. The formal-
ization of the role of TAs is evidenced by the fact that approximately
seventy-three per cent of the responding universities have institutional. Faculty
and/or Departmental level policies relating to the employment of TAs. These
policies range from brief half page statements to lengthy, complex, collective
agreements. Of the nineteen universities which have some type of policy, eleven
forwarded some documentation along with their completed questionnaire.
Of the seven universities which reported having unionized TAs, four
appended the negotiated Collective Agreements. The two major unions
involved in these agreements are the Canadian Union of Public Employees
(CUPE) and the Canadian Union of Educational Workers (CUEW). The agree-
ments are rather elaborate, having a length of 30 to 40 pages. They have very
similar content, covering a number of major issues involved in a teaching assist-
antship, from management rights, work hours and pay rates to holidays, disci-
pline and grievance procedures, and sexual harassment.
Seven of the remaining 14 non-unionized universities which reported hav-
ing some form of TA policy attached documentation about their policies. Some
of these documents cover only pay rates and working hours for TAs. Others
also offer brief guidelines and regulations. The University of Calgary, for exam-
ple, attached its thirteen page "Assistantship Schedule. Regulations, Guidelines,
and Terms of Appointment. 1989-1990." The University of Windsor provided
its more elaborate document, the "Employment Policy Manual. 1989-1990."
This twenty page document includes paragraphs on most of the issues covered
in the collective agreements of the universities with unionized TAs, but it is less
detailed than the collective agreements.
The training of TAs for their instructional responsibilities was of particular
interest to the research team. Approximately seventy-six percent of the
Teaching Assistants in Canadian Universities 113
responding universities have some type of training for TAs, but only
twenty-eight percent have mandatory training. By and large this is of brief
duration and includes a mixture of orientation and limited instructional training.
For the most part the training is generic rather than specific, and there is little
follow-up to improve teaching skills over time.
No differences were evident in the number of training hours, or type of
training offered (mandatory, voluntary) between the unionized and non-union-
ized universities. Only two of the four collective agreements (one each of CUPE
and CUEW) have a reference to TA training. No number of hours is specified
and training is largely optional, except for TAs on their first appointment at
York University. These are required to attend some mandatory training which is
included in their paid hours.
The most popular type of training program held yearly at a number of uni-
versities is the "TA Day." The activities of TA Day, which in a few cases may
involve two days,usually include a series of workshops covering various topics.
The majority of these workshops are practical in nature, providing TAs with
guidance for improving specific skills like conducting effective class discus-
sions, evaluating student performance, helping students improve their writing
skills, or making an effective presentation. Other workshops deal with the func-
tions, responsibilities, roles and purpose of TAs, equity in the classroom, and
the undergraduate students' perception of TAs.
The "TA Day-1989" at Brock University is an example of a typical
one-day training program. Registration took place in the morning. After a half
hour introductory session, eight complementary workshops of an hour and a
half were offered, covering different topics. A short refreshment break was fol-
lowed by a plenary session dealing with the general topic of sexual harassment.
The eight workshops were repeated in the afternoon. TAs were invited to attend
two workshops relevant to their instructional needs, one in the morning and one
in the afternoon. Titles of the workshops included: "Leading more effective
seminars," "Evaluating Essays," "Helping students develop good study skills,"
and "Introduction to learning styles: Veteran's Session."
Other universities (e.g., University of Waterloo) offer workshops for TAs
throughout the first two weeks of the fall term, both university-wide and at a
Department/Faculty level. Some universities, notably the University of Alberta,
reported offering workshops for TAs throughout the academic year. The
University of Guelph offers a six-session short course for graduate students,
and McMaster University a series of mini-courses for TAs. The Instructional
Development Centre of McMaster University also published in 1981 a
114 Serge J. Piccinin, Andy Farquharson, & Elena Mihu
TA training in Canadian universities
Universities with training for TAs
Universities with mandatory training for TAs
Universities with training for international TAs
Universities with person or unit responsible for training
Universities which evaluate TAs
catalogue of resources used in Canadian universities to help orient and train
TAs. An updated edition of this catalogue is now in preparation.
Only twelve percent of the responding universities have any form of train-
ing specifically tailored for international (foreign student) TAs. No information
was gathered on the proportion of TAs who were foreign students (Table 1).
Budgets for TA training are distinctly modest. The largest financial invest-
ment in TA training appeared to be at McGill University which currently ear-
10,000 annually specifically for this purpose. However,
to place this figure in context, one should know that Syracuse University, for
example, invests more than $100,000 in a required residential program for TAs;
and one university in the American South-West is reputed to spend $300,000
on TA training. Clearly, Canadian universities are not investing much in the
way of money or time in the training of TAs. One can only wonder what the
impact would be if institutions devoted even 2% of their budget allocation for
TAs' salaries to training them for their roles. Approximately half the universities
which responded identified a specific person or administrative unit with respon-
sibility for TA training; it appears that for the most part this is generic training
for TAs across the disciplines.
On the matter of TA evaluation, the bulk of universities report that they do
not evaluate their TAs. Five universities (21%) report a formal evaluation pro-
cedure for TAs. For the remainder, it appears that any evaluation of TAs is typi-
cally handled at a department level or is at best informal. One university
reported that its collective agreement includes provision for both the formal and
informal evaluation of TAs.
A number of conclusions may be drawn from this survey of practices at
Canadian universities. First, TAs appear to be an unknown resource because
many universities reported that the requested basic information on TAs was not
Conclusions and Implications
Teaching Assistants in Canadian Universities 115
immediately available, difficult to gather and typically not organized or central-
ized in any systematic manner. This becomes a matter of some concern when
one considers that TAs play a major role vis-à-vis many students in their first
year at university, and are therefore key players in the teaching/learning
process. Furthermore, the number of TAs may well increase as enrolments rise.
It is also important to recognize that, through the experiences they encounter as
TAs, the professorate of tomorrow is socialized into the role of teacher in higher
education. To the extent that we provide first rate training, support and
supervision for TAs, they could be expected to be more effective faculty mem-
bers in the future.
More comprehensive data are needed on the number of graduate and under-
graduate TAs in our institutions, how they are selected, the responsibilities they
carry, their rates of pay, their general working conditions and supervisory rela-
tionships, the manner in which they are evaluated and the identity of the people
who will ensure their well-being and their instructional effectiveness. At the
level of each institution, efforts need to be made to gather, organize, and cen-
tralize information on TAs as a basis for improving their selection, deployment,
training and evaluation. The instrument developed for this study could be
adapted for that purpose.
An important addition to an institutional study would be a canvass of the
experience, opinions and suggestions of the TAs themselves. An earlier study
by Ervin and Muyskens (1982) indicated that there were substantial differences
between the learning needs identified by TAs themselves and those that were
perceived by their supervisors.
An important suggestion derives from the range of materials on TA training
and other TA issues that were submitted along with the responses to the survey.
Clearly, much impressive work has already been done by certain universities,
and by some faculties and departments in developing work protocols, designs
for TA training, models for supervision, and TA evaluation forms. However,
many people who are concerned with the effective use of TAs may be unaware
of the volume of this material, where it is located and how it might be obtained.
In the USA, a Task Force to explore the establishment of a National
Clearinghouse of TA-related materials was established in 1989, and it took the
next step of commissioning the development of materials that it felt were neces-
sary but as yet unavailable. Those wishing to explore the idea of a National
Clearinghouse on TA training in Canada are invited to contact the authors.
Among the benefits that might flow from this kind of collaborative
approach would be an increased understanding of where human and material
resources are located, as well as the potential development of more expensive
116 Serge J. Piccinin, Andy Farquharson, & Elena Mihu
types of generic training resources on a cost-shared basis. One example would
be a series of trigger videotapes depicting problematic events that crop up in the
day-to-day reality of the TA experience. Videotapes have been shown to be
particularly helpful in effective and standardized TA training, but are expensive
A final consideration is that improving the TA experience may be the most
important and accessible way to have a long-term impact on teaching improve-
ment. It is clear that much needs to be done to expand and improve the quality
of TA training as well as the evaluation of their contributions. Given a commit-
ment to this agenda on the part of our institutions, significant strides can surely
result. We may well be supported in these efforts by those who pay the tuition
fees for undergraduate education - students, their parents and others. Those who
pay the fees expect to find a qualified instructor in the laboratory or classroom
and, at a minimum, effective TA training and evaluation may allay some of
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