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Monday Master Class: How to Talk to a TA

The TA Factor…Frustrated TA

In many classes, your Teaching Assistant (TA) is your most important resource. This is particularly true in technical subjects. If you establish a good relationship with the TA and ask good questions, he or she can make your life in that class significantly easier.

On the other hand, if you abuse the relationship, and badger the TA with aggressive questions, or try to weasel answers, you’ll lose this resource, and your life will become significantly more difficult.

Having spent time on both sides of the student/TA divide, I want to provide some simple rules for managing this relationship. This post lists 5 common things you should never say to your TA. Each is accompanied by an example of the right (and more effective) way to accomplish the same goal.

In your experience, what worked and what didn’t work for forming a good TA relationship?

Stop!Rule 1: Don’t say: “I don’t know how to do this problem. Help!”

TAs know that this is code for: “I spent a few minutes and the solution wasn’t immediately obvious so now I want you to give me the answer.” This pisses them off. No matter how exasperated you act, they won’t give you the answer.

Instead: Be specific! Explain what you tried. Where you are stuck. Why you are stuck. And, most importantly, exactly what type of information you need from the TA that would help you without solving the problem for you.

Stop!Rule 2: Don’t say: “I don’t understand what this problem is asking.”

That is not helpful. Once again, most TAs will assume that you are fishing for an answer; e.g., you hope that in his or her haste to help you understand, the TA will accidentally give away the goods.

Instead: Provide a list of specific things you find ambiguous. For each, explain the differing interpretations that seem possible. Many questions are, in fact, ambiguous, and the TA will appreciate this specificity and be happy to help you clarify.

Stop!Rule 3: Don’t say: “I think the problem is unsolvable.”

It is. Okay, sometimes there is a mistake in the problem write-up. But this is rare. And, when this does occur, it’s usually minor and easily identified if you know what you are doing. Most likely you’re just stuck, and you’re frustrated that you’re stuck, and you’re trying to displace this frustration on the rest of the world.

Instead: Refer to the advice given for Rules 1 and 2. Try to identify exactly where you are stuck, and make sure you have listed any specific parts of the problem you consider ambiguous. Nine times out of ten, this exercise will miraculously make the problem become once again solvable.

Stop!Rule 4: Don’t say: “Can I swing by your office if I have any questions?”

Many students abuse this privilege. They use it as an excuse to bother the poor TA, all day, with the type of irritating questions proscribed in the previous 3 rules.

Instead: It’s okay to try to meet a TA outside of official office hours. This is especially true if office hours are held the day before a problem set is due (a tendency I really disagree with from a pedagogical point of view). The key, however, is to schedule a specific meeting with a specific purpose. Suggest a duration and a list of the specific topics you want to discuss. For example: “I’m getting stuck on the first question because I’m still shaky on how to formulate a quality inductive step, I’m hoping we can go over some examples so I can use it more confidently.”

Stop!Rule 5: Don’t say: “Can you tell me if I’m on the right track here?”

TAs know this is code for: “can you tell if my answer is right?” They are not going to tell you this. You’re being less subtle then you think.

Instead: Make sure you understand the problem. Ask questions where things are unclear. Check your work your group members. Then, just trust yourself. It’s just one problem among hundreds you’ll solve as a student.

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