Undergraduate TAs improve class quality

Photo by Matt Treager

As one of my professors would say: I’m about to make a bold statement here. Usually, but not always, courses taught by undergraduate TAs rather than graduate TAs are better for students in the class. I have had many excellent graduate TAs, but the totality of my own experience, as well as the experience of others, leads me to this conclusion.

Several departments at Tech have already embraced the undergrad TA model. The math and physics departments use undergrad TAs to teach recitation sections for introductory classes, and many departments, especially in College of Engineering, use undergrad TAs for lab classes. Most notably, the College of Computing uses undergraduates to teach the recitations of all but one of its 1000- and 2000-level courses and even a few of its higher-level courses. One of the more prominent courses taught this way is CS 1371 which is taken by all College of Engineering students.

So how do classes with undergrad TAs compare to those with graduate TAs? For one thing, there are far more TAs in the first. Courses with graduate students will often only have one or a few TAs, given the limited number of graduate students who could teach the course. Courses with undergrad TAs often have a dozen or more TAs. When I took 1371, there were 50 undergrad TAs. I don’t know if it’s the low pay or the long hours, but the CoC never seems to lack a large number of undergrads to help teach its courses. The large number of TAs makes it possible for students, especially freshmen, to get the individual attention they need.

Undergrad TAs tend to be in a much better position to understand where students get stuck…

In addition to sheer numbers, undergrad TAs tend to be more relatable to students. Undergrad TAs still remember taking the course; some may have taken it only a semester ago. They remember what it was like to do the assignments and take the tests. Undergrad TAs tend to be in a much better position to understand where students get stuck and have the experience from taking the class to know how to get them through it.

Finally, undergrad TAs are usally more excited to be teaching. Undergrad TAs are still in their own undergraduate degrees and have a lot more time and enthusiasm to devote. Many of them want to go to graduate school and academia themselves and savor the chance to help students. There are also enough of them that it doesn’t seem completely overwhelming.

I am not saying all courses should be taught by undergraduates. Especially in higher level classes,  having a grad student in the subject area can often lead to better results. But for low level, introductory classes, undergrads are typically in the position to be more helpful, both by numbers and by personal experience. When determining how to better teach courses, all departments should consider whether having undergrad TAs, perhaps in conjunction with graduates, would help student learn better.