Dealing with Troublesome TAs

This post came out of a recent question posted on this blog…

“Do you have any advice on how to deal with TA or grader? Students are always complaining and frustrated about how their work [is] being graded (the TA takes off too many points, the TA doesn’t read their entire assignment carefully, the TA picks on minor items etc.). I always provide the TA with the solution and try my best to set the grading criteria for the TA, but at the end, unless I personally grade all the assignments, it is quite difficult to specify all the details and mistakes in advance. Given in most practical situation[s], TA won’t spend more than 5 minutes per assignment, any suggestion on how to make sure the TA grades properly and effectively.”

This is a frustrating problem – one that I have faced more than a few times over the years. Unfortunately, it’s not always an easy thing to fix – it depends upon whether the problem is due to inexperience, poor judgement, or a bad attitude. Keep in mind too – it’s not always only the TA’s fault – we professors can sometimes be partly (or totally) to blame. 😉 However, I can say for sure that the solution is not for you to be remarking the assignments. That’s just not an appropriate use of your time and it will mean that you can’t get your own work done. In this post I’m offering some strategies both for avoiding this problem, as well as some ideas for dealing with it when it occurs.

Prevention Strategies

I’ve found that the best way to deal with this problem is to avoid it altogether – by planning against it, in advance. Specifically this means that you need to provide TAs with clear (i.e. written) details of your expectations before the term starts, including details of what they can expect to happen if they don’t meet these expectations. For example, you could tell them that, if there are complaints from students about inconsistent or negligent marking, then you will be expecting them to sort these out with the students themselves, on their own time. Also, you need to be clear that, if persistent problems develop (such as not doing their work well/on time, being late for labs, etc.), that you may have no choice but to replace them. It also means that you need to give them immediate feedback the minute problems start (and be sure to follow up each meeting with an email to the TA documenting your discussion and asking for them to confirm or correct your description of the conversation by a specific date).

Another important preventative measure is to design assignments so they can be marked consistently in a very short time, since most TAs are typically only paid to spend about 5 minutes marking each student’s assignment. I’ve found that the best way to achieve this is to set up each question with component parts, such that the students have to present intermediate answers at specific steps along the way. This can take some time to do effectively – but if you’re not doing it, then you are putting the TA in an impossible situation and ensuring frustration for everyone.

A very specific and detailed marking key is also essential. Keep in mind that some TAs just don’t have the experience and/or judgement to decide what’s important and that’s often why they pick on all the wrong things when marking. Alternatively, they might not even realize that they need a marking key if you don’t tell them about it, in which case they will have absolutely no hope of marking consistently. Also, don’t forget that a proper marking key needs to include details of what ‘part marks’ will be assigned for specific incorrect answer scenarios. If you cannot easily do this – perhaps you should ask yourself if this might be part of the reason that the TA is having difficulty marking consistently or picking on the wrong things. After all, chances are that you know 10 (or 100) times more about the topic than the TA does.

You must either provide this marking key yourself or assign the job of creating the marking key to the TA. If you choose the latter, make it clear to the TA that you will need them to provide you with the marking key when they give you back the marked assignments. Include this marking key with the posted solution so that the students know the right answers and what marks they should have gotten for these right answers. Personally, I like to start off the term by setting the marking keys myself so that the TAs get an idea of how to do it. Then – as the term progresses – I discuss progress with them and ask them if they’d like the opportunity to set their own marking keys. Often I check these for a while and I give the TAs feedback on them before they do the marking. Hopefully towards the end of the course they have the idea and can be left to do this for themselves. This approach has the added advantage of giving the TAs increasing responsibility as they demonstrate more skill and good judgement. This will give them greater job satisfaction and, for most TAs, this means that they will be more inclined do their job effectively. A really good TA might even eventually be able to help out by preparing the actual solutions; however, keep in mind that you have to take the time they spend on this into account. It’s not fair to expect them to do that on their own time.

Coping Strategies

Problems can still arise even if you do take preventative measures, so it’s important that you make sure the students know that that you want to hear from them if they have any questions or complaints about the marking – particularly if they feel they have been marked unfairly. I mention this every time I hand marked assignments back to the students, if I am having problems with a TA’s marking. Make sure you remind any student who complains to compare their marked assignment to the posted solution and marking key (many times they won’t have bothered to do this!), and tell the students that the TA will deal with valid complaints directly. Also, make it clear to the students that you want to hear from them if they don’t get satisfaction from the TA.

You need to arrange a time and place for students to meet the TA for this purpose. If you have a scheduled lab or tutorial period – then that is often a convenient time to do it. I have found that negligent TAs soon learn to clean up their act if they are spending an hour or two (of their own time) each week dealing with student complaints. I would also remind the TA that I am not counting the time they have to spend on this towards their weekly TA hours, (i.e. if they are going to do their assigned work poorly and/or incorrectly – then they will have to spend their own time cleaning us those messes.) I would also warn them that they need to change this behaviour if they want to keep their job, since it is totally inappropriate to have this kind of thing going on indefinitely.

If the TA continues to be a chronic problem – then I would not hesitate to replace them. You will need to document the full details of the problems to justify this – so make a record of every meeting you have with them – document all problems, and (lack of) results in writing (e.g. with emails). You also need to give detailed feedback every time a problem arises and warn them that, if it the problems continue, then you will have no choice other than to replace them. Generally I wouldn’t put up with a negligent TA for more than few weeks before I gave up and replaced them. The students in the course deserve better than this and so do you.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not always (all) the TA’s fault. If you are not providing proper marking keys, if your assignments are too convoluted to mark in the time allotted per student, if students are passing in undecipherable crap, then you might just be blaming the wrong person. Thus the best strategy to take when problems arise is first to sit down with the TA, tell them what the problem is (in a non-confrontational way) and ask for their opinion on why it’s happening and how they would suggest you go about fixing it. Quite often, TAs that feel more involved in the whole teaching and decision-making process are much more motivated to do their job well.

Good luck and – as always – if you have questions or your own tips to share, please use the comment feature to participate in the discussion. Thanks for reading!

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