You have that big midterm exam worth 30% of your grade. You’ve done the readings, been to class, and yet, your head is still swimming.
Seeking advice and clarity, you go to your teaching assistant’s (TA’s) office hours. You spend a half hour talking, but you as soon as you step out of the office, you feel more confused than when you walked in.
This used to happened to me all the time; I felt discouraged and less confident in my knowledge retention after leaving office hours. Honestly, there may be blame on both sides for the confusion. As a student who frequently attended office hours, was a TA myself and is a friend of people who are or were TAs, here’s some advice to having a successful office hours appointment so you feel enlightened not bewildered.
1. Don’t ask questions you can easily find in the syllabus.
Questions that are in the syllabus or were given explicitly during a lecture such as “when is the exam?”, “how many sources do we need to cite in the paper?” aren’t a useful way to spend your or your TAs’ time. You might even be told “it’s in the syllabus” or “check your notes from last class, the professor went over it” which can be embarrassing as it shows you didn’t take the time to read through your sources or, worse, didn’t go to class. One or two of these “obvious” questions is fine, but if you take up all the time asking these questions, or do it frequently, it doesn’t leave a great impression.
2. Ask specific, thoughtful questions.
As your TAs are probably students themselves, they are keen to underlying motivations for visiting them; you want to know how to get an A on an upcoming paper or exam. However, going into office hours with the question “can you review my paper?” or worse, “so, what’s going to be on the exam?” will tell your TA that you’re lazy, and they will not be very motivated to help you.
Further, very general questions make it hard to know where to even begin helping you. Your TAs are not going to pre-grade your paper or share the answer key with you. If you’re asking for help with a paper, a better way to start off your appointment is to have a draft and have 2-3 sections you need help on. If you’re having trouble even starting a paper, come with a few ideas that show you’ve read the assignment and are caught up on course readings and materials. If you’re coming in to talk about an exam, ask about a specific topic you are having trouble grasping. For example, “I understand ____ but I’m having trouble making the connection to how ____ connects to ____. Can you help me understand how they relate?” Really, you just need to show that you are taking the class seriously and giving it the “good old college try” — you’ll get way more out of the appointment if you do. Your TAs will be more willing to help someone who is putting forth the effort to succeed, and not asking for handouts in order to do less work.
3. Your TA doesn’t know everything.
Professor/TA relationships vary widely, as well as the TAs’ expertise in that specific class. Likely, the class is within the expertise of your professor, but it may not necessarily be the expertise of your TAs, even if they’ve reviewed all course materials or sat through the class for a semester or two. Further, it’s not uncommon that it’s a TA’s first semester, not only as a teaching assistant but as a student at the college. In those cases where your TAs can’t answer your question, your TAs should offer to bring up the question to the professor and provide you an answer later. Be sure to ask your TAs if they can escalate the question to the professor if you don’t feel comfortable asking, or you may just need to go to the professor in her office hours.
4. Your TAs don’t always know “what’s on the exam” or “how it will be graded.”
Nothing is more frustrating than having a paper due, but no rubric or specific guidance on how it will be graded. Unfortunately, professors often may not have itemized rubrics or give much helpful insight into what they’re “looking for” on the paper or exam. Don’t take out your frustration on your TA if you don’t have more guidance because your TA might not have the rubric you’re looking for.
5. Your TAs can tell when you’re not paying attention in class.
Oftentimes it’s required that the TA attends the lecture with your other classmates. Sometimes TA’s sit strategically in the room (like the back row) so they can have a view of any behavior that might be not allowed or distracting to other students. Don’t be the student that shops online all class then comes last-minute to office hours asking the obvious questions!
6. Your TAs want you to succeed.
Again, your TAs are likely to graduate students, meaning they’re likely pursuing a Master’s or Ph.D. Your TA knows how important grades can be for future endeavors, and they want you to succeed in the course.