University Park

Undergraduates expand knowledge through teaching assistant positions

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Being a teaching assistant as an undergraduate is a big responsibility, particularly when class members are peers. It also gives Penn State students the opportunity to dive deeper into areas of interest by providing hands-on teaching skills and experience working with faculty in their field or study of choice.

Jen Kane, a sophomore biology major from Sicklerville N.J., and current teaching assistant (TA) for Sam Richards' Sociology (SOC) 119 course, Race and Ethnic Relations, gave insight into her responsibilities as a TA for a class of 726 students. “I answer students’ questions in class and via email, especially regarding grades,” Kane said. “I also assist with exams for the class as well as a few other miscellaneous tasks.”

The opportunity to be a teaching assistant for such a large class has provided Kane with several benefits. She has been able to further her ability to multitask through her teaching assistant position. “Being a TA has also opened many doors and connections for me,” she added.

“All teaching assistant positions ask an undergraduate to be responsible to a professor and one's peers,” said Richards, senior lecturer in sociology. “All positions give the opportunity to step up to the spirit (and reality) of personal responsibility -- and this is what we're trying to have happen in an institution of higher education.”

“I have TAs who work alongside of me at every step of my course planning and implementation,” said Richards. “They learn so much about what it takes to be a professor and run a class that I can hardly put it into words. They have so much responsibility and prove to me again and again that students can and will rise to the occasion when asked to do so.”

Jack Chisholm, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering from Voorhees, N.J., is a teaching intern (TI), similar to a teaching assistant, in the aerospace engineering department for the roughly 100 students enrolled this semester in AERSP313: Aerospace Analysis. He said he wanted to become a teaching intern because he loves to teach. “I think it’s a rewarding experience to help students and an even better feeling when they truly understand the material,” he said.

Through his teaching intern experience, Chisholm has learned both the benefits and difficulties of his position. “Being a TI has made me a better communicator and has helped me understand the struggles that go into teaching and preparing for a class,” Chisholm said. “I learned that respect is a tough thing to obtain, especially from students just one year younger than you. It wasn’t until I taught a class when the professor was on travel when I finally noticed a spike in my office hours attendance. It turns out that they found the lecture helpful and since have been more willing to ask me for help with the class.”

“Our teaching interns benefit from their experience because it allows them to become deeply emerged in teaching,” said R.G. Melton, a professor in the aerospace engineering department. “Each student involved in the teaching intern program has expressed interest in teaching at some point. Being a TI provides a good introduction into what’s involved with teaching.”

“For undergraduate students looking to go directly into the market upon graduation, being a teaching assistant would help develop soft skills such as leadership, communication and time management, while teaching students how to work one-on-one with other students and small groups,” said Chris MacGill, associate director, of Penn State Career Services' Programming and Education Credentials Services. “For students interested in continuing on to graduate school, a teaching assistant position is beneficial because it allows students to see more directly what faculty is looking for while teaching transferable skills.”

Last Updated December 08, 2011

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