Graduate Handbook - Section 6

University of Minnesota

Department of Astronomy

Section 6


Most graduate students will work as Teaching Assistants (TAs) sometime during their graduate career. TAs are an integral part of our teaching faculty, and play a critical role in the education of our introductory astronomy students. In this role, you are a professional educator, seen by your students as a source of knowledge, support and authority. The University, IT, and the Department have a variety of training and evaluation programs set up to help you understand the expectations of you in this professional capacity.

A 50% TA appointment carries the obligation to work 20 hours per week. If the demands on your time exceed that, on average, please speak to your supervisor and/or the DGS.

The following sections are meant to offer a rough guide to the job of TA; the requirements and expectations of your supervisor take precedence. There is also a TA handbook that describes responsibilities in more detail. In case of difficulties with your teaching responsibilities, there are a variety of people who can help - the Head TA, the Faculty TA Supervisor, the DGS, and the Department Chair.


[top]6.1 TA Responsibilities

Astronomy TAs typically teach small classes (15-25 students) that meet once per week, in which the students perform "Laboratory''(Lab) exercises These classes are part of the introductory astronomy class which also meets three times per week in lecture format. TAs are expected to prepare for their classes, conduct them, and grade the students' work. They are expected to attend all TA meetings and turn in all paperwork in a timely fashion.

Other TA responsibilities are assigned by the Head TA, and include proctoring of exams, conducting office hours, occasional grading assignments, assisting in public telescope viewing evenings, assisting with Lab manual revisions, and carrying out public outreach programs, in which other members of the department also participate.

Teaching Philosophy and Student Goals

The small sections taught by the TAs are established on the understanding, through a great deal of educational research, that students need to construct their own knowledge from the information and experiences we offer them. In the labs, the students both work with equipment and also perform exercises on paper to simulate astronomical measurements, solve problems, etc. In the Astronomy Lab Sections (ALSs), students perform a variety of paper and computer exercises to reinforce some of the fundamental, but difficult concepts covered in the lectures and text.

We are also using a cooperative learning group format in our labs and ALSs. In these groups, the students work together, take on different responsibilities, and are assigned a common grade. Again, the education research is unambiguous that such cooperative learning can increase comprehension and improve student attitudes. You will be given training and feedback in the use of these cooperative groups.

Our academic goals for the students are under continuous discussion. It is critical for you as an instructor to participate in these discussions and to have in your own mind what you are trying to accomplish with the students. This is true both for the course as a whole, and also, on a more specific basis, for each class meeting.


[top]6.2 Professional Growth and Evaluation

It is the responsibility of every instructor to obtain evaluations of their teaching performance in order to improve their work on a continuing basis.Learning how to use evaluations for professional growth will benefit not only your current teaching, but will create life-long habits whether you have a teaching or research or other career. You should always have a list of professional goals for yourself, things you would like to improve on, informed by student and faculty evaluations of your work, as well as your own priorities. You are required to obtain formal student evaluations each semester. You will also be visited by a faculty member who will write up an evaluation for your personnel file. It is important that you view these as both opportunities for professional growth, as well as documenting your experience for when you are looking for a job.

The University offers a variety of informal and formal opportunities for graduate students to improve their teaching, and you are recommended to take advantage of these. See the DGS or TA supervisor for how to obtain information on these programs.

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