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TAs cultivate connection with students, persevere through disconnection of online classes

Teaching assistants work to maintain their designated roles by overcoming pandemic-induced obstacles

For “Software Development Methods,” the class utilizes the virtual messaging platform Discord for students to ask questions and meet with their TAs in either office hours or in their cohorts.
For “Software Development Methods,” the class utilizes the virtual messaging platform Discord for students to ask questions and meet with their TAs in either office hours or in their cohorts.

Due to the pandemic, teaching assistants have had to adjust to helping students through their semesters virtually, albeit without the same connections as they could in an in-person semester. However, TAs have taken this obstacle in stride by utilizing a variety of virtual platforms that have helped increase opportunities for connection with students. Whether TAs are living off Grounds or on Grounds, they have continued to help students navigate and better understand course material outside of lecture. 

Introductory Chemistry TA and third-year College student Annesha Sarkar, who has been a TA since Fall 2019 and for four consecutive semesters, experienced the transition from being a TA in-person to having to shift online in March 2020. Sarkar recalled the difficulty that she and the other 24 undergraduate and two graduate TAs experienced during that time, specifically in adapting the course “Expo” sections. One of their primary roles is to help facilitate students’ broader understanding of the course material through such Expo sections, which are designated discussion times in which roughly 90 students break into smaller groups and answer class problems with the help of three TAs assigned per section. 

“In the past, and even when I personally took the class, students really felt like they benefited from having a peer-like TA to whom they can ask questions and have general support for the course as the TAs themselves had gone through the course,” Sarkar said. “However, [with] the abrupt switch online in Spring 2020, the students had lost this connection with their TAs … During that transition period, it was so hard to feel connected with the students.”

Despite these impediments, Sarkar noted that Prof. Kevin Welch’s decision to move the classes’ Expo sections to the virtual interactive platform Microsoft Teams this past fall has helped emulate this collaborative environment. One of its unique features allows 27 different TAs to switch between multiple channels of student groups in order to check-in with them and answer any questions they may have as they work through a variety of group assignments — which is especially helpful during large Expo sections. 

“It was overall a time of learning how to adapt quickly to the situations we were given... to make sure that the students were able to still succeed during such a time of uncertainty,” Sarkar said. “The instructors have done an amazing job of transitioning the Expo discussion sections online to mimic what it would look like in person … Although the connections are not the same as if we were to be in person, I feel like I am able to adequately support students virtually through the course.”

Likewise, classes in the computer science department have adopted similar solutions in order to try and combat the disconnective nature of online classes and discussion sections by encouraging students to engage with their TAs, fellow classmates and professors. The course Software Development Methods utilizes the virtual messaging platform Discord for students to ask questions and meet with their TAs in either office hours or in their cohorts. 

The latter is a system that was implemented last fall as a means of replicating pre-pandemic office hours. At the start of the course, all 60 TAs were assigned a cohort that consists of around five students each.

On a weekly basis, each cohort meets on a Discord voice channel during the class’s designated lab time for at least 30 minutes, so that students can work together on their assignments and ask their TA for help when needed.

Since this is her second consecutive semester as a TA for the class, second-year College student Lucy Wang shared how she was able to find success in cultivating an inclusive and collaborative environment for her cohort.

“This semester, when I was assigned to my cohort, it was definitely a lot better, and I was able to first meet with the students individually,” Wang said. “Then I had them introduce themselves to each other on the first day, and I tried to facilitate communication and collaboration among them from the get go. And now we’re about a month in, and all my cohort members are collaborating and working together, so things are going pretty smoothly.”

TAs like Wang and Sarkar are paid to carry out their responsibilities for a set amount of hours per week. Both before and during the pandemic, Wang and her fellow CS 2110 TAs are paid $11 per hour and can work a maximum of five hours per week if they are a first-time TA, but this can be raised to eight hours per week if they continue as a TA in following semesters. Sarkar and the other Chemistry TAs have had both their hours and pay reduced because of a department-wide policy implemented at the start of the pandemic. 

However, some TAs continue to engage with and demonstrate extraordinary dedication to students, even without pay. For fourth-year Batten student Jackie Chen, this spring semester marks her fifth consecutive semester as an unpaid volunteer TA for Professor Rick Mayes in his class, Overview of the US Healthcare System.

Over this time, Chen has made sure to prioritize students’ mental health at all times — a focus that mirrors how Mayes advocates for a policy of openness in the class. By encouraging students to voice their mental health-related concerns, Mayes can help identify a case-by-case plan that both keeps students learning and also caters to their mental well-being. When the pandemic hit, Chen expressed that this emphasis on how students are faring beyond the letter grades and class participation is a sentiment that has never been more applicable to what it means to be a TA.

“I would say I think it’s really important [as a TA] to be cognizant of students and how they're doing, especially during this time,” Chen said. “I think there's always been a really good policy about mental health awareness … even before COVID-19, and the follow through from then to now has been great.”

Although there are clearly limitations to virtual learning that prevent online classes from fully replicating the nature of in-person classes and office hours, this hasn’t stopped both professors and TAs from dedicating commendable time and energy to their students. From actively engaging with students on digital platforms to continuing care for students’ mental health, University TAs have demonstrated exemplary resilience to fulfilling their responsibilities as teaching assistants.