Do you remember your first college class in which the instructor had an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA)? You may have been surprised when you realized that a peer was going to be teaching and perhaps even grading you. Did you wonder about the duties of your teaching assistant and perhaps also the knowledge, skills, and characteristics (KSCs) and experience and/or training it takes to become a UTA? In this article, I would like to provide some answers to these questions and also discuss the benefits and challenges of this experience.
My teaching career began at a small private liberal arts college where we boasted that our students were taught by faculty who possessed the appropriate graduate degrees—not by graduate students—and certainly not by their fellow undergraduates. One of the first things I observed when I moved to a large public research university was that graduate students taught some of our classes and that many undergraduate students served as UTAs to both our faculty and graduate students. I was initially concerned that our students were receiving an inferior education because those who were teaching them were not always faculty. However, my concern disappeared rapidly as I became aware that many of our graduate students were excellent teachers and that our UTAs not only provided our busy faculty and graduate students with the assistance they needed, but also offered our students the support, advice, and insights our faculty and graduate students were not always willing and/or able to provide. These discoveries led me to recruit my first UTAs and, by the time I retired 13 years later, I had utilized the services of hundreds of UTAs in my classes, many of whom assisted me for several semesters in the same class. As my experience with my UTAs increased—and my gratitude for their hard work and dedication to my students grew—I also became aware of how much they benefited from their interactions with both my students and with me. What follows below are some insights I have acquired through the years in the form of questions you might have about becoming a UTA and my answers to these questions.
Question #1: What are the duties of a UTA?
According to the Occupational Information Network or O*NET (https://www.onetonline.org/), which is a huge online database sponsored by the US Department of Labor, a teaching assistant performs instructional duties for the teacher who is ultimately responsibility for designing and running an academic course. Teaching assistants are employed at many educational levels (i.e., primary, secondary, and post-secondary). The following duties from O*NET are the most common for those who serve as teaching assistants at the undergraduate level.
- attending class
- taking attendance
- maintaining student records
- holding office hours
- grading tests, papers, and assignments
- recording grades
- leading study, discussion, recitation, review, or lab sessions
- designing practice tests, assignments, grading rubrics, and other course materials
- performing a variety of other duties such as making copies, reserving books, and sending emails
UTAs can also serve as tutors or mentors. Tutoring is an activity that is relatively narrow in scope and that has short-term goals such as teaching students the information that is contained in their textbooks in a way that will help them to perform well on the next test. Mentoring, on the other hand, is broader in scope with longer-term goals, such as providing students with information on learning strategies and attitudes toward their education that will help them to not only pass the next test, but also to identify, clarify, and attain their future academic and professional goals. Wise UTAs consult with the faculty member they serve to clarify their duties and to determine which of these two roles they will be expected to play.
Question #2: What are the most important types knowledge, skills, and characteristics (KSCs) possessed by successful UTAs?
O*NET provides more than just the duties of those employed in the 1,000+ occupations it contains. It also provides lists of the most important types of KSCs needed for success in these occupations based on the ratings of both professional occupational analysts and the people who are actually employed in these occupations. The following outline provides the KSCs that O*NET identifies as the most important for the success of teaching assistants listed in descending order of importance under each category. The definition that follows each KSC is taken verbatim from O*NET.
- Education and Training: Knowledge of principles and methods for curriculum and training design, teaching and instruction for individuals and groups, and the measurement of training effects.
- English Language: Knowledge of the structure and content of the English language including the meaning and spelling of words, rules of composition, and grammar.
- Psychology: Knowledge of human behavior and performance; individual differences in ability, personality, and interests; learning and motivation; psychological research methods; and the assessment and treatment of behavioral and affective disorders.
- Customer and Personal Service: Knowledge of principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services, and evaluation of customer satisfaction.
- Active Listening: Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
- Speaking: Talking to others to convey information effectively.
- Social Perceptiveness: Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.
- Critical Thinking: Using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions, or approaches to problems.
- Instructing: Teaching others how to do something.
- Dependability: Being reliable, responsible, and dependable, and fulfilling obligations.
- Concern for Others: Being sensitive to others’ needs and feelings and being understanding and helpful on the job.
- Integrity: Being honest and ethical.
- Self-Control: Maintaining composure, keeping emotions in check, controlling anger, and avoiding aggressive behavior, even in very difficult situations.
- Social Orientation: Preferring to work with others rather than alone, and being personally connected with others on the job.
These KSCs are what you must KNOW, DO, and BE if you want to be a successful UTA. If you are considering becoming a UTA, the best way you can benefit from this information is to perform an honest self-evaluation of your current strength in each of these 14 KSCs. Do not despair if some of your KSCs need to be strengthened because you can take positive actions to do so. For example:
- If you need to increase your ability to listen actively, enroll in a counseling class where you will have many opportunities to practice and strengthen this skill.
- If your confidence in your communication skills is low, enroll in an Introduction to Communications class to sharpen both your skills and your confidence in them.
- If you have a difficult time with self-control (e.g., controlling your temper), you could visit your counseling center to see if they offer anger-management counseling.
- If your customer service skills are rusty or nonexistent because you have never served customers before, finding a part-time job or volunteer position in which you serve the public would be invaluable.
BTW: I have some very good news for you if you are a psychology major. According to recent research conducted by Educational Testing Service (Burrus, Jackson, Xi, & Steinberg, 2013), “psychology was ranked as the sixth most important knowledge domain across all 536 occupations contained in 0*NET that require at least a vocational or associate’s degree and the fourth most important knowledge domain for the 126 occupations that require extensive preparation” (Appleby, 2018, p. 22). This suggests that, “as occupations increase in their need for higher levels of competence, a knowledge of psychology becomes increasingly more crucial for the success of those employed in these occupations” (p. 22). What a nice—and reassuring—surprise for you if you have ever doubted the value of your bachelor’s degree in psychology in today’s competitive job market.
Question #3: What kind of experience and/or training does it take to become a UTA?
One of the most important—but not always required—prerequisites for becoming a UTA in a particular class is to have performed well as a student in that class. Teachers spend a great deal of time observing the students in their classes, and they use what they see to decide who they will invite to be their future UTAs. For example, if faculty want their UTAs to help their students perform well academically, it stands to reason that they will choose UTAs who performed well on the tests they took, the papers they wrote, and the projects they were assigned in the class when they were students—no one appreciates or benefits from a clueless or inept UTA. If they want their UTAs to lead productive study, discussion, recitation, review, or lab sessions, then they will choose UTAs who demonstrated strong leadership and communication skills in their classes. If faculty want their UTAs to show up on time for class and perform their duties in a timely manner, then they will certainly not invite those who routinely came to class late or missed deadlines for assignments. My point is that you are actually in training to be a UTA in a class when you take that class as a student. If you would like to serve as a UTA in a particular class, be sure you stand out as a stellar student by clearly understanding what is required and then following through by actually doing what is required in a competent, positive, cooperative, mature, and timely manner. In essence, faculty are looking for UTAs who can serve as role models for their students by (1) knowing what behaviors it takes to be successful in a particular class and (2) being willing and able to model these behaviors for other students.
You may also need to undergo some sort of training to become a UTA. This can take the form of a concentrated “crash course” in how to be a UTA that takes place during the week before the class begins or a class that meets periodically during the semester in which you serve as a UTA. These experiences are usually required if you want to earn either academic credit or money for being a UTA. They are usually not required if you are seeking the other types of benefits you can gain from being a UTA I will address in the answer to the next question.
Question #4: What are the benefits of being a UTA?
You now know what successful UTAs do, what qualities they possess, and how they acquire these qualities. It is now time to answer the question that is the title of this article—Should You Become an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant?—by bringing your attention to the positive outcomes (i.e., the benefits) of serving as a UTA so you can use this information to determine if becoming a UTA would be a wise decision for you.
- In his highly regarded book Teaching Tips, Wilbert McKeachie states that teaching is often more effective than being taught when you are trying to learn (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006). The process of teaching your undergraduate peers the material you have already learned in a class will help you strengthen and deepen your grasp of that material. To successfully communicate complex and/or puzzling concepts to your students, you will need to become so familiar with these concepts that you can explain them in your own words and create original examples of them rather than simply repeating the definitions and examples your students have read in their textbooks or heard in lectures. You can utilize this ability to benefit not only your students, but also to help increase your performance in upper-level classes where your greater mastery of difficult material will lead to better academic performance in the form of higher grades.
- The graduate-school-bound UTAs in my Introductory Psychology class often used this opportunity to prepare themselves for the GRE Psychology Subject Test. They reported that this strategy was effective because the GRE covers the same topics covered in the class (biological psychology, cognition, social psychology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and psychological measurement and research methodology) and contains the same types of multiple-choice questions about this material that are typically included on introductory psychology tests (i.e., those that measure the ability to recall, analyze, apply, and evaluate information from these domains of psychological knowledge).
- Being a UTA can help you become more aware of what it means to be a truly successful student by putting genuine effort into completing assignments in a thorough and competent manner rather than rushing to get them done at the last minute to simply “get them out of the way.” You may have been able to succeed by using the second of these methods in some of your undergraduate classes, but if you plan to go to graduate school this strategy is a guaranteed recipe for failure.
- If you are thinking about a career in education, being a UTA is the perfect way to determine if becoming a teacher would actually be a good occupational fit for you. The opportunity to discover that you are not a good fit for a profession while you are still in undergraduate school will save you the grief of applying for and accepting a job after you graduate and then coming to the demoralizing conclusion that it is not a good fit for you and that you will have to quit your position and start the job preparation and search processes all over again.
- It is often possible to earn academic credit for serving as a UTA.
- You can sometimes elect to be paid for serving as a UTA, and hourly rates are usually well above minimum wage. Click on the Carnegie-Mellon Teaching Assistantship Application Form to see one university’s hourly rate.
- In some schools, UTAs receive financial assistance with their tuition in exchange for their duties, thus saving them thousands of dollars and decreasing their student loan debt.
- If you are planning to go to graduate school, you should know that the competition for becoming a graduate teaching assistant (GTA)—and receiving the accompanying salary and health benefits—is fierce. Being able to include your UTA experience in your application for a GTA position will certainly give you an advantage in this highly competitive selection process.
- Almost all campuses that utilize UTAs have some sort of award or recognition for high performing UTAs. Being recognized for your “teaching excellence” will be something that you will want to display prominently in your future resume or curriculum vitae and discuss proudly—but in an appropriately modest manner—during your interviews.
- According to a recent study by Educational Testing Service (Burrus, Jackson, Xi, & Steinberg, 2013), “Education and Training” is the third most important type of knowledge required for success in the 536 occupations contained in O*NET that require at least a vocational or associates degree. Almost all management positions require the ability to successfully train others to perform complex tasks, which means that a statement in your resume describing your experience—and success—as a UTA will be noticed and valued by many potential employers. This statement will be even more impressive if you can provide data to prove the positive effect this skill had on your students (e.g., “The average final exam score of the students in my section of PSY101 was 7% higher than any of the other 12 sections.”).
- Soft or transferable skills are highly valued by employers for good reason. O*NET calls these “Work Styles” and defines them as “personal characteristics that can affect how well someone performs a job.” In other words, these attributes do not refer to the knowledge you have acquired (e.g., the difference between positive and negative reinforcement) or the discipline-specific skills you have developed (e.g., the ability to use a computer software package to perform an analysis of variance); they refer to the type of person you are (e.g., dependable, honest, and cooperative). Potential employers certainly want to hire employees who possess the discipline-specific knowledge and skills that a particular job requires, but they are also keenly aware of the crucial importance of their employees’ soft skills. They know from experience that highly knowledgeable and skillful applicants will be of no value to their organization if, once they are hired, they act in an undependable, dishonest, and/or uncooperative manner. The following are O*NET’s top ten Work Styles, each of which is preceded by the percentage of the 536 occupations contained in 0*NET that require at least a vocational or associate’s degree in which this work style was rated as either very important or extremely important by professional job analysts and those employed in those occupations (Burrus, Jackson, Xi, & Steinberg, 2013). You will need to exhibit all of these attributes to be a successful UTA.
- 97% Dependability: Being reliable, responsible, and dependable, and fulfilling obligations.
- 95% Attention to detail: Being careful about detail and thorough in completing work tasks.
- 88% Integrity: Being honest and ethical
- 77% Initiative: Being willing to take on responsibilities and challenges.
- 76% Cooperation: Being pleasant with others on the job and displaying a good-natured, cooperative attitude.
- 62% Self-Control: Maintaining composure, keeping emotions in check, controlling anger, and avoiding aggressive behavior, even in very difficult situations.
- 60% Stress Tolerance: Accepting criticism and dealing calmly and effectively with high stress situations.
- 60% Adaptability/Flexibility: Being open to change (positive or negative) and to considerable variety in the workplace.
- 59% Analytical Thinking: Analyzing information and using logic to address work-related issues and problems.
- 59% Persistence: Being persistence in the face of obstacles.
You can market these skills directly by stressing them in your cover letters, resumes, and interviews. Another particularly effective way of communicating them to potential employers is to have someone else say them about you. If you have served as a UTA, the perfect person to do this will be your supervising teacher. Click here if you would like to read a letter of recommendation I wrote for one of my UTAs in which I stressed her possession of these transferable skills.
Personal and Social Benefits
- You now know that serving as a UTA can produce several types of extrinsically rewarding consequences such as financial gain and higher grades. In addition, being a UTA produces outcomes that are more personally or socially rewarding. Many of my UTAs reported they experienced an increasing sense of academic confidence and a stronger feeling of community and belongingness in the department as they developed networking and leadership skills that produced successful professional relationships with both faculty and their peers.
Question #5: What are the challenges of being a UTA?
- Being a UTA can produce many positive benefits, but it can also prove to be a challenge in several ways.
- Being a UTA is hard work, some of which may not strike you as being much fun. For example:
- Taking attendance, recording grades, and keeping student records can be tedious.
- Grading papers requires long hours; a keen awareness of required format (e.g., APA style); concentrated attention to detail; and feedback that is detailed, honest, and encouraging.
- Leading effective study, discussion, recitation, review, or lab sessions takes careful and thorough preparation and well developed interpersonal and communication skills.
- Maintaining office hours that few students utilize can be annoying.
- Most students will genuinely appreciate your efforts to help them perform better, but some will not. In fact, some students are highly resistant to the type of help that UTAs provide, which can be very frustrating and genuinely disappointing.
- UTAs are expected to treat all student grades and the content of all tests and student assignments as confidential. If your instructor does not explain this to you, ask for an explanation. A breach of confidentiality can have very serious consequences for UTAs, including dismissal.
- UTAs must show no favoritism by treating all their students in an equal, equitable, and impartial manner. All UTAs have some students who they like more than others, and some UTAs may even have a student who is their favorite or perhaps their least favorite. The challenge is to keep these thoughts and feelings “to yourself” and not allow your students to infer them from your behaviors.
- Acting as a UTA can sometimes produce strong temptations to behave in unwise and/or unethical manners that can produce extremely negative consequences. The following story, which illustrates this situation very clearly, was told to me by one of my male UTAs with a very distinctive national and cultural background who encouraged a female student with a similar background to be a member of the group of students he mentored. He said he did his best to provide her with advice about how to write her first assignment in the class in a successful manner. However, she said she needed more than just his advice, and asked him to send her an electronic copy of his first assignment so she could learn from it and then produce her own assignment of equally high quality. He was initially hesitant to comply with her request, but relented after she criticized him for being unwilling to help “one of his own kind.” Unbeknownst to him, she simply replaced his name with hers at the top of the assignment and submitted it to me as her own. My UTA had a unique writing style and, as I read her assignment, I detected the same style and became suspicious. When I told my UTA about my suspicion, he immediately admitted what he had done and expressed true remorse for his actions. Needless to say, his student was furious with him when I confronted her about her plagiarized assignment. Although I did my best to turn this situation into a “teachable moment” for both of them, the damage to their UTA/student relationship was complete.
- Being a UTA is hard work, some of which may not strike you as being much fun. For example:
Question #6: How could I become a UTA?
- You may be required to submit a formal application to become a UTA. Click on application to retrieve the information provided by the Carnegie Mellon Psychology Department to familiarize yourself with an example of this process.
- At other schools, there is no formalized process by which instructors select UTAs. The decision regarding whether or not to have a UTA is at the sole discretion of the instructor. At these schools, students should either wait to be invited to be a UTA by an instructor or approach an instructor directly and inquire about the possibility of serving as a UTA.
Conclusion and Advice
If you are still reading this article, there is a very good chance that you are interested in becoming a UTA. I want to encourage this interest because I truly believe that being a UTA is one of the most valuable and satisfying experiences you can have during your undergraduate career. If you are a psychology major, I am certain that one of the most important reasons why you chose your major is because you possess a genuine desire to “help others.” The double advantage of being a UTA is that helping others will also provide you with abundant opportunities to help yourself in many important educational, financial, professional, personal, and social ways. Your psychology classes taught you about psychology. Being a UTA will enable you to put this knowledge to work (i.e., to actually do psychology). I hope you will carefully weigh the advantages and challenges of being a UTA I have provided in this article, and then use the results of your self-evaluation to come to a well-informed decision about whether or not to serve as a UTA. This highly personalized decisional process can lead you to what I believe will be one of the wisest choices you can make during your entire undergraduate career.
Appleby, D. C. (2018). Preparing psychology majors to enter the workforce: Then, now, with whom, and how [Special Section – Career Issues and the Psychology Major]. Teaching of Psychology, 45(1), 14–23. doi:10.1177/0098628317744944
Burrus, J., Jackson, T., Xi, N., & Steinberg, J. (2013, November). Identifying the most important 21st century workforce competencies: An analysis of the Occupational Information Network (O*NET). Research Report: Educational Testing Service: RR–13-21. Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-13-21.pdf
McKeachie, W. M., & Svinicki, M. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (12th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Suggested Readings on the UTA Experience