Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

You’ve got a lot of questions from a confusing lecture. You go to discussion or a teaching assistant’s office hours, but it’s of no use — the teacher assistant isn’t engaging and can’t explain concepts clearly. Tell me if this sounds familiar. 

It’s far too common to come across TAs that don’t deliver for their students. This isn’t just the TA’s fault. University of Maryland academic departments throw them into discussion sections blind, with minimal preparation. We live in a modern, data-driven age. It’s time department administrators use all available resources, including data, to provide more support for TAs and in turn hold them to higher teaching standards. 

This must start with more initial preparation. For example, computer science TAs only need to take a short ELMS training course. These haphazard courses are responsible for conveying everything from commanding a classroom to departmental policies. This isn’t enough for many TAs, especially new ones, to hone their teaching styles. 

Becoming a better teacher shouldn’t be entirely self-directed. TAs write dissertations, do research, work part time and support families. Many departments’ current hands-off approach to developing TAs ensures that TAs don’t improve their teaching, from either a lack of time or resources. This fosters an inferior educational experience for students. 

Teaching is a cultivated art, and efforts to do so should stem from the departments themselves. Departments are filled with deeply experienced educators, and leveraging their expertise would benefit TAs. Departments should encourage TAs to learn by example, connecting them with faculty that have excellent teaching reviews. By observing their classes or talking to these experienced instructors directly, TAs can gain a greater understanding of what teaching techniques work effectively. 

Pop-in departmental observers could also provide another perspective on TA performance. Surveys collected from students, the typical measure of performance, may be littered with individual biases, but evaluators can use their own teaching experiences to provide guidance. 

This approach allows departments to spot struggling TAs and give them personalized support in real-time. Faculty may spot a TA struggling in a discussion section and be able to immediately give them advice. TAs can build on that feedback with specific and individualized strategies. Departments can also tailor supplementary support by embracing a data-driven approach to student teaching, using class feedback to track performance and create improvement plans specific to each person.

End-of-semester evaluation surveys already exist and are pretty standard across departments, but they don’t give TAs the opportunity to integrate the feedback into their classrooms. By the time a problem is identified, the class is already onto final exams. 

Departments can enhance survey feedback by adding an additional evaluation period after the third week of instruction. This is late enough for students to have a gauge on their TAs, but early enough for TAs to still have plenty of time to course-correct. 

These surveys should ask students what they specifically like and dislike about their TA’s performance across lecturing, one-on-one teaching, question answering and grading. Then, at the end of the semester, the existing surveys can be used to determine both TA performance and the effectiveness of any improvement plans. 

But surveys have their limitations. Students may not respond to them, or may not give objective feedback. They’re usually due before finals, when priorities are often on impending exams. 

Departments can use graded work as an additional way to evaluate TAs. Comparing quiz grades of discussions led by different TAs could help them compare the results of different teaching strategies. They may come to find giving collaborative worksheets works better than doing practice problems on the board. 

Regardless of what metrics are used, departments are responsible for the quality of their TAs — they must ensure underperformers have the tools they need to improve.

Those tools could take many forms. TAs with poor teaching evaluations could be required to take an in-depth teaching seminar provided by the department or attend university-wide instructional training provided by the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center.

We live in a world of data. It’s time to leverage the power data gives us to improve the student experience. Professors don’t always have time to connect with every student in their class, but through robust mentorship and the right resources, TAs can bridge the gap. Through effective lecturing and tutoring, TAs can provide the support professors can’t, giving students a richer learning experience. 

Every discussion section and office hour should be a productive, insightful experience. That starts with departments making the TA experience the best it can be.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that first-time TAs in the mathematics department must take a 1-credit course that meets once a week. The course provides more intensive training for TAs before the beginning of the semester. This story has been updated.

Ben Dodge is a freshman computer science major. He can be reached at