TA Handbook

This handbook was compiled by the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) to help you as a Teaching Assistant (TA) prepare for and carry out your teaching role successfully at Waterloo. Each dropdown section of the handbook will point you to essential strategies and resources for university teaching through Teaching Tips and other materials from CTE.

We hope that first-time TAs will find this handbook helpful for preparing for their immediate teaching duties and answering many of the questions that arise when teaching for the first time. Experienced TAs can use this handbook to learn new ideas and different teaching approaches to enhance their teaching.

Click on the links below to learn more, and be sure to check out CTE's programs and resources for graduate students as you continue to develop as an instructor. Through resources like these and others, we hope you'll find fresh ideas, motivation, and support as you discover the challenges and joys of teaching.

Two female-presenting speakers in front of a small class of adult learners

Introduction from Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs

Jeffrey Casello, Ph.D. Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs

The role of the Teaching Assistant is incredibly important in delivering the academic mission of the University. Students who serve as TAs often have the same level of mastery over course content as the instructor, but can communicate materials in ways that are more in line with current students’ thought processes. Our undergraduate students rely on their TAs to achieve their academic goals, and to generate a community of learners.

For our graduate students, serving as a Teaching Assistant allows for the development of many important skills—critical thinking, communications, and confidence—that have tremendous value in both academic and professional settings.

The material contained in this handbook is intended to complement what is available to students elsewhere—through departments and other sources. The goal of these resources is to provide students and instructors with guidance on how to maximize the learning experience for all who work collectively to deliver academics at the University of Waterloo.

Thank you to those of you who are reading and using this handbook, both to teaching assistants and to faculty and staff colleagues. Thank you for the care and pride you are taking in doing your best to enhance excellence in teaching at the University of Waterloo.

Jeffrey Casello, Ph.D.
Associate Vice-President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs

1. University-Wide Information for TAs

Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs (GSPA) provides information on how TA positions are structured and funded. On the GSPA website, you can find information on:

In addition, Policy 30 - Employment of Graduate Teaching Assistants provides further details on the delegation of TA positions. 

1.1 Employment Accommodations for TAs

The University of Waterloo is committed to making every reasonable effort to assist all employees with disabilities if and when they require accommodation in the workplace. This includes active students who may be employed by the University during their studies, including teaching or research assistantships, sessional instruction, post-doctoral fellowships, and other employment arrangements. Employment accommodations are managed by the Occupational Health department. If you require an accommodation for your work, please contact Occupational Health. Further information is available through the Accommodation Guidelines for University of Waterloo Employees.

2. Preparing to be a TA

2.1 TA Checklist: Questions to Ask

Whether you are a new TA or an experienced TA working with a new course or course instructor, you need to know exactly what your responsibilities may be. The TA Checklist: Questions to Ask provides you with a list of questions to help you clarify your role and develop effective communication with the course instructor. Further, if you are a TA in an online course, you may find the Online Facilitator Checklist from the Centre for Extended Learning useful. We recommend taking the questionnaire to your first meeting with the course instructor to gather information about the course and your role as a TA.

2.2 Tracking TA Hours

It is a good practice to keep track of your TA hours for each course you are a TA for, to help you manage your time. This should include prep time such as learning a new LEARN tool or lab equipment, reviewing course content or responding to student emails. Keep a written log of your weekly TA hours, which you can share with the instructor during your check-in meetings (if these meetings aren't scheduled, propose to have them). If you find that you are consistently working over 10 hours/week, bring it to the attention of the course instructor so that the instructor can review your workload and come up with a plan for reducing your workload. This is especially important in online courses, where increased workload may be an issue for TAs. A simple log, listing the activities and hours spent, can suffice, and is a good habit to build. For example, you could use this sample TA time allocation form, housed on the Graduate Student Association website.

2.3 Relevant Policies for TAs

As a TA, it is your responsibility to follow university policies and procedures related to teaching, which are listed on the Secretariat’s website. Some of the policies you will want to be aware of prior to the start of your TA appointment include:

2.4 Being an International TA in a Canadian Classroom

There are many challenges to being a teaching assistant. It can be a steep learning curve for anyone, especially if you are an international student who has the added challenge of learning the nuances of a culture that may be very different from your own. If you are an international teaching assistant (ITA), learn more about being an international TA in a Canadian classroom, to help you make the transition to a Canadian university classroom smoother and avoid common misunderstandings.

2.5 Managing Nervousness

Even seasoned presenters, performers, and politicians experience fear in some form when they’re in front of a crowd. The difference between experienced and novice presenters is that those with experience have learned how to channel fear into productive energy. The goal is to learn how to control fear, not eliminate it. The Teaching Tip on Controlling Nervousness has tips to understand and control this reaction.

3. Being a TA in Online Courses

Many of the principles of effective teaching in a traditional university classroom also apply to online teaching. One of the obvious differences between online and traditional teaching is the lack of a physical classroom. At the University of Waterloo, a virtual classroom site is created for all online courses (most are situated in our learning management system, LEARN). Students may work with the course content, communicate with each other and the instructor, submit assignments and take quizzes all through this online space.

Being a TA for an online course may be challenging at first because you may never meet students face to face. Communication is often asynchronous and text-based. Rest assured that these challenges can be addressed. It is important to know what your role is as an online TA and to follow the recommendations and best practices of Being a TA in Online Courses and Communicating with Students. Additionally, you may need to know how to facilitate Effective Online TutorialsHold Virtual Office Hours, or Facilitate Online Discussions.

For a more advanced resource on teaching online, see the Centre for Extended Learning’s resource, Fostering Engagement: Facilitating Online Courses in Higher Education (you may find the Online Facilitator Checklist particularly valuable).

4. Teaching Strategies

4.1 Classroom Environment

The first day of class can set the tone for the rest of the term. Learn some tips on how to Set a Positive Classroom Atmosphere from the first day of class.

4.2 Leading Effective Tutorials

For many graduate students, teaching tutorials is often their first — and in some instances, only — chance to apply and develop their teaching skills. Tutorials will run differently depending on your discipline, with the most common tutorial types based on discussion, problem-solving, question and answer, and review. Running tutorials can provide challenges for both TAs and faculty members. There are several Key Strategies for Effective Tutorials you can implement to make them productive learning events.

4.3 Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Many instructors in Engineering, Math and Science have students solve “problems.” But are their students solving true problems or mere exercises? The former stresses critical thinking and decision­-making skills whereas the latter requires only the application of previously learned procedures. True problem solving is the process of applying a method—not known in advance—to a problem that is subject to a specific set of conditions and that the problem solver has not seen before, in order to obtain a satisfactory solution. Learn more about the basic principles of Teaching Problem-Solving Skills to implement in your classroom teaching.

4.4 Question Strategies

Effective question strategies capture students' attention, foster student involvement, and facilitate a positive, active learning environment. You can use various Question Strategies to motivate students to answer questions asked during class in ways that promote learning. 

4.5 Teaching with Technology

In addition to the tools that are found in LEARN (Waterloo’s learning management system), there are many other technologies that you might find pedagogically useful, such as ClickersePortfolios, Presentation Tools, Concept Mapping ToolsScreencasting Tools, Crowd-Sourcing Tools, Online Collaboration Tools, and Outliners. Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) has developed best practices for all of these Educational Technologies.

4.6 Holding Office Hours

Both faculty members and TAs can accomplish some of their most rewarding teaching in the office. General tips for Holding Office Hours will help you plan the best way to manage and encourage students to use office hours effectively.

4.7 Alternatives to Lecturing

There are many short Alternatives to Lecturing that can be integrated into a lecture-based course to encourage the students to engage with the subject material, to facilitate interaction among the students and between the students and the professor, and to revitalize the course by providing a change of pace.

5. Grading and Feedback

5.1 Grading Strategies

Whether you’re grading assignments, essays, lab reports, or exams, there are some general strategies for Fast and Equitable Grading that can help you save time and ensure that you’re being fair.

5.2 Giving and Receiving Feedback

We are continually giving and receiving feedback. Whether explicit through oral or written language, or implicit in gestures or tone of voice, feedback conveys information about behaviours and offers an evaluation of the quality of those behaviours. While it is easy to take feedback personally, strive to perceive it as a learning opportunity. Receiving and Giving Effective Feedback can reinforce existing strengths, keep goal-directed behaviour on course, clarify the effects of behaviour, and increase recipients’ abilities to detect and remedy errors on their own. 

5.3 Encouraging Academic Integrity

There are many reasons cited by students when they are asked why they cheated, plagiarized, or collaborated dishonestly. As a TA, you are in a position to influence and Encourage Academic Integrity and positive behaviour from our students. The online environment poses special challenges to instructional designers and instructors, but some of these challenges can be overcome through thoughtful instructional design.

6. Inclusive and Accessible Teaching

Our courses include students with diverse backgrounds, unique lived experiences and varying abilities; these factors affect how they learn. Effective teaching involves considering students in the design and implementation of instruction. Inclusive instructional practices aim to remove unnecessary barriers and improve access for as many learners as possible. But inclusive instruction is more than the just the elimination of individual and systemic barriers. It means designing for variability so that all students can contribute to, and fully engage in, their learning. Consider how you can create an inclusive learning environment for your students by exploring Why Inclusive Instruction is Important and Instructional Strategies for Universal Design.

6.1 Removing Barriers: Accessibility in Teaching and Accommodation

The University of Waterloo is committed to achieving barrier-free accessibility for persons with disabilities studying, visiting, and working at Waterloo. Most people strive to be gracious and sensitive when accommodating another person's needs. Sometimes, though, accommodation needs can be met with miscommunication, awkwardness, or marginalization. Accordingly, it's important to reflect on ways to Remove Barriers for Accessibility and Accommodation, so that everyone — no matter what their needed accommodation is — feels welcome, included, and respected. The Accessibility in Teaching resource is devoted to connecting Waterloo instructors and TAs with practical resources for implementing accessible practices in teaching.

7. Evaluating and Improving Your Teaching

Feedback is critical to teaching assistants as it provides them with information on what is working in their teaching and what can be improved. This feedback typically comes from two sources: students and faculty members who work with TAs. Keep in mind that not all departments at Waterloo have formal TA evaluations which might make it difficult for you to receive feedback on your teaching. However, even if your department does not conduct TA evaluations, you can still use midterm feedback to collect feedback on your teaching in order to become more aware of your teaching strengths and areas for improvement.

7.1 Tools for Reflecting on Your Teaching

Reflecting on your teaching is a great way to identify what's working well in your teaching approach and what areas of your teaching could be improved. There are several Tools for Reflecting on Your Teaching you can use to gather input from your students and colleagues, and self-reflect.

7.2 Using Midterm Feedback

TAs who are interested in becoming more self-aware as teachers may choose to request informal student feedback during the course, by Collecting and Using Midterm Student Feedback. It is useful to gather this type of feedback from students even if your department administers formal end-of-term student or professor evaluations of TA performance.

8. Professional Development for TAs

Research shows that teaching development can have positive impacts on graduate students as researchers as well as increasing knowledge and confidence around their teaching.

Some departments on our campus offer training sessions for new TAs at the beginning of the term, usually in the fall. In addition to the faculty-wide or departmental teaching supports that might be available to you, the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) offers various programs to assist in your development as a teacher. Every term CTE provides workshops, practice teaching sessions followed by peer feedback (known as microteaching), teaching observations and other sessions that help prepare graduate students for their teaching roles.

8.1 Teaching Development Certificate Programs

Graduate students can participate in some CTE workshops or choose to enroll in one of the teaching certificate programs such as:

Graduate students who have taken full advantage of these opportunities have subsequently reported that they had more confidence in their role as TAs and instructors and felt better prepared for university teaching. More information about teaching development programs available to graduate students through CTE is available on the CTE website.

8.2 Online Teaching Development

CTE offers both in-person and online workshops as part of the the Fundamentals of University Teaching and Certificate in University Teaching programs will be offered online. In addition, the Centre for Extended Learning (CEL) has online resources for TA-ing online courses:

Instructors participating in the Certificate of University Teaching program, designing courses

9. Mental Wellbeing

9.1 Self Care

Graduate students are at high risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns1. To help you take care of your mental wellbeing, use the recommendations from GSPA's Graduate Student Wellness resource. Whenever you need support, make use of the campus and community support services listed in this section of the TA Handbook.

9.2 How to Support a Student (from Campus Wellness)

University can be a stressful time for students. In addition to managing a heavy course load, many of our undergraduate students are adjusting to living independently and feel pressured to achieve high grades. Further, one in five Canadians are affected by mental illness or addiction annually2. As a TA, you are often the first line of communication for students (e.g., speaking face-to-face during office hours) and are also in a position to notice signs of a student struggling or in distress (e.g., students not submitting assignments). As a TA, you can provide information to assist a student in accessing help, though you should not take on the role of a counsellor and/or try to diagnose the student. Campus Wellness recommends following three steps when responding to students in need of support:

  1. Recognize the indicators of mental illness.
  2. Respond to the student in a way that is appropriate to the situation at hand and the existing relationship you have with the student.
  3. Refer the student to the appropriate resources so that he/she/they can access the services available.

Talking about mental health with students can be difficult and emotionally draining.

  • Reach out to a mentor (e.g., your supervisor, the instructor you’re TA-ing for, or your colleagues) to talk about the conversation (maintaining confidentiality unless it’s an issue where personal information needs to be shared).
  • Seek support services if you need them; consider it as a debrief about your talk with the student (health professionals have them all the time).

Find out more resources and tips on How to Support a Student, from Campus Wellness.

9.3 Supporting Students’ Mental Wellbeing: Instructional Strategies

As instructors and teaching assistants you often have direct communication with students and, therefore, you have the potential to help students feel connected and supported in their learning environment. You may also be in a position to notice signs that a student is struggling or is in distress (e.g., not submitting assignments). Learn how you can implement Instructional Strategies for Supporting Student Wellbeing.

9.4 University of Waterloo and Community Support Services

For more information regarding available mental health supports, see the following resources from Campus Wellness:

10. Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence While Being a TA

As a TA, you are often the first point of contact for students in a course; and so, you might also be in a position where students disclose information to you as it impacts their studies, such as incidents or experiences of sexual violence.

As a TA and member of the University community, you can provide a supportive response, and assist students in accessing further resources. Additionally, as a University of Waterloo employee, it is important for you to be aware of your responsibilities regarding confidentiality, and where limits to your confidentiality exist.

10.1 UW's Definition of Sexual Violence

The definition of Sexual Violence can be found in Policy 42: Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence:

“Sexual Violence means any sexual act or act targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature, that is committed, threatened, or attempted against a person without the person’s consent, and includes sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, indecent exposure, voyeurism and sexual exploitation.” 

Students on university and college campuses often describe sexual violence as looking like (but not limited to): unnecessary physical contact (unwanted hugs, brushing up against someone, and so forth); derogatory language, jokes and comments; continually requesting, or pleading for attention or sex.

10.2 Responding Supportively

Supportive responses to anyone impacted by sexual violence involve these key skills:

  • Ensuring safety,
    • If you have concerns for immediate safety, connect with crisis supports listed under #1 in the Limits to Confidentiality section below.   
  • Listening actively, 
  • Being non-judgmental about the survivor’s decisions and reactions,
  • Assuring survivors that their experience of sexual violence is not their fault,   
  • Notifying students that they can request academic accommodations, and 
    • Students can seek assistance with accommodations via SVPRO
  • Referring to the Sexual Violence Prevention & Response Office (SVPRO).

Learn more best practices for responding on SVPRO's Responding to Disclosures webpage.

Receiving a disclosure of sexual violence can be difficult! If you need support after, consider connecting with SVPRO, the sexual violence supports listed on their website, or any of the resources listed in 9.4 of this TA Handbook.

10.3 Understanding Confidentiality of Disclosures 

As a TA, you must maintain the confidentiality of the individual disclosing to you, as well as all information they shared with you.

The only times you should share information disclosed, without the individual's consent, are in the following instances: 

  1. An individual discloses immediate risk of suicide or that an identified individual is at risk of immediate harm; If this is happening, contact the relevant crisis services
  2. When someone under the age of 16 is experiencing abuse; If this is happening, consult with SVPRO on how to inform local child protective services.
  3. When campus safety may be compromised; If you have concerns about campus safety, consult with SVPRO on next steps.

In instances where none of the limits to your confidentiality (above) have been breached, it is still recommended that you consult with SVPRO about the disclosure:

  • You do not need to share any identifying information.
  • Consulting with SVPRO enables you to receive support, to debrief and to ensure all necessary support has been provided.  

In some instances, you may also feel the need to share information with the course instructor. For example, the student may be requesting academic accommodations which only the professor can approve/provide. In this instance, it will be helpful for you to seek the student’s consent about what information they are comfortable you share with the professor.

If the student has not consented to you sharing information with the professor, and none of your limits to confidentiality (above) require you to do so, then remember to maintain the confidentiality of the individual as much as possible. For example, you can tell the professor that you received a disclosure of sexual violence from a student, that you provided them with X resources, and that the student is requesting X accommodation.

10.4 Training & Education      

In-depth training on how to respond is available to you:   

11. University Offices That Support TAs

11.1 AccessAbility Services

  • AccessAbility Services (AAS) is the University’s centralized office for the management of student academic accommodations.

  • AAS designs and facilitates academic accommodation plans for full-time and part-time undergraduate and graduate students with permanent, temporary, or suspected disabilities or medical conditions (including mental health disabilities and trauma).

  • Contact AccessAbility Services if you require academic accommodations; if you have questions about the academic accommodations of a student in your class; or if you have questions on how to better support a specific student with a disability within the class.

  • The Student Academic Accommodation Guidelines outline the roles and responsibilities of all parties in the academic accommodation process, and provides procedural guidance for retroactive accommodations and the dispute resolution process. The appendices provide helpful guidance for referring a student to AccessAbility Services, protecting private health information, and more.

11.2 Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE)

11.3 Conflict Management and Human Rights

  • Conflict Management and Human Rights is part of the Office of Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion. They are the central resource to all students, staff and faculty regarding matters of harassment, discrimination, and other general forms of conflict.
  • In particular, the Guidelines for TAs provides guidance in how to respond to an initial complaint related to harassment and discrimination.

11.4 Counselling Services

  • Counselling Services provides programming and services related to mental health and wellbeing, including workshops, individual and group appointments. Their services are available to all students; if you are looking for support for yourself or one of your students, reach out.

11.5 English Language Studies

  • English Language Studies at Renison University College offers English for Multilingual Speakers (EMLS) credit courses for graduate students whose dominant language is not English and who want to improve their English language skills. No additional tuition fees are required for these courses.

11.6 Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Anti-racism

11.7 Office of Academic Integrity

  • The Office of Academic Integrity provides resources to help you understand how academic integrity applies to your TA role, create a culture of integrity in your classroom, and connect students with support resources across campus.
  • In particular, the Academic Integrity for TAs webpage is a helpful resource.

11.8 Occupational Health

11.9 The Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office  

  • The Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO) supports anyone within our campus community who has experienced or been impacted by sexual violence at any point in their lives (this includes, but is not limited to: survivors, victims, friends, bystanders, those who have received disclosures, and so on). SVPRO can meet to speak confidentially about what happened (where someone can share as much or as little as they prefer); and then provide information on supports and resources; help facilitate accommodations; explore reporting options available within the University and off campus; and discuss safety planning.
  • The SVPRO also provides support and information to those who have received a disclosure or to those supporting someone impacted by sexual violence - helping them to know best practices for listening and responding, and what are their roles and responsibilities. Those consulting do not need to share any identifying information about the person who experienced harm. Consulting with SVPRO enables responders to receive support, to debrief and to ensure all necessary support has been provided to the person directly impacted.  
  • Important FYIs: Contacting SVPRO will not initiate an investigation. SVPRO is not a crisis service.
  • SVPRO also hosts initiatives, events, and educational opportunities throughout the year. Find out more on their website.

11.10 Student Success Office

11.11 Waterloo LEARN Help

  • Waterloo LEARN Help provides guidance for using our learning management system, Waterloo LEARN. If you can't find the answer you need in their support resources, you can contact learnhelp@uwaterloo.ca to gain technical support with your LEARN issue.

11.12 Writing and Communication Centre

  • The Writing and Communication Centre provides a variety of programming and resources for students related to writing and communication. Familiarize yourself with the resources available so you can suggest relevant resources to help your students succeed. 

12. Faculty/Departmental TA Manuals and Training

Several departments on our campus developed TA manuals or handbooks tailored to the teaching context of the department and specific roles of their TAs. Below is a list of available TA manuals/handbooks at Waterloo:                                         

Ask your department's Graduate Program Coordinator to see if there is a TA manual/handbook for your department. If your department has an online TA manual/handbook which is not listed here, please email Dr. Svitlana Taraban-Gordon, and we will include it here.

13. TA Awards at Waterloo