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Talk About Teaching and Learning

The Messages We Send

Sarah Manekin

As a TA, I am very aware of the need for communication among all the participants in a course. Professors need to develop a clear plan, TAs need to know their responsibilities in achieving the course goals and students need to know where they can receive accurate information and useful help. The following two stories illustrate the need for clear communication:

1. A few days after I handed back my undergraduates’ research papers, I faced the inevitable string of emails and office visits from disgruntled students. Although the specifics of their cases varied, there was a common theme: “I did everything the professor told us to do, and you only gave me a ____.”  Undoubtedly, some of their frustration reflected the disappointment of high-achievers not making the grade. But what struck me about this set of complaints was the nature of the finger pointing. As they understood it, the professor told them one thing and I told them something else. We gave them mixed messages. And by listening to one of us and not the other, they were being penalized. Moreover, by saying that they did precisely what the professor said to do, they were implying that I was the outsider who didn’t understand the assignment. Maybe I didn’t.

2. On Saturday morning, I received the professor’s weekly memo, containing detailed outlines of the week’s two lectures and suggestions for our recitations. This week he would lecture on the causes and course of World War I and would stress the importance of nationalism, a theme he’d been developing for weeks. I chose to anchor my recitations that week on two poems that presented different views of nationalism during the War and asked a few of my fellow History grad students for suggestions about what they might cover. On Friday, I brought the poems to class and the students responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to apply ideas from a lecture to analyzing a primary document. We had one of the most intellectually rigorous discussions I’ve ever been a part of. A few weeks later, when students took their final exam, one of the essay questions asked them about the changing role of nationalism, and many of the students used the poems as evidence.

While these two stories are a little extreme, they are useful in illustrating the complexity of communication among professors, teaching assistants, and undergraduates. In this sort of triangular relationship, it is difficult to know where  everyone stands. We all see different things; we say different things; and we hear different things. Yet there are ways in which those differences can be brought together in complementary ways. By improving our communication with each other, we send clearer messages and enhance our students’ learning.

Who says what to undergraduates?

In large lecture classes, professors communicate with students through their syllabi, their lectures, and their assignments. The few students who attend professors’ office hours are usually in the minority. Most of the messages sent by professors deal with large themes and general course issues: due dates, paper topics, exams. Either implicitly or explicitly, professors give students the big picture and tell them what is valued in the course.

Teaching assistants communicate with students in more personal ways. They do not create the message, but they usually help shape students understanding of it, either in weekly recitations, over email or in office hours. They are often the first to know when students are struggling; they assess students through weekly discussions, papers, and exams, and they are responsible for providing instructive feedback.

Open lines of communication as soon as possible

Given these very different roles, it is imperative that professors and teaching assistants meet early in the semester (before, if at all possible) to discuss the goals and structure of the course. Scheduling changes and enrollment fluctuations require a certain degree of flexibility here, but the sooner that these conversations happen, the better.

At these opening meetings, professors should share with their TAs why they’re doing what they’re doing. They should explain the goals for the course, why they have structured it as they have, and why they chose each reading assignment. Teaching assistants who know the professor’s rationale for teaching certain things a certain way are in a much better position to help students navigate the material. For example, a teaching assistant who knows why the professor assigned three books on Woodrow Wilson or why she chose a collection of letters to teach about the New Deal can help students make sharper connections between those assignments and the course’s larger themes.

Teaching assistants should also be upfront with the professors about their own questions. If TAs do not feel confident in their knowledge of a certain topic, they should ask for advice on background reading. If they are unsure about the professor’s expectations for student feedback and assessment, they should seek clarification. How often will grades be given? How should late work, absences, and incompletes be handled?  What is the TA expected to do if a student wants to appeal a grade?  Professors can ease this process by anticipating those kinds of questions, but teaching assistants should feel comfortable enough to ask.

Develop a communication strategy for the entire semester

There are a number of different ways professors and TAs can communicate during the semester, and a lot will depend on personal style. When planning a strategy, instructors and TAs should keep in mind the following:

• Regularity. Setting a standard weekly meeting is the most obvious way to ensure that everyone is on the same page, particularly when a professor is working with a number of TAs in a multi-section course. If face-to-face meetings are impossible, professors can do their TAs a great service by sending weekly, highly detailed emails covering the upcoming lectures and alerting TAs to the questions students might raise in section. The key point here is that frequent communication between professors and TAs is imperative.

• Comprehensiveness. Professor-TA meetings are most effective when everyone has done the reading, everyone has thought about possible student concerns, and everyone has given some thought to what is happening in lectures and in section. In addition to seeing these meetings as foreshadowing of coming attractions in lecture, TAs should use this time to update the professors on what is happening in sections, including how students are responding to readings, what questions they are raising about lectures, and what topics have grabbed their attention.

• Developing Assignments. Some professors prefer to write their own exams and/or paper assignments, whereas others like to collaborate with their TAs in crafting questions. No matter how the assignments are developed, professors should explain the rationale to their TAs. Is the central goal having students use primary documents? Is it to assess their command of the readings? Is it to see how well they apply particular theories to problem sets? Is it to test their knowledge of particular facts?  If so, which ones?  Why? This kind of information is helpful for TAs developing their own teaching practice and trying to assist students in their sections.

• Assessment. Teaching Assistants are expected to do the vast majority of grading, but professors can provide invaluable assistance by helping establish grading standards and supporting TAs in cases of appeal. Some professors provide TAs with an answer key or a detailed grading rubric to help ease the grading burden, whereas others prefer to meet with their TAs over pizza and grade some exams together. Not only do TAs feel more supported by their professor in these situations, but they can be more confident that their messages to undergraduates reflect the messages the professor wants sent.


The professor-TA-undergraduate triangle leads to very complicated communication dynamics. But it also creates rich and rewarding learning opportunities for everyone involved. Opening lines of communication early and developing strategies for the rest of the semester help ensure that the messages we send our undergraduates are the messages we want them to hear. 

Sarah Manekin is a Ph.D. candidate in History.

Her essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 7, October 11, 2005


October 11, 2005
Volume 52 Number 7


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