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TA while in Grad school

  1. Feb 23, 2014 #1
    Anyone doing it?

    This is my first semester as a lab instructor. I do physics lab and astronomy labs.

    I enjoy it, but it can make me sad sometimes when i see students dozing off or doing poorly in their lab write-ups or quizzes!

    Kids get really creative in their answers too!

    Any funny stories you guys have of teaching?


  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 23, 2014 #2


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    a lot of them are making up data!:frown:
  4. Feb 23, 2014 #3


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    My best story is on the other side of the fence (as an undergrad). I was taking a lab course in digital electronics and my TA (now a Professor at UC Berkeley) used to mark off a few points because my graphs were not carefully drawn, they were quick sketches of the data.

    My TA didn't have a problem with the lab work or the write up but he didn't like the sloppy graphs. To an analog oriented person like myself, pretty lab writeups seemed like a waste of time. Analog designers are always shooting for "good enough".

    Anyway, throughout the quarter he kept knocking points off my reports. A couple of times he asked me about it and told me it was important to make careful graphs but I was a bit hard-headed back then and I continued to turn in sloppy reports.

    After five or six labs like this I got a lab returned with full marks (for the first time in this class). He circled one of my chicken-scratched graphs and simply wrote. "You are stronger than me".

    I've always loved that story.
  5. Feb 23, 2014 #4
    I recently gave an astro quiz and one of questions asked the students what the "100mm" in a 100mm lens meant.

    I got

    "100mm is the distance from the Earth to the Sun".

    Oh man, that had me crackin up.
  6. Feb 23, 2014 #5


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    One time when I was TA-ing a lab a group of students were getting really ugly waveforms out of a circuit. I noticed that they had not grounded the circuit (the ground connection was floating). I felt like one of those Microsoft help desk people: "Is your computer on, sir?".

    One time we were doing a lab to build a phased-lock loop (a circuit you can use to lock an oscillator onto an external frequency). One of the groups claimed to have done it and when I checked their circuit was not oscillating at 10 MHz as required in the lab. It was oscillating at 90.3 MHz. Or at least that is what the scope said. I asked them "What oscillates at 90.3 MHz?" They didn't answer. Then I said "The campus radio station broadcasts at 90.3 MHz. Look at your breadboard again". It had turned out they had ludicrously long wires connecting their circuit to the power supply and had picked up enough interference from the campus radio station to show up on the scope. Good times.
  7. Feb 23, 2014 #6
    I love the kids where they ask questions (and its good they are asking) and instead of spoon feeding them, I'll tel them that they have the tools in front of them to figure out the answer. I'll even suggest what they can do to figure it out. Do a little science. Do a little math.

    And they just stare at me.


    how dare i ask them to think... haha
  8. Feb 23, 2014 #7


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    I think I know that stare... haha! And these are engineering and physics students!

    The fact is that only a small percentage of any group REALLY want to excel, achieve real understand, and be the best that they can be. These are the ones that end up getting Ph.Ds and being TAs themselves!
  9. Feb 23, 2014 #8
    True, theres only probably 10% of them that care and do well.
    None of mine are engineering students lol. So i can kind of understand its all new to them.
  10. Feb 23, 2014 #9
    Going to have to start doing this starting this fall. I am extremely intimidated. Should be a good learning experience though, as I adhere to the philosophy of "if you can't teach it well, you don't know jack".

    As far as grading goes, I'm also a bit new to this whole curving scheme. Where I'm from, class grades were never curved and things could get pretty harsh (ie: prof failing a whole class), but I have heard even mildly harsh grading could get a TA into problems if enough people complain. Has anyone ever gotten any serious beef as a TA this way? Are you given any restrictions?
  11. Feb 23, 2014 #10
    Omg it'll be the best learning experience ever lol. You learn SO much haha.
    I was terrified to teach, i was jittery and my hands were shaking and you could hear it in my voice. It was scary the first 15 minutes, but after that it was ok. and then all over again when the next class came haha.
    but im used to it now. its fun, and its nice to be on this side of the classroom you know?

    I hate grading, but we don't curve. Well all the lab ta's grades are all normalized. so if one class is lower than the rest (maybe they grade harder), their grades are brought up when the rest of the labs are brought down. Which is unfortunate.
  12. Feb 23, 2014 #11


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    Typically while it is your job to mark the tests as accurately as you can as per the Prof's instructions. It is the sole responsibility of the Prof to then set the curve based on these results. It's not your job. If the students have a problem with the grades, tell them to see the professor.

    I've had students complain that I was unfair in marking them down. Usually when I look at the problem in question I was extremely kind to give them any points at all!

    The worst students are the cheaters. I had a couple that kept turning in homework with the same errors. I kept sending them notes (to or three) to stop. I didn't want to report them because then you get sucked into the gaping maw of bureaucracy and you'll never escape. I finally gave them both zeros on an assignment and they stopped.

    The sad fact about being a TA is that most students don't give a toss if you can explain or teach well. They just want the answers. :(
  13. Feb 23, 2014 #12
    "I've had students complain that I was unfair in marking them down. Usually when I look at the problem in question I was extremely kind to give them any points at all!"

    That's so true. I struggle a lot with grading because I'm looking for ways to help them out, I don't want to be too harsh, but I don't want to be too easy.
  14. Feb 23, 2014 #13

    Meir Achuz

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    Only in America:
    Two enterprising freshmen came to me to boast "We got exactly 32.0 for g.
    I had to reply "We're using MKS."
  15. Feb 23, 2014 #14


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    I thought this said "TA while in high school"

    I was like wow... I am impressed.

    I want to go to grad school and will have to accept whatever TA/RA position I get but my fear of public speaking is ridiculously severe. When I took speech, everyone was nervous starting out but got more comfortable with it each consecutive speech, which is to be expected, except I actually got more and more nervous with each consecutive speech.
  16. Feb 23, 2014 #15
    My classmates and I have heard this so many times from unfair marks from profs haha, but it's a different country and academic culture.

    I have a recent example that might resonate with you, as you're the analog guy. A diode circuit where I was given the characteristic curve for the diodes in it instead of the internal resistance and conduction potential. The question simply asked for the transfer curve and did not state how he wanted it done, so I approximated the curve by 3 linear segments (as per many classwork examples and in the heat of the exam I thought it was the sensible thing to do) and got an answer that agreed with the exact solution (by doing a Thevenin equivalent) by two-three decimal places.

    I got less than half the full mark despite this, because "it wasn't what I was asking for". :mad:
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