Potential challenges common to a
laboratory Teaching Assistantship assignment and some possible
Harmon D. Maher, Jr.
Professor, Dept. of Geography and Geology
University of Nebraska
A lab is a traditional form of active and experiential learning,
which has some traits that set it apart from other forms of education
and give it a distinctive character as a T.A. assignment. The
lab T.A. often works closer with students for longer periods of
time, and often has greater pedagogic responsibility. Safety,
equipment, and other considerations also can distinguish the lab
setting. Accordingly, it can be worthwhile to consider what specific
challenges may arise in this setting, and what may be methods
of dealing with these challenges.
The challenges/solutions listed below are not in any specific
order. They are simply thoughts that derive from workshops with
new T.A.s, from discussions with colleagues and students, and
from my experiences as a lab T.A. and professor. Not all of the
solutions suggested here may be appropriate for individual cases
- you are of course responsible for thinking through which approaches
you will or should take. This document will present possibilities.
I encourage people to send me feedback so that I can improve this
document. Finally, please do not find the number of concerns disheartening
- I have generally found labs an extremely rewarding experience,
but perhaps some of the below can make it even more so.
Statement of concern: While honesty is an issue throughout
academia, labs provide a different context. They are often conducted
in a less controlled environment and involve group work, and there
is more opportunity for students to cheat or to be confused about
what is not acceptable. Copying others work is probably the biggest
concern. Many studies show that cheating is not rare!
- Inform students of cheating policy of University at the beginning
of the course, and since you have some discretion, the specific
policy for the lab. The last should be done in consultation with
your advisor. This requires that you give some prior thought
to the issue. It does not work well to figure it out as your
are being confronted with a case of potential cheating.
- Make it clear to the students what can be worked on jointly,
and what they will be individually responsible for.
- Document any cheating instances carefully, a paper trail
is very important. Experience suggests that there is a good chance
the student will challenge your assertion. These days your word
against the student's may lead to a dismissal of the charges.
Statement of concern: Safety is a primary concern for
some labs, since they deal with hazardous substances or equipment.
An accident is bad news all around. Some students do not have
an innate understanding of what is safe and what isn't, which
puts the brunt of the responsibility on the T.A..
- Go over safety procedures in class the first day.
- Know who to call in an emergency, where the eyewashes are,
the nearest phone, and so on. Make sure the equipment is working
- Do not be tolerant of horse play and impress upon the students
the importance of safety. Perhaps consult with your advisor beforehand
on what to do if a student persists in unsafe behavior.
- Consult with your advisor in writing about any specific concerns.
- If something happens, even if it seems relatively inconsequential,
report it to your advisor or other appropriate people.
Student time management during the lab
Statement of concern: Labs can require completion in
a set amount of time. Some students may still be struggling to
finish well after the scheduled time, and you want to go home
to study for the big test tomorrow. For some labs it is not possible
for the students to finish the lab at some later time (due to
- Run through the lab on your own so you are sure that it can
be done in the time given, and if it is too long consult with
your advisor on appropriate changes.
- Give students a rough timetable of how they should be progressing
through the lab.
- Try to help those who are lagging, without giving them an
unfair advantage or truncating their learning experience.
- Make clear to the students (and yourself) what the consequences
are if they run out of time.
- Try to identify what may be causing some students to lag.
Performance, math and/or science anxiety
Statement of concern: Some students may be interested
and very much want to succeed in the lab, but are greatly hindered
by math or science anxiety, or by 'performance' anxiety. This
is a real barrier for some students, and should be taken seriously.
They may be quite well prepared, but still uneasy about using
their knowledge and skills.
- Take the time to help them achieve initial success. Coupled
with positive feedback this may decrease subsequent anxiety.
- If the lab format allows, pair the student with a student
who has some of the 'teacher' in them, who is enthusiastic and
successful. Sometimes people are less anxious if working with
a peer instead of an authority figure.
- Point out resources that are available (e.g. tutoring, Schaum's
Academically unprepared students
Statement of concern: Labs may be based on the assumption
that all students will have certain knowledge and skills, which
they may not. In Geography and Geology stories of students who
are not familiar with the mathematical concept of slope, nor with
the idea of latitude and longitude, nor with the concept of scale,
and who are not familiar with the Periodic Chart are just some
examples of assumed knowledge. There may be a lack of appropriate
prerequisites for the source, or poor lab design, but in intro
labs it can also be basic science illiteracy.
- If time permits, fill in the missing gaps for the students;
teach them what they need to know. However, considering other
demands this may not be possible, or may not be the best use
of your time.
- Direct the student to appropriate reference material, after
kindly informing them they have some catching up to do in this
particular area. If a persistent problem exists, develop or obtain
supplemental material to help the student catch up.
- Direct the students to the various sources of tutoring or
help such as at the Learning Center. Some departments have tutoring
- Possibly pair the student with another student who has a
bit of the teacher in them and remembers the relevant background.
However, make sure that this won't compromise the second student's
Lack of guidance for the T.A
Statement of concern: I have seen every approach from
rigidly designed labs where the T.A. has little discretion and
is mainly following extensive instructions to the T.A. being given
full responsibility for lab design (from breathing-down-your-neck
to see you at the end of the semester guidance). For an experienced
T.A. being left to one's own devices can be quite a blessing,
but for novices it can be a source of real frustration and abdication
of the advisor's responsibilities.
- Request more guidance. Be as specific as possible with regard
to a request for guidance - with what exactly is it that you
- Read how published lab materials handle the assigned lab.
However, remember your other time commitments.
- Seek guidance elsewhere (other T.A.s or profs) after making
an honest effort to with your advisor. I hope and believe most
of you will find your profs quite ready to help.
Implementing less than optimally conceived
Statement of concern: For many reasons such as imperfect
conception, inappropriate audience, poor translation into a new
context, labs will have flaws. Yet it is your job to effectively
implement these flawed labs.
- Familiarize yourself with the lab before hand so you can
- If important information is missing, provide it to the students
in the form of a mini-lecture, handout, or other reference material
(you likely don't have the time or the background to revise the
- Consult with your advisor about possible changes to the lab
itself. It is important to give feedback to your advisor when
things don't work effectively.
- Consult with other T.A.s to identify possible problems ahead
of time, and ask for their past solutions or ideas.
Antipathy to lab material
Statement of concern: If a lab course is a college requirement,
not all students will be motivated by natural interest. Sometimes
the antipathy has religious or philosophic roots. The negative
comments or behavior of these students can affect other students.
- Take the time necessary to help the student to successfully
complete of lab. Such success may reduce the antipathy.
- Be ready to argue, in a constructive fashion, for the relevance
of the lab. Don't apologize for the lab exercise or the subject
- Acknowledge that the subject matter can be challenging and
foreign to some, but through exploration and experience can be
mastered to varying degrees.
- Just be enthusiastic toward science and the lab.
- Ask yourself which students may truly benefit from your time,
and spend little of it with the whiners.
Student - T. A. relationships
Statement of concern: One good thing about labs is that
the joint experience and effort often allows the students to develop
a sense of disciplinary community, to connect with their academic
peers. T.A.s are often drawn into this. You must remember your
role as teacher, evaluator, and the power/authority structure
involved. How do you handle friendships, romantic or sexual overtures
in such a setting?
- Do not engage in any romantic or sexual relationships with
- If appropriate discuss why such relationships are inappropriate.
That can be part of a student's education.
- Keep a paper trail if a student makes continued romantic
or sexual overtures after being informed that they are inappropriate,
and consult with your advisor, or other appropriate university
- Be aware of the appearance of favoritism. Be professional.
Student frustrations with group efforts
Statement of concern: Due to the expense of materials,
and limited facilities, it is common that students work collaboratively
in labs. This is generally a good practice, for much intellectual
endeavor is a collaborative enterprise. When the work is collaborative
there is potential for a student to carry the group, or a student
to do little and parasitize.
- Discuss with students what their individual responsibilities
to the group are; i.e. educate the individual on how to collaborate.
- Reassignment of individuals to groups may work in some cases,
but remember that reassignment of the student may just move the
problem to another group.
- Allow problem students to work on their own if conditions
- Use peer review within the class to modify individual grades
based on group evaluation of an individual's contribution (literature
available from Dr. Harland on campus).
Students requesting exceptions (late
Statement of concern: Because of the character of students
at this urban institute (work, family and school obligations)
this is more of a problem than at other universities. Labs, where
continued involvement and performance are necessary, run into
schedule and life conflicts more often.
- Have a detailed, written formulation on the lab policy with
respect to late labs and lab absences and make the students aware
of the policy from the first.
- Be consistent in granting of exceptions and be aware of setting
- If possible build some appropriate slack into the lab (e.g.
lowest grade dropped or the like).
- Develop alternate exercises if appropriate, but make sure
you consult thoroughly with your advisor.
Lab T.A. assignments that are too time-consuming
Statement of concern: You are hear to further your education
and training, to gain experience in teaching, and to further the
University's teaching mission. Your assignment is 20 hours a week,
but it is possible that this turns out to be insufficient for
completion of your assigned duties (although this is not common
in my experience). Some averaging may occur; e.g. 25 hours this
week, 10 next, etc..
- Keep a detailed time sheet and document the amount of time
you are spending and how you are spending it.
- Do not wait till the end of the semester to make the problem
- Be prepared to defend how you are spending that time.
- Approach the relevant powers in a constructive fashion, explaining
that you are spending too much time and asking them how you can
reduce it to the prescribed 20 hours or less.
- Make sure you understand the extent of your T.A. duties from
Labs that do not correlate with lecture
material at the time
Statement of concern: Some students will expect a correspondence
between the two as the semester progresses, and will express frustration
if there is not.
- Explain to the students that since lecture and lab are two
different learning modes with somewhat different goals, they
proceed at different paces and it may not be possible to keep
them synchronized. Students can also be made aware that the lab
is designed to be 'self-sufficient' if that is the case.
- Talk to your advisor and try to synchronize the two more
if there is a need to do so (e.g. if lecture material is necessary
for lab completion).
- If the lab assumes they are synchronized and that the student
has obtained relevant information beforehand from lecture, then
provide supplemental material to fill in the missing pieces necessary
for completion of the lab.
Statement of concern: If the equipment fails then the
lab can come to a complete stop. What then? It may also cause
delays when acquiring new functioning equipment. Some students
may not be able to stay late to finish the lab.
- Test out the equipment before lab.
- Know where replacement equipment might be
Grading of subjective material
Statement of concern:
Often T.A.s for intro courses grade only multiple choice or
fill-in-the-blank type student efforts. However, lab reports,
or sketches, or write-ups involve more complex judgments during
grading. Students may demand justification for the grade received.
This can be compounded by the fact the student may be more willing
to challenge a T.A. as an authority figure, than a professor.
- In consultation with your advisor, develop as specific grading
criteria as possible.
- 'Grading sheets' with point attribution for various components
of the lab project may help you be consistent (I've got examples).
Also give feedback to the students as to grading criteria. Students
especially appreciate it if this information is given before
handing in the lab.
- Peer review (grading by classmates) can be used to establish
'consensus'. However, this assumes the students have the necessary
expertise to conduct a review.
- If possible give examples of past top-notch work, so students
can see what is considered A work.
Responding to criticism of the professor
or other T.A.s from a student
Statement of concern: Since you work more closely with
students and represent a sort of 'intermediate' authority figure,
students may be more likely to express frustration with the course,
or with the instructor. You may or may not sympathize with the
student, but may be uncertain how to respond.
- Avoid getting into gripe swapping sessions, which may be
gratifying, but are often unproductive.
- If you think the criticism is unwarranted, then you might
engage the student and try to explain why it is unwarranted,
but do so in as positive a manner as possible.
- Try to sort out with the student what their objective is.
Do they just want to talk about it, or do they want some recourse?
If they want recourse you might explain some of the options (e.g.
talking to the professor, or talking to the department chair.).
- If the criticism or frustration involves unprofessional behavior,
discretely discuss the matter with the department chairperson,
treating it is an allegation. However, it will always be better
if the student brings their complaint directly to the chairperson,
and that the T.A. avoid being a go-between.