Undergraduate teaching assistant handbook
Undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) are an important part of undergraduate classes in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.
This handbook contains information about undergraduate TAs. In particular, it consists of the following sections:
- Basic information: this section contains administrative information about being an undergraduate TA in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. This includes topics such as which classes TAs help with, what criteria are used in TA hiring, and what the hiring timeline is.
- Department and University rules: this section contains information that all CS&E TAs should know.
- Best practices: this section contains tips about being a successful TA.
- Scenarios: this section contains scenarios based on commonly occurring TA situations.
This section contains basic administrative information about the following topics:
- Applying for an undergraduate TA position
- Classes that TAs help with
- Application and hiring timeline
- Hiring paperwork
- Continuing appointments
- Selection criteria
- TA duties and hours
- TA pay
- Academic conduct and professionalism
- Additional information for undergraduate TAs
Applying for an undergraduate TA position
Undergraduate students who are interested in applying for a teaching assistant position in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering should fill out an online application.
This is an application for undergraduate TA positions, and not for graduate TA positions. Graduate students should fill out the graduate TA application form.
Any University of Minnesota - Twin Cities undergraduate is eligible to apply (students do not need to be pursuing a computer science major to be eligible to TA). If you are a qualified individual with a disability or a disabled veteran, you may request a reasonable accommodation if you are unable or limited in your ability to access job openings or apply for the job on this site as a result of your disability. You can request reasonable accommodations by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or (612) 625-4002.
The University of Minnesota shall provide equal access to and opportunity in its programs, facilities, and employment without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, gender, age, marital status, disability, public assistance status, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
Application and hiring timeline
Undergraduate TA positions are on a semester-by-semester basis.
- For fall semester, applications are considered starting in late April, and continue throughout summer and through the start of September. The department will email applicants selected for interviews.
- For spring semester, applications are considered starting in early November and continuing throughout December and early- and mid-January. Again, the department will email applicants selected for interviews.
- Summer undergraduate TA positions are considered in April and May. Because there are only a small number of undergraduate TA positions in summer, and because these positions normally require an experienced TA, the department does not usually consider new applicants for summer positions.
One common question from applicants is when they know if they will be contacted for an interview or not. For both fall and spring semesters, the hiring process often extends into the first or second week of the semester, and so applicants might not know until then.
Classes that TAs help with
The department regularly hires undergraduate TAs for CSCI 1103, 1113, 1115, 1133, 1135, 1913, 1933, 1935, 2011, 2021, 2033, 2041,2081, 2980, 3003, 3041, 3061, 3081W, and 3921W. Additionally, we may hire UG TAs for some 4000 level courses, such as CSCI 4041 and CSCI 4061.
TAs should sign their offer letter and submit any additional needed paperwork (mentioned in the offer letter) in a timely fashion. This is particularly important for new TAs, especially if they receive a TA offer the week before the start of the semester, or after the start of the semester: in these cases, they must sign the letter and submit the payroll paperwork within three business days from when the offer is made.
Students who have not previously worked at the University need to be particularly attentive to the I-9 form. Failure to submit this form can mean a delay in the start date of the TA appointment. Note the I-9 is a U.S. legal requirement, and so it is not something the department or University can waive or defer.
The department welcomes undergraduate TAs to continue as a TA for as long as they are undergraduates at the University of Minnesota, and as long as their work is of high quality. This means that the course staff in most classes will consist of both experienced TAs and new TAs.
TAs will be contacted by the Undergraduate TA Coordinator to see if they wish to return for the next semester. Current TAs do not need to submit a new TA application. Continuing TAs are often assigned to the same course that they have TAed before; however, they can be assigned to a different course due to schedule availability, need, and preference.
A variety of factors are considered when deciding which applicants to interview and hire. Here, in no particular order, are the most important criteria:
- Past TA experience: The department usually makes continuing offers to interested TAs who have done a good job in past TA work here.
- Communication skills and rapport with students: TAs need to be able to speak clearly; explain computer science concepts well; relate to students, faculty, and staff; write well; etc. International students whose native language is not English must have a passing score on the University TA language requirements to be eligible for a TA position. (Minimally an ibTOEFL speak score of 23, or a SETTA score of 1 or 2.)
- Course expertise: Applicants should have done well in the classes they are being considered for (usually this means getting a B+ grade or higher, but applicants with below a B+ will be considered if they have other significant qualifications).
- Time availability: Students should have sufficient time to do quality TA work. Students taking an extremely high number of credits, or who have extensive additional commitments usually do not have enough time. Moreover, students' available times need to match course needs since much TA work involves helping with specific labs or discussion sections. (This time match can be especially important since we are often trying to find students to help with specific labs or discussion sections.)
- Other factors: These include work experience that uses course content (e.g., a software development job outside the University), outside tutoring or teaching experience, etc.
- Students registered for under the minimum credit requirement need to have an approved 13-credit exemption on file and international students need an approved reduced credit load as well to be eligible for TA positions. Students must be registered for more than 0 credits to be eligible to TA.
TA duties and hours
Undergraduate TAs usually assist with labs or discussion sections, hold office hours, do grading, attend weekly course staff meetings, respond to questions received electronically (such as through email or Discord), and do occasional other tasks such as helping maintain the course website. The exact duties are assigned by the course instructor. Typically an undergraduate TA position involves an average of 6-12 hours/week. However, this will vary from week to week. Moreover, for some TAs the number of hours will be less or more than that average depending on the course size and other factors.
Undergraduate TA positions are paid hourly positions. TAs track their hours and submit biweekly through MyU to be approved by the course instructor. TAs should not delay submitting their hours, since significantly late submissions might result in penalties for both the TA and for the department. Pay starts at $15.00 an hour and increases after two terms.
Academic conduct and professionalism
Since undergraduate TAs are University employees with important responsibilities, they are held to high standards. And because students view TAs as examples of successful computer science students, TAs should model good academic and professional behavior. TAs who engage in academic misconduct or otherwise violate significant University or Department rules --- either in the course of their TA work or in the classes they are taking --- can lose their TA positions and be subject to other disciplinary action. Professionalism and conduct are important enough topics that they are discussed in more detail in the sections below.
Additional information for undergraduate TAs
Most TA questions can be answered by the course instructor or other TAs. Questions about labs and lab machines can be answered by the system staff operator. Payroll questions can be answered by the department payroll staff. General TA questions can also be answered by the front desk or the Undergraduate TA Coordinator.
Department and University rules
This section contains official information that all TAs should know. It begins with a number of department rules about how to handle situations such as if you are ill and cannot make it to a scheduled office hour. Following those are very important items about college or University rules (or state or federal laws) on topics such as confidential student information and academic conduct.
Here is a list of items in this section:
- Outside work
- Discontinuing another position to take a CS&E TA position
- Planning for courses
- Weekly course staff meetings
- Office hours
- Submitting and returning student work
- Final grading
- Confidential student information
- Further comments on professional conduct (avoiding nepotism, sexual harassment, etc.)
- Academic conduct
There is an expectation that TAs will be available and physically present for their TA work. Students with significant time restrictions, who will be out of town during extended periods of time, etc. should not accept TA offers. Moreover, barring instructor permission, TAs should be present on campus by the first day of classes, and should not leave at the semester's end until all their TA work is done. TAs need to be available to work and grade for at least three days after the class final unless told otherwise by the instructor.
If you accept a TA position, you are expected to have sufficient free time (about 10 hours per week) during the term of that appointment. If you have additional outside commitments you must make sure that you have ample time to do everything.
Discontinuing another position to take a CS&E TA position
The department sometimes gets TA applications from students who have a position in another department or outside the University but who would like to change to a CS&E TA position. These students have the responsibility, before accepting any CS&E TA offer, to ensure that discontinuing their current position will not create any undue problems.
Planning for classes
Instructors will usually contact TAs the week before classes start. On occasion instructors will contact TAs before this; in rare instances they might wait until after. Instructors usually have an organizational meeting at the start of the first week of classes. They will sometimes also have preparation tasks for TAs to do right before or at the start of classes. If you have not heard from the instructor you assigned to work with, and classes will start very soon, please email them.
Weekly course staff meetings
Most classes have a weekly meeting of the instructor, any graduate TAs, and all the undergraduate TAs. These meetings are important for planning, organizing, and sharing teaching tips and other critical course information. TAs are expected to attend all these meetings, and to contact the course instructor ahead of time if they miss any.
Because of the number of undergraduate TAs, the department is unable to provide textbooks to undergraduate TAs. TAs are encouraged to keep their textbooks from when they took the class. In the event the class textbook changes, TAs might need to share or borrow textbooks from other TAs or from the course instructor.
Early in the semester you should discuss office hour times with the instructor. Undergraduate TAs normally have one or two office hours per week. During the first week of the semester, the Undergraduate TA Coordinator will send all undergraduate TAs an email explaining how to reserve space for an schedule office hours. Make sure you follow the directions in that email; this ensures you will be able to use that space, and helps prevent overcrowding. TAs will not hold office hours during the first week of class unless specified by the instructor. The first week will be a time when TA office hour times and locations are selected by TAs and approved by the instructor.
TAs should check with the department Undergraduate TA Coordinator if they wish to change their office hour time, schedule an extra office hour, etc.
If you know in advance you will miss some scheduled TA duties you should see if you can get another TA to cover for you, and should also notify the course instructor. It is important to do this as far in advance of the absence as possible. If you cannot hold your office hours due to illness or other circumstances, and are unable to get another TA to cover for you, please call the main office (612-625-4002) to let the department know. We can post a sign about canceled office hours. You should also contact the faculty member in charge of your course whenever you are unable to perform any of your duties due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances.
TAs should check email regularly (minimally once every business day) and respond to faculty, other TA, department staff, or student inquiries in a timely fashion (usually within one business day, but sooner if the situation warrants it).
All TAs must have their current mailing address and home phone number on file. Please make sure your contact information is up to date.
On occasion, we get complaints from instructors that they have not been able to contact TAs. Please respond to all e-mail, phone messages, etc. from instructors and department staff in a timely manner.
The department provides copying for homework assignments, laboratory assignments, and examinations. If the course teacher asks you to copy such material, please visit the front desk in the CS&E student services office (324 Lind Hall). Please note that large copying jobs will take considerable time and so should be done in advance of when the copies are needed. Also note the office is open 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, but not on weekends, early on weekday mornings, or in the evening or night.
Submitting and returning student work
For security and other reasons, assignments cannot be accepted in the Computer Science main office. Students should turn in assignments during class or office hours.
University Policy mandates that assignments and examinations should be handed back in class or office hours rather than placed in the hall for students to pick up.
After finals, TAs should not leave town until all of their grading for the class is finished. Please check with the instructor of your class before making any travel arrangements. If you think you might leave before all the grading is completed, you can check with the course instructor to see if it is possible for other TAs to complete the grading. TAs need to be available to work and grade for at least three days after the class final unless told otherwise by the instructor.
Student ID numbers, grades, etc. are confidential information. Disclosure of private information is an extremely serious matter so all TAs should be very careful that private information is not posted on web sites, left laying around where others can see it, etc. Here are some specific rules:
- All TAs should know what information is public and what is private. See the FERPA resources page if you are unsure about this. Note that not only are items like grades, student ID numbers, etc. private, but so are items like class lists. If you have any questions about whether the requested information is private or public, please ask the course instructor or the department before releasing it.
- The FERPA rules apply not only to people outside the University and department, but also inside. So, for example, not only is it a FERPA violation to make class grades publicly readable, or send them to someone outside the University; but it might also be a FERPA violation to let CS&E office staff, systems staff, TAs working in other classes, faculty other than the one you are TAing for, etc. view confidential files for the class you are TAing. Once again, if you have any questions on this, please ask the course teacher or the department.
- Be careful with any hardcopies of private information. Please store such copies in a secure location, and shred them when you are done with them. You can give old hardcopies of grade files, etc. to the front desk in the CS&E main office to be shredded.
- Due to the insecurity of email, TAs should avoid using email to communicate FERPA protected information. For example, if different members of a course staff need to work with a grade file, they should use Canvas or a special grades directory set up by the systems staff rather than emailing the grade file to one another.
- In general be very careful not to store confidential information --- whether student information or course information --- on laptops, in the course web directory, or in your personal directory. The department has had more than one incident in the past where laptops have been stolen, or where private information in a web directory was inadvertently made world-readable.
Professional conduct (avoiding nepotism, sexual harassment, conflict of interest, etc.)
TAs are officially employees of the University of Minnesota, and are therefore held to high standards of professional conduct. This includes, but is not limited to, avoiding academic misconduct; avoiding nepotism, sexual harassment, and other inappropriate interpersonal conduct; taking appropriate care of students records and confidential course material; being present and on time to course staff meetings, office hours, etc.; and replying to communications from students, other TAs, the course teacher, and department staff in a timely manner.
One part of being a successful TA is to treat all students with respect and strive to help all of them to learn. This means avoiding inappropriate behavior such as making disparaging remarks about students, engaging in sexual harassment and pursuing inappropriate relationships. It also means not limiting TA help to certain students in the class. Consider the following scenarios:
- A TA is also a member of a University club. Is it OK for the TA to give club members copies of past exams, answer keys, etc. that the TA has access to?
- A TA has a family member taking a class. Is it OK for the TA to be a TA for that class?
- Is it OK for a TA to form a close friendship with a student in the class the TA is TAing?
- Is it OK for a TA to provide special help sessions for a student the TA particularly likes?
Each of these illustrate a potential problem. In the first scenario, a couple relevant factors are whether the instructor is OK with the club members having the material and whether students in the class would also have access to the material. For example, if the TA gave club members in the class copies of the material, but others in the class did not have access, then that is unfair.
The second scenario brings up the topic of nepotism. The University has an official policy on Nepotism and Personal Relationships. TAs should avoid evaluating the work of anyone they are closely related to, or have a close relationship with. If this situation arises, TAs should consult with the instructor: in many cases, it will be possible to structure the TA's duties to avoid any problems. However, in some cases, it might be necessary to assign the TA to another class.
In the third scenario, if the TA previously had a close friendship with the student, then the issue is the same as the second scenario: the TA should not be grading the work of the student and should inform the instructor about the friendship. If the TA did not previously have a close friendship, then the student should not form one, since this can raise the types of concerns mentioned in the University Nepotism Policy. For example do not ask a student in a class you are TAing to go out on a date.
The fourth scenario brings up other potential problems. Being willing to give students extra help is commendable and is not a problem by itself. However, problems can arise, for example, if a TA is willing to help only students the TA likes, or if the TA is trying to use the help sessions to start a romantic relationship.
In summary, TAs should
- Treat all students with respect, and aim to help all to learn.
- Avoid giving any students an undue advantage. (TAs will, of course, need to use good judgment about what "undue" means. Note, for example, that holding a special help session for students who are struggling would be fine.)
- Know and follow University rules about behavior such as nepotism and sexual harassment.
- Use good judgment when deciding what is and is not appropriate TA behavior, and ask the course teacher, TA supervisor, etc. when unsure.
TAs hold positions of responsibility. For this reason academic (or other) misconduct by a TA is a particularly grave situation, and can be be grounds for termination of the TA position. TAs should be familiar with the college acceptable use rules, as well as the University Student Conduct Code, should exercise good judgment, and should model good student conduct. If you are not sure what constitutes cheating, read the resources below and ask questions of the instructors in courses you are taking. Certain activities (such as collaboration on assignments) may or may not be permissible depending on the class and on the assignment. It is your responsibility to know what is normative in general (e.g., all students should know what the University of Minnesota considers plagiarism), and the instructor's responsibility to clarify any gray areas or special rules. Two websites that might be useful are the Office for Community Standards site, which contains a couple of FAQs as well as links to university documents like the Students Conduct Code, and academic conduct information for students in CSCI classes.
If you notice suspicious activity in a course you are TAing, you first need to decide whether it is likely that cheating occurred, and, if so, whether there is reasonable evidence to support that suspicion. If you think that cheating did occur, then you should always report this to the course instructor. More specifically, you should
- Gather evidence: save or make copies of any papers or computer files involved.
- Get additional support: if possible, get additional witnesses so that you have more evidence than your word against the student's. For example, if you notice cheating during an exam, notify the instructor and/or other proctors.
- Take notes: write down any additional information that might be relevant, and which you might not remember if the situation is contested at a later date.
- Discuss with the instructor: the instructor will then need to decide what further action to take. If the instructor determines that cheating has indeed occurred, there are University procedures they will need to follow.
Here are a few official documents related to academic conduct.
- Office for Community Standards
- Student Conduct Code
- CSE Labs Computing Acceptable Use Code
- UM Acceptable Use of Information Technology Resources
- Academic Conduct Information for Students in CSCI Classes
- Department Academic Conduct Policy
What types of TA practices best help students learn? What types of activities are particularly helpful to instructors? In classes you have taken, what have TAs done that has not been helpful, and what have TAs done that has been particularly helpful? Here is a list of some practices that other TAs and course instructors have mentioned as being particularly useful.
- Show up. A large part of being successful is just showing up. Show up to office hours; show up to course staff meetings; show up to labs or recitations you are responsible for. It is an essential part of the TA job, and instructors, other TAs, and students appreciate when they can rely on you.
- Be prompt. Show up on time. If you are in charge of an 8am lab, show up a few minutes early so students can settle in by the time the lab should start. Answer email and other communications in a timely fashion. Be on time to weekly course staff meetings. Get grading done in a timely manner.
- Be engaged. When you are in a lab, recitation, or office hours, you are there for students. Students appreciate knowing that you are approachable and are there to help them. Lab time, for example, is not a time to withdraw to a corner and check phone messages or work on an assignment. Even if there is a lull in student questions during the lab, make sure you are attentive to what is going on, and that students know you are accessible for questions or for checking their work.
- Use good time management skills. Part of being a student is having too much to do. (The same is true of being a professor). There is always more to learn, more to read, more to write, more research to do, people to talk to, projects to participate in, etc. Being a successful TA requires balancing your TA work, your coursework, and other commitments. This is not easy. However, by accepting a TA offer you are committing to being able to put in sufficient time to do your TA duties. Practices such as canceling office hours because you have an assignment due in a class you are taking are not acceptable.
- Communicate. Part of working in a large group --- and most of our introductory courses have a large course staff --- is using good communication practices. This includes communicating with students, other TAs, and the professor. There are a number of good communication practices including, but not limited to the following:
- Answer emails from students, other TAs, and professors in a timely fashion (the biggest complaint that the department receives about TAs from instructors is when a TA doesn't reply to urgent email in a reasonable amount of time).
- If your course has weekly meetings make sure you attend them since these meetings are a primary way for the course staff to exchange important information; if you miss a meeting (for example due to illness) check to see what you missed.
- Alert the professor (and other TAs if appropriate) about course problems. Often TAs are the first to recognize when, for example, the majority of the class is struggling too much with material, when there is confusion about the meaning of a homework problem, etc.
- Ask good questions. These might be of the professor ("A number of students are asking about X, and I'm not sure what to tell them. What do you recommend?"), of other TAs ("how are we going to coordinate the grading of the assignment?") or of students ("can you explain your answer so I'm sure I understand it?").
- Take the initiative. Our best TAs don't only do TA work that is specifically assigned to them. Rather, they might notice many students are struggling with a certain concept, and post an explanation of that concept to the class web page or notify the professor so they could explain the concept further in class. They might remind a professor that a particular type of lab problem has been confusing to students in past offerings of the class. They might notice that there is a forum question that has gone unanswered for too long, and answer it. They might volunteer for a TA duty that no other TA is stepping forward to do.
- Mentor other TAs. One important way that good TA practices are passed along is from TA to TA. This is one reason why there are multiple TAs, usually including a number of experienced TAs, in our introductory courses. TAs, especially experienced TAs, should help other TAs. For example, TAs often share tips about how to handle difficult course concepts ("in the past this topic has been difficult for students, but we found that it helps to explain it by...").
- Handle problems. In a large semester-long class there will be numerous occasions when things do not go as planned. Perhaps an assignment is taking longer to grade than expected. Perhaps students are misunderstanding a lab or homework problem. Perhaps some lab equipment is down. When such problems occur there are good ways and bad ways to handle them. When problems occur, handle them promptly and as best you can, notify people as needed (for example, the system staff, instructor, or other TAs), and ask for help when appropriate. (See the "Handling Problems" scenario in the section below for a related example.)
- Be positive and enjoy your TA work. You are likely a TA because you like computer science, you like teaching and learning, and you enjoy helping others learn. Be positive, enjoy your TA work, and share your enthusiasm for learning and for the field.
- Be professional. In addition to following the department and University rules (see the section above), the best TAs model professional behavior in their TA work. Students take cues from TAs. If students see TAs arriving to labs on time, being approachable, etc. then students are more likely to show up on time and be engaged. If students see TAs arriving late, retreating to a corner to do their own work during lab, etc. then students are less likely to have a high regard for the course or for the field of computer science. Professionalism includes not only those issues, but also issues such as respect for students. Making disparaging comments about a student's abilities to other students, "flaming" during online communications, and having conversations in lab, recitation, or office hours that some students might find inappropriate are some examples of unprofessional behavior.
Here are examples of scenarios to alert TAs to some challenging situations that may happen in their TA work, and to provide questions about how to address those situations. In each case the scenario is given, followed by two or three questions. "Solutions" aren't given, but if --- after thinking about the situation and possibly discussing it with other TAs --- you do not have a good idea of how to address the situation or what your TA duties are in those cases then please consult with the course instructor.
Suppose you are TAing for a large class that has a large number of TAs. The professor has each TA grading a section of the class. You get some student complaints that you have deducted points for a mistake that students in another section did not lose points for.
Q1. Do you think this is a serious concern?
Q2. If so, what can you do to address the concern?
Q3. How can you prevent something like this from occurring in the first place?
Suppose a TA is grading an assignment, and the professor asks the TA to return the graded assignments in lab on Thursday so students have them to study before a midterm the following Monday. The TA waits until Wednesday to start the grading, then is unable to get all the grading done on time. Due to a heavy schedule the next day they don't finish the grading until Friday afternoon, too late to return the assignments to students before the weekend. Moreover, they don't notify the professor (or other TAs) about the grading (or reply to any professor email about the grading) until they have finished it on Friday.
Q1. How could the TA have avoided this problem in the first place?
Q2. Once it became clear that the grading would not be done on time, what did the TA do to make the problem worse? What could they have done to handle the problem better?
Suppose you are spending a lot of time in office hours with a student. But even though you are explaining things carefully and repeatedly, they are just not grasping what you are explaining.
Q1. If you have been in a similar situation in the past, what did you do?
Q2. What else might you do to handle this situation?
Suppose that you discover that next week you have to grade a midterm for the class you are TAing, spend substantial time on a project for one class you are taking, and study for a midterm for another class you are taking.
Q1. How can you avoid neglecting one or more of these?
Q2. How can you prevent something like this from occurring in the first place?
Academic conduct 1
Suppose that, when grading, you notice that two students' solutions are identical, even though the assignment instructions clearly state that students should not work together, and even though the assignment was complicated enough that the chance of all answers being identical is negligible. You happen to see one of the students later that day, and ask the student about the similarity. The student tearfully confesses that they copied the other student's work because they had trouble at work lately, were falling behind in the class, and were afraid of failing it. The student also asks you not to report the incident to the instructor because they were afraid of getting "kicked out of school."
Q1. What are your responsibilities in this situation? Should you report the incident to the instructor?
Q2. Should personal circumstances be taken into account when deciding whether cheating occurred?
Academic conduct 2
Suppose that you are TAing a class and a student turns in some code that is suspicious because the code style seems very different than what the student usually writes. You do a web search and find that the code is fairly similar, although not quite verbatim, to code posted on a web site. When asked about this, the students admits to viewing the site, but claims that they wrote their own code based on what they learned at the site, rather than copying the code verbatim. The student also claims that viewing the web material was not cheating since the class syllabus prohibits getting solutions from "others," and the students claims this does not prohibit getting help from online resources, other texts, etc.
Q1. Is it cheating for a student to search the web (or other resources) for solutions to a homework problem, even if they do not copy verbatim any solutions they find?
Q2. Do you think what the student did was cheating? Why or why not?