Center for Teaching and Learning

Helping students learn from international TAs

Some students may feel concerned about having TAs for whom English is an additional language. These students are usually unaware of the unique benefits that international and multilingual TAs can bring to their classrooms. Below are considerations and strategies that can help cultivate better working relationships between your TAs and their students.

Fall foliage in the quad. Photo by Doug Plummer.What are the benefits of learning from international TAs?

International TAs often bring broader, global perspectives to their subjects —perspectives that students are less likely to glean from instructors who have studied only in the U.S. Additionally, multilingual TAs for whom English is an additional language are often more conscious of their communication, which may lead them to be more open to questions, clarifications, and providing visuals — all of which are helpful in any learning environment.

How can students improve their own learning from international TAs?

Students who have developed successful working relationships with their TAs have recommended the following strategies:

Facilitate your communication with your TA

  • Try not to focus on differences in pronunciation and accent. Concentrate on what your TAs are saying by looking directly at them so that you can use all of their verbal and nonverbal cues. As the quarter continues, you naturally will find it easier to understand your TAs.
  • If you don’t understand, try to identify exactly what the missing word(s) or piece of information is. For example, rather than saying to your TA, “I don’t follow you at all!” you might repeat the part of the sentence you understood and then ask the TA to fill in the rest.
  • Request that words that are difficult for you to understand be put on the board or the overhead.

Get to know your TAs and the subject area

  • Think of your TAs as a resource. Go to them throughout the quarter to hear their perspectives on the subject and to develop your own through dialogue. Stop by during their office hours to clarify questions or difficulties early in the quarter.
  • Ask your TAs to share something about their academic background with the students. You might say, “Could you tell us why you chose to study at the UW?” “What’s it like to really work in a lab?” Such questions create an opportunity for you to learn more about a specific subject area and the University of Washington.
  • Utilize your TAs’ knowledge of the subject areas. Find out more about other courses in a certain discipline that you might want to take.

Ask your TAs questions about the course content

  • Be specific in your questions to help the TA identify your difficulties. For instance, instead of asking, “What did you say?” try, “Could you please repeat the elements of classical conditioning?” Or you might say, “I’m still not sure I understand how [X] and [X] differ? Could you remind me of the difference again?”
  • Restate what you heard your TA say and rephrase what you thought it meant. You might say, “As I understand it, you’re saying that plants produce oxygen and carbohydrates. Is that right?”
  • When the TA seems to have difficulty understanding your question or comment, rephrase it rather than repeating it. For example, “How’d you do that problem?” might be rephrased as, “I was with you till you started working on step 4 of the problem. How did you move from step 3 to step 4?”

Visit your TAs during office hours

Office hours are an extension of the classroom and one of the places where you will receive personal, one-on-one instruction. You might feel you need to have a specific problem to justify going to office hours, but office hours give you an opportunity to discuss and explore a subject in more detail.

  • Ask your TAs for an alternate appointment time if you have a schedule conflict with their scheduled office hours.
  • Make a list of the ideas/concepts that you would like to discuss or find challenging. Bring it with you when you meet with with your TA so both of you have something to begin with and refer to.
  • Inform your TA about the purpose for your office hour visit. You might say, “I stopped by to get some ideas for my essay. What topics would work?” Or, “I have a hard time solving equations. Could you explain to me how . . . ?”
  • Show your TA how you have tried to solve a problem, or answer an essay question, or conduct an experiment so that they can follow your thoughts and identify where you had difficulties.
  • Ask your TAs questions while they are giving explanations. This will help you reveal the TA’s thinking, and the TA’s approach toward solving a problem, understanding a concept, or conducting an experiment. You might say, “What do you keep in mind when you’re trying to determine the equilibrium price?”

Resolve classroom-related difficulties

  • If you experience difficulties in the course, your TA wants to know. Talk to a TA right away if this happens. Explain your difficulties in a manner comfortable for both of you and stay on a professional, objective level. Most difficulties can be easily resolved in speaking with a TA individually.
  • If you cannot resolve your difficulties by first talking with your TA, several individuals in the department are there to help you: the lead TA, the supervising faculty member, the departmental academic advisor, the department chair.


What else can faculty members and departments do to help students learn from their international TAs?

Sharing the pride your department takes in employing the best graduate students from around the world can help undergraduate students feel more confident in their TAs. This pride can be expressed early in the quarter through department materials (websites, flyers, brochures, etc), and by faculty members who lead the lecture course for the TAs’ sections. Students may approach their TAs with a more open mind if they sense their department’s trust in their TAs.

If students have concerns about the communication or teaching style of a particular TA:

  1. Talk with the TA first to find out what is going on.
  2. If it sounds like the TA needs additional guidance, see if the supervising faculty member feels confident supervising the TA. Consider asking that faculty member to observe the TA.
  3. If these steps have already been taken or are unsuccessful, consider referring the TA to CTL.

For more, see UNC’s Working with Your International TA.