Teaching Assistantships

Congratulations on being awarded an Academic Assistant V (teaching assistantship) position in the Mathematics MSc program. For most of you, this will be the first time you have been involved in teaching at the post-secondary level, and we hope that this information will alleviate some of your fears and help you "hit the ground running". These positions have two main goals: first, to give graduate students some practical experience in university teaching; and second, to provide to the delivery of the second year curriculum in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. If at any time you have questions about your duties, speak to the course instructor or the Graduate Program Coordinator.

Understanding Your Responsibilities/Contract

In order to get the most out of your position it is important that you understand your responsibilities right from the outset. Those responsibilities are outlined for you in your contract. It tells you how many hours you should devote to the course over the academic year. Read your contract carefully. It is important for you to keep a written log of the hours you devote to the course on a week-by-week basis.

The course instructor is your main supervisor for fulfilling the terms of the contract. It is important that you discuss all of the terms of the contract with her/him and come to an agreement on grading assignments before you sign the contract. The course instructor is also there to help you complete the Teaching Portfolio Development portion of your contract, which will include some form of delivery of class material. Take the time to get know your course instructor and make sure you have a clear understanding of what is expected of you.

Questions to Ask the Course Instructor

(Adapted from the TA Training & Development Program: Survival Guide, University of Guelph, 2003.)

  • What are the terms of my appointment? (Hrs/wk, facilitating or marking, etc)
  • What will be my duties and what proportion of my time will they take? (Seminars, lab demonstrations, reviews, office hours, field trip supervision, grading, lecturing, exam invigilation…)
  • If my duties include meetings, what should I come prepared to discuss?
  • Are there other AAVs involved with this course? How will we ensure consistency for our students?
  • What can you tell me about the course? (Course syllabus, intended learning outcomes, demographics, history, learning activities, and my place in their design, implementation, or assessment)
  • What are the course policies with regard to late submissions, missed classes? Are there other policies of which I should be aware of?

Take the time to determine how much supervision you’ll have and how much autonomy; for example, will your lesson plans be checked in advance? If you’re leading seminars, find out how much your teaching involves reinforcing lecture material and how much involves introducing new material.

Running Effective Office Hours

(Source: TA Training & Development Program: Survival Guide, University of Guelph, 2003.)

Your office hours provide you with an excellent opportunity to help your students on an individual basis.

When you set up office hours:

  • Try to set your office hours at a time that does not conflict with a course that the majority of your students have to take.  Consider asking your students to assist you in setting up office hours during your first session.  Select some days and times that suit your schedule and ask them their preference.
  • Consider holding your office hours just prior to or just following the time of the class.  This can be beneficial because students can come to you directly prior to or directly following sessions with any questions or issues (when questions are fresh in their minds).
  • Choose a time slot that you can make every week.  Try no to have “floating” office hours.
  • Make sure there is a quiet place for you to meet with your students that will not interrupt other AAVs.
  • Try to have another AAV or student around during your office hours, especially if it’s after 4:30.  This precaution creates a safer environment for you and your students.
  • Encourage your students to come and visit you:
  • Have them pick up or drop off their projects during your office hours.
  • Indicated on their papers if you would like to discuss a certain issue with them during your office hours.
  • Have additional information available only during office hours (e.g., sample exam questions, lab reports, books or papers).
  • Be open and approachable.  Students are more likely to ask you for help or feedback if they feel you are interested in them and how they are doing.
  • When your students arrive:
  • Put aside your own work.  Remember that you have set this time aside for them and their concerns or questions.
  • If several students arrive at once ask them if they have similar problems.  If they do, you can either talk to them as a group, or one at a time and let the rest discuss the issues amongst themselves while they wait.
  • If multiple students arrive and they have separate issues to discuss, try to keep track of who is next in line. 
  • Try to keep yourself organized to ensure they you have the opportunity to address everyone’s questions in the time you have allotted.

Dealing with a Student in Personal Difficulty

(Adapted from the TA Training & Development Program: Survival Guide, University of Guelph, 2003.)

As an AAV you have a great deal of direct contact with students.  As a result, students may come to you when they are experiencing difficulties or an emotional crisis.  Their problems may be related to transitional issues (e.g., moving away from home or returning to school after a long absence), family, relationships, sexuality, grief and loss, abuse, or any number of issues.  At times your students may require immediate attention.

How can you be assistance?

  • Take time to listen.
  • Take the problem seriously.
  • Let the student know that you are concerned.
  • Explain to the students that although you may be willing to offer an ear, you are not qualified to become involved in anyway or offer any advice.
  • Refer the student to the appropriate resources (see below).

Consult with Counselling Services if you have any concerns about the confidentiality of the student’s information, before discussing the problem with others that may provide assistance.

Personal counselling services are available through Student Affairs. For an appointment, please see the Secretary for Counselling and Academic Skills in Room A201 or call (705) 474-3461 and any of the following extensions:

Angela Cupido 
Counsellor  ext. 4554

Andrea Havercroft
Counsellor ext. 4399

Sheril Barrer 
Secretary for Counselling and Academic Skills  ext. 4362

Dan Pletzer 
Manager of Counselling and Disability Services   ext. 4493

In the case of an emergency outside our normal office hours, you may contact the Crisis Intervention Program at North Bay General Hospital at (705) 495-8198 or (705) 474-8600 (Switchboard).

Nipissing University’ Grading Guidelines

A – (80–100%)

“A” indicates Exceptional Performance: comprehensive in-depth knowledge of the principles and materials treated in the course, fluency in communicating that knowledge and independence in applying material and principles.

B – (70–79%)

“B” indicates Good Performance: thorough understanding of the breadth of materials and principles treated in the course and ability to apply and communicate that understanding effectively.

C – (60–69%)

“C” indicates Satisfactory Performance: basic understanding of the breadth of principles and materials treated in the course and an ability to apply and communicate that understanding competently.

D – (50–59%)

“D” indicates Minimally Competent Performance: adequate understanding of most principles and materials treated in the course, but significant weakness in some areas and in the ability to apply and communicate that understanding.

F – (0–49%)

“F” indicates Failure: inadequate or fragmentary knowledge of the principles and materials treated in the course or failure to complete the work required in the course.

“I” indicates Incomplete.

“W” indicates Withdrawal with permission.

Tips for Marking

(Source: TA Training & Development Program: Survival Guide, University of Guelph, 2003.)

There is no correct system for grading papers.  These criteria are meant to give basic guidelines for the marker, and will not produce infallible results.  You should revise the method so that it works for you.

Assignment Explanation

  • Be prepared to give students very clear instruction for the assignment and make sure that everyone is clear regarding your expectations.
  • Give them the assignment well in advance of the due date.
  • Invite students to come to your office hours to discuss their ideas before they write and to review first drafts.

Marking Scheme

  • In developing marking criteria consider your expectations and what value you are assigning for each aspect of content and form.  Recall that many authorities advise against splitting the grade between content and writing because students then believe that they could write an excellent paper even with frequent errors in style and mechanics.  Instead, reinforce, through one overall grade, that innovative ideas and an understanding of the material are meaningless if they cannot be communicated effectively.
  • Use the marking scheme: provided by the course instructor. This allows you to be consistent in your grading and will make it easier for you to justify the grades that you awarded if any disputes arise.
  • To ensure consistency it may be useful to have each AAV pick particular questions and grade all the students’ responses to those particular questions.

Getting Organized

  • Use “Range Finder” papers: Read a few papers to get an overview of your students’ grasp of the assignment.  Select “good” and “not so good” papers to guide your grading.  If the papers don’t reach your expectations meet again with the instructor to see if the expectations should be revised.
  • Skim all papers without marking and tentatively sort into piles for each letter grade. Keep in mind the criteria for each grade described in the section “Nipissing University’s Grading Guidelines”.
  • Read the entire paper before you begin to mark:  this gives you a general impression of the student’s work.  When you re-read the paper you can evaluate it in more detail and include your comments.
  • By marking all papers in one letter grade at a time, you will be better able to decide where each paper fits into the range by comparing it to others you have just marked.  You may also realize that your first impression was not accurate for some papers.  If so readjust the grades accordingly.
  • Use post-it notes to assign tentative grades.  Record permanently once you have ensured over all consistently.

Giving Feedback

  • Choose the appropriate level of feedback for the task.  As comments should be future oriented, it may not be necessary to provide extensive feedback on a final assignment.
  • Use short comments throughout the paper.  Elaborate the reason for your grade in remarks at the end of the paper.  Don’t forget to highlight the positive aspects of the assignment.
  • Do not write your student’s papers.  Focus on particularly effective or problematic passages.  Note consistent problems with sentence structure, grammar, diction and spelling, but avoid marking or correcting all the errors.  If there are significant grammatical or content issues encourage your students to visit you during office hours for assistance or clarification.
  • Read through quickly for overall focus and organization, then read more carefully to consider paragraph structure, coherence (and transitions), introduction and conclusion.  Think carefully about what specific and general comments will be the most valuable before you make them, then be selective.  If you overwhelm the student with abundant comments on the first page he or she may not even want to look at the rest of the paper.
  • You will probably find that you make fewer comments on an excellent or extremely poor paper than on mediocre one.  However, always remember to include some comments.  Sometimes it can be frustrating to a student to be awarded an “A” as it is to be awarded a “D” of there are no comments included.  Students need feedback to help them understand what criteria you used in awarding their grades.
  • After you have made both your general and specific comments, try to distance yourself and think about the paper in terms of overall effect and how it compares both to other papers and to assignment expectations
  • Assign the specific grade. (You will probably need to translate your letter grade into a specific numerical grade.  Or so you want to assign a range of grades between 60 and 69%? Can you distinguish and justify a grade of 61% versus 63%)  If you need to give numerical grades on a question or part of a question out of fewer than 100 points, decide on the letter grade and then calculate that grade out of the value assigned (i.e., for a C answer, 60% translates into 9/15).

Keeping Your Sanity

  • Divide up your time accordingly. Keep to your allotted time per paper.
  • Remember to take breaks! You will be more efficient if you give your mind a rest and reward yourself at regular intervals.
  • The time required to mark essays will decrease as your experience increases.

Department’s Style Guide

Please refer to the course instructor for information on which style guide to use for marking.  Information on types of styles if available from the library: Citation and Style Guides

Academic Integrity

The University takes a most serious view of such offences against academic honesty as plagiarism, cheating, and impersonation. Penalties for dealing with such offences are strictly enforced.


Essentially, plagiarism involves submitting or presenting work in a course as if it were the student's own work done expressly for that particular course when, in fact, it is not. Most commonly plagiarism exists when:

  • The work submitted or presented was done, in whole or in part, by an individual other than the one submitting or presenting the work.
  • Parts of the work (e.g. phrases, ideas through paraphrase or sentences) are taken from another source without reference to the original author.
  • The whole work (e.g. an essay) is copied from another source and/or
  • A student submits or presents a work in one course which has also been submitted or presented in another course (although it may be completely original with that student) without the knowledge or prior agreement of the instructors involved.


Cheating at tests or examinations includes, but is not limited to, dishonest or attempted dishonest conduct such as speaking to other candidates or communicating with them under any circumstances whatsoever; bringing into the examination room any textbook, notebook, or memoranda not authorized by the examiner, or leaving answer papers exposed to view.

When Academic Dishonesty Occurs

(Adapted from: Women’s Studies TA Handbook, University of Windsor, 2008)

If you encounter a case of academic dishonesty during your duties as an AAV, you should:

Inform the course instructor and discuss the issue of academic dishonesty with them.  The course instructor is the only one who has the authority to make decisions regarding suspected academic dishonesty.  Your role is to bring the dishonesty to the instructor’s attention.  Be prepared to outline the nature of the dishonesty (plagiarism, cheating…) and the reasons why academic dishonesty is suspected.

Remember that it is the responsibility of the course instructor to make decisions regarding the evaluation of academic dishonesty.  Do not make accusations of academic dishonesty without first consulting with the course instructor and do not assign a grade for student’s work where academic dishonesty is suspected.  Allow the course instructor to asses the situation and to make an appropriate decision.

Respect student’s privacy and integrity.  Do not make public accusations of academic dishonesty; do not make derogatory comments regarding a student’s work or work ethic; do not name students suspected of academic dishonesty to other students, other AAVs or course instructors; do not threaten to assign a failing grade without consulting with the course instructor.


A student guilty of academic dishonesty may be subject to the imposition of one or more penalties, of which those listed below shall be exemplary:

  • Assignment of a grade of zero in the assignment, test, or exam;
  • Assignment of a grade of zero in the course in which the offence is committed;
  • Suspension from attendance in all courses in which the student is registered at the time the offence was committed, and loss of credit for any course or courses which have not been completed or in which no grade or final evaluation has been registered at the time the offence was committed;
  • Suspension from the Faculty;
  • Expulsion from the Faculty;
  • Suspension from the University;
  • Expulsion from the University.

Withdrawal from a course will not preclude proceedings in respect of academic offences committed in the course, and the right to withdraw may be refused where an academic offence is alleged.

Instructor's Action

The initial responsibility for punitive action lies with the Instructor. The Instructor may assign a grade of zero for that particular assignment, test or exam, or may assign a grade of zero in the course.

The Instructor will advise the Department Chair, the Dean, and the Registrar of the action taken.

For more information regarding suspensions, expulsions, appeals and transcription notation refer to the Academic Calendar, policy on academic dishonesty.