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Department of Computer Science

GTA Survival Guide

The most important single idea:  when you have questions, ASK!

Answering Student's Questions

Keep your scheduled office hours; if you cannot do that, notify the course instructor and the students as soon as you can.

You'll be more effective if you've done the assignments yourself, whether the course instructor requires it or not.  Completing an assignment often requires particular knowledge and/or skills, and you will not necessarily possess those from your own prior coursework or experience.

Always be familiar with the assignments; if something isn't clear, ask the course instructor for clarification.  This should happen before the students begin working on the assignment.

Many assignments require the student to design a solution; for example, a student may be given a specification for a simulation problem and asked to design a suitable set of classes or procedures to implement that simulation.  In such cases, you may not have a clear understanding of the design principles the course instructor expects the students to apply, or of the criteria the course instructor will apply to evaluate the student's design.  You should discuss those issues with the course instructor and obtain a clear understanding of what is expected.

Be Socratic:  ask leading questions; clarify confusions; do not just supply answers.

A basic principle:  if I provide a student with a solution to a problem, I forever deprive that student of the opportunity to discover that solution himself.

Provide all the help you can with tools (IDEs, compilers, ...).  These issues are not usually primary pedagogic points in a course, and a student can waste a lot of time wrestling with problems that can be resolved easily.

Never leave the student with a guess; if you don't know the answer, or aren't sure, say that (and research the situation).  It is never acceptable to simply say you don't know the answer and leave the student to his or her own devices.

NEVER be insulting when dealing with a student or a student's work.  There is no excuse for that sort of ill behavior.

Practice triage during office hours.  If a student has clearly failed to do the preliminary work he or she should have done, feel free to give the student a little help getting started with that and then to send the student away to continue working on his or her own. It is very common for students who are vastly unprepared to demand an unreasonable amount of help at the last minute.  It is not your problem if the student has procrastinated, and such students do not deserve special treatment.  Give them the usual sort of help, no more and no less. If more than one student is seeking help, do not let a single student (or group of students) monopolize your time.


Grading Student's work

FERPA!!  (The Federal Educational Records Privacy Act)

There are certain rules you must follow:

·         Never post to the web or send an email message that contains information that could identify a student and his/her grade on any assignment.  This means in particular that you do not send an email message that includes the student’s name AND student ID number.

·         AFAIK, if a student emails you regarding the grading of an assignment, it is OK for you to reply and to discuss details, including attaching a graded file.  I will inform the students that if they object to that, they must request a face-to-face meeting.

·         Don’t allow other people to see your work as you’re grading.  You can discuss issues with other course staff members (TAs and faculty), but not with anyone else.

·         Never email a spreadsheet file as an attachment.  Use the course account directory on the server to exchange information related to graded work!

Failing to follow these guidelines could result in legal issues for you!

If you're given instructions for how to grade, follow those instructions, fully and precisely.  This is one of the most common sources of frustration for course instructors.  If we provide detailed instructions for how to evaluate an assignment, we have given considerable thought to just how we want the assignment to be evaluated.  You may not understand our rationale for how the grading is to be done (so ask!), but we do expect you to follow our instructions. 

When you are given the instructions for grading an assignment, read over those instructions immediately to see if you have any questions.  Even if you need to delay your grading for some reason, try grading a couple of submissions right away.  That will help you determine whether or not you have questions. If the instructions are not clear, ASK the course instructor for clarification.

Give the student's answers your full attention when you grade.  If you make a mistake in grading, you'll just have to fix it later, so it's best to get it right the first time.

If you encounter an answer that doesn't seem to fit your instructions, but does seem to make some sense, ASK the course instructor for advice.  No set of grading instructions can be complete; students will find novel interpretations that we could never anticipate.

If two or more TAs are grading the same assignment, communicate with each other to improve consistency; it may help if each of you grades the same small sample of submissions (say 5) and then you compare the results.

If you have questions about how to grade something, copy your email about that to any other TAs who are also grading the same assignment.  Any clarifications that are provided will also be sent out to all the TAs.  Such clarifications may force you to regrade some submissions.  That is one reason it is important to identify any questions you may have as soon as possible.

If you are supposed to make comments when you grade, then make good comments that convey something useful to the student when you deduct points.  If students do not understand why you have penalized an answer, you will find yourself answering questions about it.  It saves time for you and the student if you have made a good comment in the first place.

Meet grading deadlines; the course instructor and the students depend on it.  If you cannot meet a grading deadline, let the course instructor know and provide a timeline for when you expect to be done.

Start grading earlier, rather than later; that gives you more time to ask questions and deal with unexpected issues.

Follow the course instructor's guidelines regarding how assignments are to be turned in and how late submissions are to be handled.

If evaluating a student's work involves a live demonstration, don't allow the student to make changes to his or her solution during that demonstration unless the course instructor allows that.


You must understand the following facts:

The CS Department is not paying you as a GTA in order to fund your studies.  That's what GRA and GPA funding is for.  You are not being paid as a GTA in order to support your research activities.  Faculty members for whom you are doing research may be confused about this, and you may be caught in the middle between the demands of your GTA position and the demands of your research group.

You are being paid for 20 hours work per week.  Ideally, you won't have to devote that much time to your duties as a GTA.  But, it's perfectly fair if you are required to do that.

It is often the case that the workload will vary from week to week.  In particular, some courses will have major assignments, and your work load may very well peak when such an assignment comes due.

Course instructors will usually try to be accommodating if you have to work on a proposal, attend a conference, etc.  But, they need to know about those things in advance so that they can try to adjust work assignments, if necessary.



© 2015 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University updated: 2016.06.23 DirAcadOps@cs.vt.edu