8 How to Oversee a Laboratory Course Taught by Teaching Assistants: Experiences in the Lab and Field

Emily T. Ott and Hannah Z. Angel


As former graduate teaching assistants (TAs), we have ample experiences preparing for and teaching lab-based courses in the natural sciences[1]. Here, we share strategies for teaching introductory soil science and forestry, which are often hands-on and require special instruction and demonstration by the TA. These activities involve a combination of field and laboratory work or are conducted entirely in one setting.

Our goal is to share collective firsthand experiences and provide advice and suggestions for lead instructors, TAs, and others in similar endeavors to foster a respectful and inclusive learning environment and maintain productive relationships between educators and students. If an instructor is clear and consistent in their expectations for both TAs and students, everyone involved will enjoy a more meaningful learning experience.

This chapter will discuss…

  • The best management practices for preparing activities and teaching students in a laboratory or field setting to enhance student learning.
  • Strategies and tips for working closely with an instructional team.
  • The roles and responsibilities of the lead instructor and suggest strategies for effective mentoring and training of TAs.
  • Ways to incorporate lab and lecture materials in TA instruction.
  • Some advantages and disadvantages of co-teaching and serving as a graduate versus undergraduate TA

Preparing for Teaching and Co-Teaching Laboratory Courses

Creating Lab Activities

As the lead instructor of a lab-based course, you may need to create new lab activities or alter existing activities to fit the goals and objectives of your course. Perhaps you want to transition to a digital learning platform to increase the use of open educational resources (OER), which include a variety of open-source information and materials for teaching and learning. Regardless of whether you are starting from scratch or revising pre-existing content, lab activities must be structured around clearly defined learning objectives. The construction of learning objectives is the responsibility of the instructor of record, not the TAs. Additionally, it is the responsibility of the instructor, or an experienced TA, to help the TAs understand the learning objectives and utilize them in a way that reinforces the concepts or skills students need to learn or master. For example, as lead instructor of the course, ask your TAs to review what should be learned during a given lab session (e.g., learning objectives), explain or demonstrate how it will be learned (e.g., activity, task, lab procedure), and finally, evaluate the broader implications or importance of performing that activity or task using a group discussion approach. Thus, from start to finish, a productive lab session is structured around a set of well curated learning objectives that are put into practice during hands-on learning.

The creation of lab activities and learning objectives might be daunting when starting from scratch. Instead of creating brand-new lesson plans, we recommend exploring OER to gather ideas and inspiration, particularly those that deal with lab-based courses in similar content areas. Here are some example OER[2] that may help create new lab activities or modify existing activities, many of which emphasize agriculture and natural resource–based fields and may be adapted to class field trips and outdoor learning:

Our experience with digital learning platforms is exclusively with Canvas. However, the digital learning platform provided by a given institution should allow instructors to develop interactive learning content such as modules, discussion threads, multimedia files, and quizzes, which are some of the features offered via Canvas. In the fall semester of 2019, all of the pre-existing labs for the introductory soil science lab course at Virginia Tech (VT) were converted to online Canvas modules. This course has four indoor in-person labs and three outdoor field labs. During each lab week, students were expected to complete the weekly module, which contained all of the necessary lab materials and documents (e.g., learning objectives, expectations, preparatory videos and readings). Our rationale for creating these online modules was that students might benefit from having learning materials presented in an easy-to-access digital format in addition to the traditional face-to-face setting. Additionally, we felt that weekly modules would increase student preparedness prior to attending lab since the modules provided a central location for the required materials and were presented in a well organized and engaging fashion. For example, within modules, we posted supplementary readings, short videos, and images that depicted the topic for a given lab week. Modules also include itemized “before class”, “during class”, and “after class” to-do lists, setting up the overall lab objectives and expectations for students. The Canvas platform allows instructors to create short, low-stake “pre-lab” multiple choice, matching, or short answer quizzes within modules to help orient and prepare students for in-person lab activities. In our experience, providing concise pre-lab quizzes has been helpful for students as it gives them a sense of what they generally need to know before a given lab session and gives the TAs a sense of what topics might require more instruction. Additionally, online discussion boards post-lab offer an opportunity for students to reflect on activities and share insight and perspectives with their classmates, which they otherwise might not be able to do in traditional in-person settings. Overall, expanding a laboratory course to include some online components will likely enhance motivation and learning potential among students.

Meeting Weekly

Weekly lab meetings with the instructor and lab TA(s) are essential to a lab course. These meetings give TAs a chance to visit and familiarize themselves with field sites or understand how to conduct an indoor lab activity. Also, these meetings are an important opportunity for the lead instructor to communicate their expectations of the TAs overall roles and responsibilities and this should be done at the start of the semester. If the lab will be an indoor hands-on lab, it is the lead instructor’s responsibility to have the lab activities set-up before the start of the meeting. These meetings typically last about two hours depending on how technical the lab is and may include demonstrations of experiment procedures or other activities. The lead instructor should practice the mechanics of the lab activities with the TAs instead of relying on written directions. During weekly meetings, ideas for improved teaching strategies may be shared and it is a good time to get to know your TAs and learn their strengths and weaknesses. If there is a lecture component to the lab course, these meetings provide a good opportunity for the instructor of the course to catch up with the TAs on where the whole class is at in terms of lecture content. These meetings also provide an opportunity for the instructor to remind TAs of essential tasks, such as how to clean up after a given lab and other housekeeping-related notes.

Your lab course may not have a lead TA (e.g., experienced graduate student who regularly teaches the course), but if it does, you should make sure to be clear and consistent about your expectations of the lead TA during weekly meetings. In our experience, the lead TA for the soils lab course at VT oversees the proper functioning of the lab room for teaching, which is crucial since there are multiple TAs (e.g., 4-5). Some professors may expect the lead TA to do much of the lab set-up and clean-up for the week, as well as run the weekly meeting. If the instructor does not communicate clear expectations regarding the lead TA’s role, this will likely cause confusion among the other TAs. We suggest that for a given lab the lead TA reviews the lab procedures and activities with the TA group, while the instructor focuses on reviewing the learning objectives and content with the TAs. Additionally, as the instructor, it is a good idea to observe at least one laboratory session run by each of your TAs to provide constructive feedback and to gain insight into how labs are being taught from semester to semester. Peer observations among TAs (i.e., one TA evaluates another TA’s lab teaching) may be desired for professional development purposes or in some cases required depending on the department, graduate program, etc. In this case, the TA who is teaching will receive helpful feedback from the perspective of a fellow graduate student, and the TA who is observing may walk away with some new teaching ideas and strategies to implement. This scenario may be a good approach for some TAs to learn from one another without feeling the added pressure of being evaluated by a professor. However, other TAs may not appreciate feedback from their peers. Regardless, there should be a respectful dialogue beforehand regarding TA preference of who conducts the teaching observation.

Using TA Guides

Supporting your TAs is an important goal of any lab-based course. One great way to do this is to create detailed teaching guides or “TA guides” for short. These should be constructed for each lab session. TA guides should provide thorough details of the overall lab logistics, materials, and learning topics to prepare the TA beyond what may be possible to cover during the ~2 hour weekly lab meeting. For example, a TA guide will contain supplemental information about a given topic (e.g., sedimentary rock formation) and teaching suggestions to help students work through activities. In contrast, the weekly lab meeting is designed to run through the lab procedures and logistics, which should take precedence. Nonetheless, a detailed TA guide educates TAs on the learning topic and nuances of the lab, which is especially helpful for TAs who lack experience and knowledge in a given area. Some suggestions for what to include in a TA guide are:

  • List of required supplies including details on what supplies each student needs (e.g., X number of graduated cylinders per lab bench).
  • Short sections on how to “set-up” and “clean-up” the lab.
  • Organized descriptions of the flow and time sequence of all lab activities. Some examples: students might have multiple procedures to complete and should start the second procedure halfway through the first to complete all on time. Also, there may be three separate lab activities, so the lab class should be split up into groups of three students and the activities be completed in rotations.
  • Important street addresses, directions, and maps for field-trip sites.
  • Announcements to be made (e.g., open-notes quiz next week, bring calculator, laptop, etc.).
  • Common student mistakes or lab procedure pitfalls to avoid.
  • Supplemental information of learning content, where necessary. Note, the required lab manual or readings for students should also be enough background information for TAs.
  • Teaching suggestions relevant to the given topic (e.g., special tips on how to estimate the percentage of sand in the soil sample).
  • Suggested questions to ask students and tips for facilitating discussion after lab completion.
  • Example calculations necessary to complete certain activities.

Overall, the TA guide’s primary purpose is to provide all TAs with clear and detailed instruction on how to run a given lab, including background learning information, procedures, examples, and acceptable answers to common student questions. These weekly TA guides should eliminate confusion and ultimately eliminate differences in teaching protocols among TAs, so that students will have comparable lab experiences. In other words, if one TA knows the lab procedure or content very well, they will be able to run a lab more smoothly than a TA running the system for the first time who might need additional help. In particular, the TA guide should have a list of supplies required for the lab procedure, including a list of supplies that should be on each student’s lab desk. A supply list in the TA guide ensures that all necessary supplies are accounted for by the TA at the beginning of the lab, promoting lab room organization and teaching efficiency. Additionally, the TA guide should include example problems and solutions for the more technical labs (e.g., chemistry based lab). It is very helpful for students if the TA works through these example problems with the lab class as a whole.

Lab Assignment Grading

Grading lab assignments, reports, or group projects is a responsibility for TAs in most lab-based courses and answer keys should be constructed by the instructor or lead TA well before the start of a given semester. Answer keys for lab assignments should be organized in the order of the lab’s weekly schedule and include detailed information on assignment answers and grading (point deduction, bonus points, etc.; see example at the end of chapter). In some cases, TAs may grade specific questions with more flexibility (i.e., at TA discretion) and these questions should be specified in the key. Further, short answer questions may receive a range of responses, so it is important for the instructor or lead TA to be as thorough as possible when developing an answer key by adding many “possible answers.” TAs must use some discernment in their grading endeavors for subjective, open-ended, and scenario-based questions.

It is important for the lead instructor to be available for Q&A sessions regarding grading throughout the semester for the benefit of the TAs. Consider organizing group TA grading sessions, which will help TAs get a sense of how assignments should be graded and will increase the similarity in grading among lab sections. TA grading sessions are a particularly good idea for the first couple of graded assignments. Additionally, for lab activities that are project-based or require a results section for certain exercises and lab procedures, it is good to catalog the results of each lab section to assess trends over the semesters. Include a few tables of previous year’s results for a given lab procedure in your TA grading rubric to give TAs an idea of “what the data looks like” (e.g., soil texture data compiled across lab sections for a given semester). Keeping track of lab section results for a given lab procedure may be beneficial in the future as those datasets, if data are reasonable, can be used by students in upcoming semesters. There is an abbreviated example of a grading rubric at the end of this chapter.

Learning and Teaching Environment: Laboratory vs. Field


Before the start of every semester, instructors must discuss laboratory and field safety guidelines with TAs. University departments should have safety guidelines and a chemical safety officer should be assigned to instructional and research laboratories. The professor or lead instructor of the course should clearly communicate verbally and in writing the laboratory safety guidelines to the TAs and others who may work in a given lab room. If you teach labs, you must be aware of any potential risks to yourself and your students. What will the protocol be if a student gets car sick on a field trip? Or a student cuts themself on broken glass? How should the TA respond if a student refuses to wear closed-toe shoes in the lab or field or simply forgets? As the instructor, prepare your TAs by reviewing possible scenarios with them, in addition to pointing out safety equipment (e.g., first aid kit, chemical shower), exits, emergency contacts, safety protocols, and proper disposal of solid and liquid wastes.

Before the beginning of the semester, the lead instructor must write safety protocols and make them accessible to the TAs responsible for conducting labs. In your safety procedures, include specific guidelines for following safety protocols so that all TAs can similarly inform students of these protocols. For example, if a student comes to the lab wearing sandals without safety protocols in place, one TA might send the student home, and a different TA might not notice the footwear, or if they do, they may not realize that it is a safety concern. Some of your safety protocols may be left up to your best professional judgment, whereas some protocols are set forth by the university or the Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA). A chemical safety officer may inspect your lab at any time, so it is best practice to enforce safety guidelines at all times to avoid paying fines from local or state OSHA boards due to safety violations. Suppose a given week’s lab procedure includes relatively safe activities such as viewing topographic maps or laptop work. In that case, a chemical safety officer might still require students to wear shoes if there are chemicals stored in the lab room. To prevent a student from missing a lab because of forgetting safety equipment, you may consider providing personal protective equipment (e.g., lab aprons, goggles, plastic gloves) for students utilizing the lab room.

Lab rooms should always be stocked with the necessary safety equipment and supplies, but what about field trips? Suppose your lab class goes on field trips or conducts labs outdoors. In that case, you can prepare for this by going through safety scenarios and protocols with your TAs before labs start and make sure they are aware of how to access supplies or assistance if needed (e.g., in case of vehicle trouble). If your lab includes driving field trips, give the TAs first aid kits to keep in the vehicle. Outdoor dangers range from minor bruises, cuts, insect bites and stings, to more significant concerns such as venomous snake bites and personal health issues (e.g., dizziness, fainting, and seizure).

If your outdoor field trip requires extensive hiking in the woods, you may want to give students a list of supplies they are responsible for bringing and wearing, such as:

  • Boots or sturdy closed-toed shoes, ideally waterproof and snake-proof
  • Long pants, ideally tucked into socks or boots
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • Poison ivy soap
  • Epinephrine pen for students who are allergic to bee stings
  • Rain jacket
  • Warm layers for cold weather
  • Fully stocked first aid kit for both indoor and outdoor settings


As the instructor of record for a lab course, it is important to keep an inventory of the supplies for lab activities. Lab supplies might include materials for lab activities (e.g., soil, rock, plant samples), glassware, paper towels, weighing tins, chemical reagents, chalk, dry erase markers, and other items. As the instructor, you may have a more experienced “lead” TA who, based on the nature of their teaching assistantship, is appointed to work closely with you to efficiently run a given lab course. Lead TAs generally have taught the lab course before and have more experience in the course topic. As the instructor, you should advise the lead TA to create a checklist of the lab supplies well before the semester begins to allow enough time for order placement and shipping. If you do not have a lead TA, this responsibility falls on you as the instructor.

One way to manage the supply inventory is to create an Excel spreadsheet organized by lab activity and date. For each lab or group of similar labs (e.g., all field labs or all chemical labs), a detailed list of supplies should be included, as well as a marking system to indicate whether an item is missing, broken, out of stock, etc. Additionally, it will be helpful to provide brief notes on the volume of supplies as well as the quality (i.e., indicating wear and tear) of equipment and other classroom resources.  It is a good idea to create and provide a working template that can be used by all responsible parties (e.g., instructor, lead TA) and can easily be reused and updated in subsequent semesters. Advise the lead TA to update the spreadsheet weekly and then submit it to you, the instructor, before the close of a given semester. Keeping an inventory of supplies on a weekly basis each semester will help reduce the likelihood of forgetting to order essential supplies before the next semester starts. Keeping an inventory of supplies is an excellent way to help manage your time as the lead TA or instructor since one of your responsibilities is ensuring that labs are “ready to go.”

Setting Expectations

As the instructor, creating a detailed lab safety guidelines document and having the TAs review it with students at the beginning of the semester creates an opportunity to set the tone for classroom expectations. In these guidelines, it is a good idea to include a brief paragraph on acceptable lab room behaviors. For example, one expectation might be that students must complete hands-on lab activities in groups, while all graded assignments must be completed individually. As the instructor, you will have acquired many years of prior teaching experience and you will have an opportunity to share your teaching tips and advice with your TAs during the weekly meetings. For example, your TAs might be hesitant to show any sort of authority when delivering laboratory expectations and safety guidelines. As the instructor, you should help motivate and inspire your TAs by sharing a real-life example of how you navigated a position of authority in front of students while maintaining a welcoming and respectful atmosphere. In our personal experiences as TAs, we discovered that the first few interactions with students are essential in establishing how they will perceive their TA for the remainder of the semester. Thus, we recommend that TAs be careful not to appear overly authoritative and strict at first, but also to avoid appearing too “laid back,” which might encourage students to “walk all over you.” In many ways, teaching is a balancing act.

During lab instruction, the TA might consider taking time at the start of the semester to meet and greet their students and allow them to get to know their classmates by using a short icebreaker activity. This icebreaker approach makes it easier to transition into the mechanics of the course, such as reviewing the safety guidelines and student classroom expectations. Also, TAs should remind students that the ball is in their court; in other words, if everyone follows the safety guidelines, the lab and field experience will run smoothly and there will be more time for discussion, sharing stories, and capturing the fun and essence of each lab activity. Further, the use of TA guides, as discussed above, will also help prepare TAs for setting the proper tone and expectations for successful lab teaching. TA guides should contain reminders of essential points to make during the lab about safety or protocol, such as deliberately asking students to put on their seat belts during off-campus field trips. The best way to ensure that students follow safety procedures is to model good behavior as the TA. An example of modeling behavior in the presence of students is dressing appropriately for the field and dressing professionally when teaching indoors. For example, wearing long pants and sleeves may be uncomfortable in the hot months of late summer and early fall, but it is quite practical for field work since it protects against poison ivy, sunburn, insect bites, etc. Your students will be more likely to engage in good outdoor safety practices if they see their professor and TAs following them as well. For some students, your lab might be their first outdoor lab experience, so it is up to you and your TAs to let them know what to expect beforehand.

Preparing to Teach Indoors vs. Outdoors

Educating students has unique challenges both inside and outside of the classroom. For either situation, it is essential to familiarize yourself with your classroom or field surroundings. If you as the instructor or TA will be teaching in the laboratory, make sure to understand all of the features of the room before you start your first class. Once you review the safety protocols and general layout of the lab room, prepare for each lab by familiarizing yourself with the logistics of a given lab activity. If you are the lead instructor, walk your TAs through each lab’s logistics during the weekly meetings as discussed earlier. For example, provide your TAs with tips and advice on how and where to begin the lab, the order of the lab activities, and how to end the class with a wrap-up discussion and summary. Before each lab, the TAs should have thoroughly reviewed the TA guides. If a TA is less experienced, you as the instructor may advise him or her to practice teaching some of the topics or lab procedure logistics in the lab room beforehand to get a feel of the space and the technology to be utilized. While your teaching style is unique to your personality and preferences, lab teaching is less flexible and subjective since you will need to stay on schedule and conduct activities using a specific “order of operations,” so to speak. As the TA, it is necessary to practice the lab logistics and review key points beforehand, get to the lab room early on the day of your lab session, and be concise and organized during overall lab instruction. Time management is particularly important in the lab room since it helps the instructor better adapt to unexpected changes that may arise, such as lab activities taking longer than anticipated.

You have several additional considerations in the field, such as weather and vehicle use, if the field lab is off-campus. The TA guides should have detailed instructions on vehicle use, from pick-up and drop-off to parking advice, and important contacts for emergencies. Time management is also essential during field trips, especially those off-campus, requiring you to factor in driving time, heavy traffic hours, and how long you should take at each stop, as there is typically more than one area to visit. For the benefit of TAs, it is essential to conduct a dry run of the field trip to help locate and become acquainted with the area. For the students’ benefit, it is a good idea for each TA to briefly discuss the nature and objective of the lab and field-specific safety guidelines before departing the building. Framing the heart of the lab will help students better understand their expectations. Also, the beginning of the lab may be an opportunity for TAs to instill excitement and pose to students one or more questions about the topic of the day. Once in the field, it is helpful to give students interesting facts and background information about the site location and reiterate the lab’s key objectives. As you would normally do in the lab room, frequently check in on the individuals or groups of students and try to do so in a way that avoids favoritism. It is always a good idea to have a list of questions ready to ask students to help keep them focused on the purpose of the lab. Encourage students to take pictures and notes for future reference. One important consideration is to project your speaking voice in the field, as there are usually more distractions in an outdoor environment. To boost confidence, prepare for your field-based lab in an outdoor setting if you are not accustomed to teaching outside.

Setting Up and Maintaining Productive Lab Room Dynamics

Undergraduate vs. Graduate TAs

Teaching, even for a single semester, is a valuable experience for graduate and undergraduate students. Departments often require graduate students to teach one semester, including responsibilities that range from grading a few exams to overseeing a course. Sometimes these same teaching opportunities are offered to undergraduate students. Assistant teaching as a student, whether at the graduate or undergraduate level, is a great way to build a resume and gain first-hand professional experience teaching in higher education. When setting up a new course, or taking over the teaching responsibilities of an existing class, consider how you as the instructor will enlist the assistance of one or more TAs. Will these TAs be graduate students, undergraduate students, or a combination of both? Table 8.1 summarizes a few critical differences between undergraduate and graduate student TAs.

Table 8.1 Some observed differences between undergraduate and graduate TAs.
Undergraduate TAs Graduate TAs
Unethical for undergraduates to grade the work of peers. Able to grade undergraduate work, but may be unable to grade work of fellow graduate students.
Close in age to students. Likely a few years older than students.
May be friends with students or know them personally. Likely not close to students, but may have had one or two classes with a few.
They have taken the course recently, usually in the past 1-2 years. Possibly has not taken the course to be taught or lacks experience in the course topic.
May not be allowed or trusted to supervise students alone. Can supervise students.
May not be allowed to drive school vehicles for a field trip. Can drive school vehicles for field trips.

Your department or university may have certain stipulations in place regarding TAs. For example, it is likely that undergraduate students at your university are not allowed to grade the work of their peers. Another possible concern is that undergraduate TAs are often not allowed to drive school vehicles, although this is department- and university-specific. Not having enough drivers for field trips might lead to the need for volunteer staff and graduate students to help. You may work at a small college with no graduate students at all, so the only students eligible to be TAs are undergraduates. On the other hand, your department may need to find more teaching assignment positions for graduate students with assistantships, and you may only have the option of having graduate TAs.

The Student Age Gap

The gap in age and experience between a professor and their students widens every semester; with each passing year, the professor gains more knowledge by attending conferences, conducting research, and giving talks on their area of expertise. With each passing semester, the students’ experiences in and out of the classroom have changed. It is essential to recognize the impact of these differences in age, experience, and culture and adapt your teaching accordingly so that all students feel like they are on the same base-level understanding of the course material and feel included in the conversation. The age gap is usually smaller between students and TAs than between students and professors, and may even be zero between an undergraduate TA and undergraduate students. The smaller difference in age between TAs and students can be helpful. For example, if the professor is having difficulty connecting with the students, they can ask for input from the TA, who may better relate to the students. If there is a small age gap between the students and TA, the students may feel more comfortable going to their TA with issues than to their professor who might appear much older and too far removed from his or her own undergraduate experience. On the other hand, a TA might be very close in age with the students and may unintentionally become too friendly in a way that compromises their professional image as an educator. If either a professor or a TA becomes too familiar with one or more of the students, it may be difficult to remain unbiased and objective while  grading. The instructor should give guidance to TAs on how to maintain a professional relationship with students, for example, by limiting socializing outside of class time for the duration of the course. Undergraduates who are potential  TAs may even know students in the class personally and should be discouraged from becoming TAs until they are less likely to have their friends as students.

Considerations for Assigning TAs to Lab Sections

It would be inaccurate for us to make broad generalizations about undergraduate students versus graduate students. Undergraduate students can be ”traditional” (aged 18–22) or ”non-traditional.“ Likewise, graduate students may have recently completed their undergraduate or master’s degree, or they may be continuing their education after being in the workforce for years in the same or a similar field. Thus, experience and age levels may differ quite a bit. However, the roles and responsibilities of undergraduate and graduate students are easier to generalize. Undergraduate students typically take several courses in one semester, with 14–20 credit hours per week of coursework before factoring in homework assignments and class projects. Many students have a part-time or full-time job on top of their schoolwork. With these additional responsibilities, it is crucial to determine how much time you would require from an undergraduate TA and whether the time required to be an undergraduate TA would realistically fit into their weekly schedule. Ideally, an undergraduate TA would be either paid as a student worker or given independent study course credit, but this is not always possible, so be sure to check with your department. In contrast, graduate students often have assistantship contracts that factor in their time as TAs, so be sure to work with your department’s Graduate Program Director or other person who works directly with graduate student contracts and the assignment of TAs. Depending on the student and their contract, there may be only 10–20 hours of teaching assigned per week. All of these details must be understood well before TAs are assigned to lab sections and certainly before the semester starts, as some students may only be able to teach one lab section based on their semester course load or graduate contract. Additionally, undergraduate students (due to their class schedule and experience level with the course material) will likely need to serve as a “lab assistant” who is paid hourly to help with laboratory set-up, clean-up and some in-lab activities under the supervision of a graduate TA.

Hiring an Undergraduate TA

A great way for the lead instructor to recruit undergraduate TAs is to treat the situation as a job that includes a job posting and an interview. Posting a job announcement may also be an effective way of choosing a graduate TA, although departmental procedures on TA assignments may not give you as much flexibility. The instructor may title the job posting as “undergraduate TA position”, unless  independent study course credit is offered in lieu of a paid hourly position. Creating this posting will allow you to consider and outline your expectations for the undergraduate TA. Your undergraduate TA will have an understanding of their role and responsibilities. A job posting with defined expectations for the TA position is useful even if there is only one student who will apply because it defines your expectations clearly, which is crucial in managing any professional relationship. We also suggest that you do not show favoritism and automatically grant a TA position to the ”best” student in the previous class. Great TAs are not necessarily the students who made no mistakes on their work or were persistent in asking questions during class. A great TA will be able to communicate the material effectively to help students understand and learn. We suggest that you set up an interview with your prospective undergraduate TA to get to know him or her a little better and gauge whether they would make a good TA for your lab. Here are some questions that you might want to consider when selecting an undergraduate student to fill a TA position:

  • Does this student know their potential students very well? The student might be classmates with lab students in another course. An obvious conflict of interest arises if the student is friends with students in the class.
  • How was this student’s performance in the course when they took it? A good TA does not necessarily need to have received A+ grades in the course previously, but their previous coursework should show a level of understanding that would allow them to be able to explain concepts to other students. Attending pre-lab meetings and going over the professor’s lab content helps reinforce the student’s subject knowledge.
  • Is the student interested in teaching, or would they prefer to perform other tasks? For example, the student may be interested in  instructing in-lab, or they may rather help with other tasks such as grading assignments, helping design activities, setting up, and cleaning up.
  • Is this student calm and confident, energetic, mature? Maturity is an important quality for a TA. A TA should be prepared to assist and lead students if something goes wrong such as a fire, a chemical spill or burn, a student injury, a student health issue in the field, extreme weather in the field, etc. The TA should know about lab safety in addition to the course material. If the student seems too excitable or immature, they may not be ready to be a TA or may need extra guidance from you to teach and lead peers.
  • Is the opportunity to be an undergraduate TA limited to one student per lab section?
  • Has the opportunity been announced fairly so that all interested students may pursue the opportunity?
  • Why does the student want to help teach? Is there a genuine interest in assisting other students in learning?
  • How much effort are you willing to invest in teaching an undergraduate how to teach? If you only want an undergraduate TA to assist with grading and do not expect to mentor the student on their teaching, then maybe having an undergraduate TA is not a good idea. Enlisting the help of an undergraduate TA will not necessarily lighten your teaching load. If anything, it might require more time! You might have a graduate TA who you trust to mentor an undergraduate student on teaching, granting the graduate student a unique opportunity. Additionally, having your graduate TA train and mentor the undergraduate TA gives you less responsibility and work so that you have time to focus on other more pressing tasks.

Additionally, you as the instructor may assume that an undergraduate student only wants to be a TA as a resume-filler or to simply have an on-campus job, without caring much about gaining hands-on teaching experience. You may be right, as students and young professionals are constantly faced with the pressure to have impressive resumes of extracurriculars and job experience. If multiple students express an interest in a TA position, each student’s reason for that interest may be more critical to address than the student’s grade and performance in the class and we recommend that you directly ask the student, “why are you interested in this position?” during your interview. Put another way, a student who received an A+ in the class may not be invested in teaching versus a student who received a lower grade and does express an explicit interest in teaching. Good teaching does not come solely from expertise in a field but rather from an interest in communication and self-improvement.

Establishing an Atmosphere of Respect

Academia is undoubtedly a place of hierarchies. In certain areas of academia, the hierarchy and roles may be well established (i.e., tenured professors, adjunct professors, etc.). Still, it is up to you as the lead instructor to establish your personal ”chain-of-command” to set clear expectations that foster respect in the lab room. It is essential to communicate these expectations to your TAs and students as they may be much different from the expectations of other professors’. In this section, we will introduce some questions to consider before the semester begins.

Do you want your TAs to call you by your first name or Dr. [Surname]?

Do you expect them to refer to you as only Dr. [Surname] in front of students, or is it okay for them to refer to you more casually?

These two questions form the basis of your (instructor) relationship with your TAs and students. Your answer to these questions likely will depend on how you view your TAs—as young professionals who are capable of managing a lab section or as your subordinate and surrogate teacher. As the instructor, are you going to manage down to your TAs or are you going to work with them? Would you like to be referred to as Dr. [Surname] in front of students to reinforce your authority as someone who holds a doctoral degree and is an expert in your field? How will your TAs address you in the presence of students? One consideration is that students may appreciate that the relationship between the professor and TA is different than the relationship between the professor and student. Depending on how you view the graduate TA role, we find that allowing graduate TAs to refer to the course professor in a casual way helps the students view the TA with greater authority and respect. Establishing a closer relationship between the TA and the course instructor is preferred, particularly if the TA oversees one or more lab sections or is at the stage in their program where they are considered a Ph.D. Candidate.

How much grading responsibility does each TA have, and how much does it affect students’ grades?

As the instructor, your TAs could oversee a lab section and supervise students without your supervision, or your TAs may just help with grading behind the scenes. Maybe the role of your TA is to assist during labs with no grading involved. The more TAs are involved with grading student work, the more critical it is to foster a respectful relationship between TAs and students. As discussed earlier, verbally communicate your expectations to your TAs during the first couple of in-person meetings at the beginning of the semester to be sure that everyone is clear and comfortable with their roles and responsibilities. Additionally, it is a good idea to develop a “Lab Management Plan” written document before the semester begins. This document is different from the weekly TA guides because it does not focus on how to effectively run one specific lab session, but rather it serves as a set of best practices that the TAs can utilize for all labs throughout the semester. In other words, the lab management plan is a comprehensive guide that helps TAs in the lab course be more confident and successful in their instruction given the unique nature and nuances of the course. This lab document should be adapted to your specific lab course and might include the following sections: lab course overview, student-teacher responsibilities, communication, learning assessment, time management, accountability, attitude of teacher-classroom, and enforcing lab safety guidelines. These sections would ideally provide details on the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of TAs to avoid misunderstanding and confusion as the semester progresses.

How well do you know the course material? Do any of the TAs know the content better?

As an educator, whether an associate professor or graduate TA, no one expects you to know everything. You may even want to emphasize this to your students at the beginning of the semester. The course that you are assigned to teach might include some of the fields you are an expert in and some content from fields outside of your expertise. Even as the course instructor, you might encounter students or other TAs who are more knowledgeable in a particular area. One way to handle a lack of knowledge during your teaching experience is to simply acknowledge your level of understanding of a specific topic to the students or other TAs. Expressing humility and learning from others despite being the authority figure in the classroom is a productive way to foster a collaborative learning environment among the instructional team and students. Students can often tell when their professor does not know the content they are teaching, so you cannot ”save face” by pretending to know better than you do. As the instructor, expressing humility where necessary, showing respect for your TAs, and modelling professionalism is a simple way for students to gain your respect.

Attending a Lab Section Respectfully and Productively

This section addresses how to foster an atmosphere of respect when present and involved in lab sections taught by TAs. Not being cognizant of this particular topic may be detrimental to student learning and compromise professional relationships. As a professor, you have every right to attend or sit-in on the lab sections in your course; however, we encourage you not to underestimate the importance of attending lab sections respectfully. At the beginning of the semester, and possibly before the semester starts, if this is the first time you are teaching your course, think about how and why you might attend lab sections. For example, some professors teach lab sections themselves, and have TAs in the lab to assist students with procedures. Table 8.2 summarizes a few lab teaching scenarios and how they relate to the professor attending lab sections. The bulk of this chapter (and our experience) deals with Scenario B, but we would like to present Scenarios A and C as additional options as there are different levels of instructor involvement in a university lab course.

Table 8.2 Teaching scenarios in the lab room.
Scenario A: Professor-Led Lab Sections Scenario B: TA-Led Lab Sections Scenario C: Professor Co-Taught Labs
  • Professor teaches every lab section.
  • Course may have 1-3 lab sections.
  • TA may grade student work, but not teach a lab section.
  • TA may tutor students individually during lab and outside office-hours.
  • TAs lead lab sections, usually 1-2 sections per TA.
  • Professor may visit the lab occasionally to ”check-in”.
  • Multiple labs may meet at the same time (e.g., large chemistry lab classes), or only one lab section at a time (e.g., smaller classes with one lab room).
  • Two professors alternate teaching of labs or lab weeks (e.g., based on the course unit).
  • Instead of alternating labs, two professors (or TAs) may split up teaching responsibilities within a single lab session.
  • Usually, 1-3 lab sections per course.
  • May or may not have a TA to assist.

If you as the instructor have TA-led labs you should establish with your TAs at the beginning of the semester whether you will attend a lab section, and if so, on which specific date(s). Visiting a given lab section can take many respectful forms, from poking your head into the room to quietly sitting in for the entirety of the lab class. You should also estimate how often you will attend (e.g., the first few lab sections, a couple of times throughout the semester), and stick to your word. Do not make any surprise visits, and do not create a promise of attending without following through. If it is the TA’s first-time teaching, they may already be nervous speaking in front of students and might be slightly more at ease without you watching, which may improve their teaching performance. Consider what type of presence you would like to have when visiting a given lab section (e.g., passive approach versus a more hands-on and vocal approach) and communicate this to your TAs. You may even ask your TAs what they prefer. Regardless, we recommend that the instructor discuss with their TAs the reasons why they may want to attend one or more lab sections to help alleviate any nerves associated with teaching for the first time under supervision.

Further, If you (instructor) have more than one TA and lab section, you should attend all sections equally. If there is a lab section at a certain time that you cannot attend, you should consider not attending other lab sections for consistency among the TAs. Another option is to ask another professor or graduate TA to observe that section if your goal is to conduct a formal teaching observation for all of your TAs. Consider how your presence in the lab might be a distraction to the TA and students and might give one lab section an advantage if you are never present to observe due to a conflict in schedule. Instead of attending the lab sections, we suggest that you make yourself available during the lab times and let your TAs know you will be available if they need any assistance. Hopefully, your office will be close to the lab room, but if not, you can let the TAs know that they can send you a quick email or text message if they need your help. It may be convenient for you to attend a specific lab section more than others, but attending one class more often can make the TA feel uneasy. Even if it is the only section that fits into your schedule, and the TA knows this, it can still feel like you are giving the TA more attention than the other TAs, which may be unhelpful or perceived negatively (if, for example, you are correcting the TA after a mistake, answering student questions before the TA can respond, etc.). Overall, it is important to set fair and equal boundaries among your TAs to cultivate respect.

When you as the instructor attend your TA’s lab section, you should establish with your TA what you plan to do during the lab. When you attend the lab section, will you arrive at the start of the lab? Or will you visit partway through? Do you want to observe quietly, or do you want to help your TA if they are unclear when instructing students on the lab procedure? Do you simply want to be there for assistance, such as answering student questions? One way to respectfully attend the lab section is to be there when the lab session starts, introduce yourself, introduce the TA, verbally ”hand over” the lab to the TA, and then either sit down or leave the room. Letting your TA know how you will use their lab time will allow them to plan accordingly. Another consideration as the instructor is that if you interfere during any of the lab instructions, this might frustrate and “throw off” the TA, negatively impacting their teaching performance. On the other hand, if you quietly sit in the back of the room to observe, you can get a good idea of how the students handle the lab procedures and what kind of feedback might be useful to the TA. As mentioned earlier, it is a good idea to ask your TAs if they prefer when and how you visit and observe their lab sections. Regardless, it is important to set these sorts of expectations ahead of time so that everyone is on the same page and understands how a lab session will operate when the instructor and TA are both present in the lab room.

If you plan on having TAs lead your lab sessions, respect your TA’s authority in front of their lab students. Interrupting the TA, contradicting what the TA says, answering student questions before the TA can respond, and many other considerations may lower the TA’s authority over their students and negatively affect the lab room’s student-teacher atmosphere. As a TA, establishing a tone of civil authority is crucial in the first few weeks of the semester and will help build rapport and trust with students. As the instructor, if you happen to hear the TA say something incorrect, we recommend that you refrain from interrupting to correct them unless it is particularly urgent. Everyone makes mistakes or misspeaks, and sometimes little corrections are not needed (e.g., if a TA writes “Ca” on the chalkboard but says “Ca2+”, it is clear that the TA meant the common valence charge of “two plus” when writing it on the board). If a correction is needed, then you can quietly talk to the TA on the side (e.g., “I heard you tell the students that the answer to question three is only [certain answer], but [another answer] is also acceptable for [specific reason]”). This way, the TA can then address the students and announce their mistake and perhaps write it on the chalkboard, and you have corrected the issue without interfering with your TA’s lab room. Avoiding interruptions in an ongoing lab session also gives the TA a great way to build trust with their students. We have learned that students are more likely to respect an instructor who admits to a mistake and clears up a misunderstanding for the student’s benefit. Recognizing and correcting mistakes gives the TA a good chance to display humility; we all get things wrong occasionally. It is critical to correct ourselves in front of students! Also, if you are a professor, you do not need to ”one-up” your TA, or vice versa. Your students are aware that you are the course’s main instructor, and the TA is still a graduate (or even undergraduate) student.

In summary, when considering whether or not to attend lab sections regularly, you should consider how many chefs are “too many for the kitchen,” as the saying goes. Co-teaching lecture courses without a cohesive plan does not work well, and it does not work well for labs either. The topic of co-teaching will be discussed in more detail in a later chapter. Consider how the instructor-to-student-ratio might affect student learning. Will the students feel intimidated with two sets of eyes watching them instead of one? Will the students know who to ask for help? Will the students feel comfortable making mistakes and learning from those mistakes in front of both instructors? Make sure the students and the TAs know and understand what your role as the instructor is when you are in the lab room versus the lecture room. Additionally, it might be helpful if either the instructor or TA announces to the students at the start of a given lab session what the role of the instructor will be in the lab room.

Here are examples of what to say when you attend a lab:

  • “Good morning students, today I’ll be sitting in to observe the lab session. I’m working with the TAs to do teaching evaluations, so I’ll be sitting in the back taking notes. Please pretend I’m not here and direct all questions to your TA.”
  • “Hello everyone, I wanted to come to the lab today because this is my favorite lab of the semester. TA will explain the procedure and get you started as usual, and I’ll also be here to help you as you go and answer questions.”
  • “I’ll be driving one of the two vans for our field trip today. Once we get to the site, I’ll hand over the lab to [TA name] as usual.”

As the instructor, attending lab sections that are led by your TAs is fine and, in some cases, highly encouraged. However, we suggest visiting the labs thoughtfully and with the intent to maintain students’ respect for their TA and you. Asking TAs what they think of the above points is also an excellent idea to make them feel their opinions are valued. Failing to consider all the points discussed above may cause frustration for the TAs and students, ultimately resulting in a poor teaching and learning environment.

Mentoring TAs to Ensure Effective Teaching

If you as the instructor view your relationship with your TAs as a mentor instead of a manager, you are more likely to gain TA and student respect and foster active learning. Your TAs are likely learning how to teach, so it is your job to help them in the process. If you as the instructor lack teaching experience or you have no training in education, then there is no shame in learning with your TAs. An example would be to devise an active learning activity, for either lecture or lab, and ask your TAs to assist in the activity and provide feedback. A lot of teaching is simply trial and error. Seeking out pedagogical resources, many of which are open access online, would be a great task to do with your TAs. After exploring some educational training resources online, use the weekly TA prep meetings to brainstorm better ways to present the learning objectives at the beginning of a given lab and the discussion component following activities at the end. Take this meeting time as an opportunity to explore and try new teaching methods that are low-stakes and do not necessarily change the main goals and objectives of a given lab. Additionally, supposing you are not formally trained in education, it is not advisable to direct your TAs to perform specific pedagogical practices in which you have no experience. Even if you have education training, it is better to mentor rather than manage your TAs teaching style, giving them the room and flexibility to learn and evaluate their teaching as they desire.

One aspect of mentoring is providing evaluation and feedback to young professionals where necessary. Remember as the instructor to give criticism sandwiched between compliments and positive comments; the TA will be less likely to take your feedback into consideration if it only focuses on the negative aspects of their performance. Help your TAs recognize the importance of maintaining a growth mindset by sharing experiences of how you as an early educator struggled to improve in certain areas and succeeded in the end. If you plan to evaluate a TA, do not sit in on their lab unannounced or without an observation plan, but rather be clear and transparent on how you will conduct an observation. For example, are you going to jot down some notes, or will you use a form? When and how will you discuss the assessment with the TA? It is not appropriate to discuss a TA’s evaluation in front of other TAs or students. If you have multiple TAs, then all of them need to be equally evaluated. Typically, teaching evaluations are required for internal purposes by your university department. Even if you are not planning or required to conduct teaching evaluations, keep in mind that one of your TAs might request one for professional development purposes. Your TA evaluation efforts can be used later in a reference letter or teaching portfolio.

Utilizing TAs in Various Components of a Course

Teaching assistants can be wonderful assets in a professor’s lecture class and their fellow TAs’ lab sections. Their participation can include guest lecturing, co-teaching with other TAs (discussed below), proctoring exams, and helping other TAs during particularly resource-intensive and time demanding classroom or lab activities. If your course has a laboratory section, it likely includes a lecture section as well. As the instructor, consider if you want your TAs to attend the lecture sections to better understand what students are learning. Having your TAs attend lecture classes might help them teach more effectively in their lab section(s) and it is especially helpful if they lack experience in the subject area or if it is their first-time teaching. However, your TAs might already be busy teaching a 3-hour lab once or twice a week and spending another 1-3 hours per week preparing for the lab, grading assignments, and addressing student questions through email and in-person office hours. When requesting the attendance of your graduate TAs in the lecture, consider their teaching appointment (i.e., 10-20 hours per week) and the fact that they are also working on their research in addition to the teaching assignment.

If you require TA attendance during the lecture, then try to make good use of their time. Some examples of TA lecture duties may include passing out and collecting papers, helping students with classroom group work or activities, keeping track of attendance, and watching for students who are struggling. If you only want TAs to attend the lecture so that they are aware of the lecture material and schedule, consider an alternative to save your TAs some time in their schedules. For example, you may inform students during weekly lab meetings about what was covered in the lecture, whether you are on schedule or behind, and so on. Guest lecturing is a valid option to have on the table and it is an excellent learning and resume-building opportunity for graduate students. Additionally, guest lecturing may help professors with their workload and semester travel plans. Further, one of your TAs might specialize in a particular topic due to research experience or because they have taken many courses on the subject. Students taking the class will likely gain new perspectives and encouragement for pursuing advanced degrees if they observe and learn from a graduate student who is guest lecturing. Further, just as you (i.e., lead TA or professor) should communicate with your TAs regarding their roles in the lab room, you should also express your expectations of TAs in the lecture portion of the course, if one exists. If you would like for the TA to help students work on an in-lecture exercise, demonstrate the task and expected results to the TA before class. Although the TA may know the course material quite well, this does not guarantee that they can follow a specific problem if they are put on the spot in the lecture room without first being adequately prepped. The TA may provide a different answer that is correct, but not one that you considered, or the TA might provide an incorrect or unhelpful answer; thus, it is best to make a plan beforehand so that everyone is on the same page. Additionally, one TA might have suggestions for improvements to the lecture lesson plan or concerns about the feasibility of a particular in-class activity. Thus, preparing your TAs for the in-lecture exercise beforehand and having a discussion afterwards on what went well will help build upon the professional relationship and improve the teaching and learning environment for everyone.

Undergraduate TAs and sometimes graduate TAs, if they attended the same university for their undergraduate degree, may have recently taken the lab course to be taught. A TA that has recently completed your course might give a unique perspective to your class. For example, if you have a TA who has taken your course, this TA may provide you with better insight into whether certain lab activities worked for the students. If you make small changes to your course every semester, asking this TA for insight could be incredibly helpful. They might tell you that a particular lab required much more explanation than given, but that the students were too confused to ask for help, so you might not have noticed. Or, the TA might inform you of topics that the students found especially interesting. The smaller the age (or experience) gap, the more relevant the insight your TA will be able to give you when you are developing and making changes to your course. Conversely, a graduate student who took a similar course with a different professor at another university may offer insight and other ideas that you may decide to incorporate into your lab course.

Fostering a Positive Learning Environment

An essential part of being an educator of any sort is making everyone in the classroom feel welcome. Teaching laboratory-based courses requires students to work closely with others and be comfortable asking for help, especially since lab activities are almost entirely hands-on. Thus, reassuring students and even other TAs that you (instructor) are here to support them in your highest capacity is an effective way to boost morale and increase learning for all. In the lab, there will be a variety of students with different backgrounds and experiences. Since there will also be a variety of preferred learning styles from students in the classroom, we advise TAs to mix up their teaching style to include passive and active forms of engagement during each lab session. For example, instead of asking questions by calling on individual students during pre-and post-lab discussions, opt for allowing students to form group discussions first before sharing with the entire class, or pass around notecards for students to write down their answers, which is particularly helpful for more introverted individuals.

At the start of the semester, make sure to review the resources your university provides for students with accessibility issues. As the instructor, make sure to educate your TAs on the proper protocols for accommodating students with disabilities (e.g., the deadline for students to provide an accommodation letter). As the lab TA, be sure to remind students of your office hours and frequently offer help sessions outside of the scheduled lab class. Other considerations for improving the learning environment as the instructor or TA would be to write a diversity statement in the front matter of your lab manual and utilize pronouns (e.g., she, her), encouraging students to feel comfortable doing so as well if they wish. Another important consideration is the accessibility of instructional materials, whether as a word document (e.g., syllabus, lab manual) or educational video. There are many online resources that help guide instructors on how to convert online documents, handouts, and videos to more accessible versions for students, from providing hyperlinks in Microsoft Word to generating captions for videos and other media. Visit this webpage to find several resources and articles from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education: https://ncdae.org/resources/.

Another consideration is including TAs in the preparation of lab activities. For example, it might be helpful for you as the instructor to request constructive feedback during weekly meetings and, if necessary, recruit help in designing or reviewing a new lab activity or modifying lab procedures from previous semesters. Whether or not a TA has any experience with a particular subject, they may have helpful insight into how a lab activity could be improved, particularly after having taught a given lab. If you, as the instructor, have not taught a lab section for several semesters, you may have lost sight of how a particular lab is conducted. Thus, you may be stuck in the conventional way of how a given lab was run while ignoring new and potentially more effective strategies. Therefore, it is essential to provide TAs with a platform to voice their opinions and concerns. Making a concerted effort to include TAs in the discussion will only improve everyone’s learning and teaching environment.


Many of the same principles discussed above apply to co-teaching with faculty members or TAs. Some examples include attending the co-teacher’s lab or lecture and maintaining effective communication regarding co-teacher roles, responsibilities, and expectations. It is generally best practice to stay engaged and attentive while your fellow TA or faculty member is teaching lab or lecture. In some cases, co-teaching may be a viable option. For example, in the soils lab course at VT, we had one of our undergraduate TAs, who are less experienced, co-teach with a more experienced graduate TA. During the first one or two labs, the undergraduate TA simply assisted the other TA to see how the lab is run before taking on any active teaching roles. The graduate TA guided, mentored, and offered suggestions for how and where the undergraduate TA could be useful. Depending on the undergraduate TA’s level of experience, the laboratory instruction may be split in half; that is, one TA may discuss some of the material (e.g., more technical), while the other TA covers the remaining material (e.g., less technical). During co-teaching, it is essential to keep the flow of the instruction logical, organized, and clear for students. Thus, it might be helpful to briefly overview “who will teach what and when” at the start of the lab. Also, if there is more than one lab activity, the co-teaching tasks may be split up between different activities (instead of both teachers covering one topic) to give students appropriate time to adjust to different teaching styles and personalities. Co-teaching may involve many other scenarios, such as co-teaching with two faculty members in a lecture-style classroom. As one might expect, co-teaching includes both pros and cons related to classroom size, instructor personality, experience level, background, conflict management styles, and so forth. Before setting up a co-taught classroom, there are several considerations to take into account. Co-teaching has several advantages in lab-based hands-on courses since students benefit from greater one-on-one guidance and support. Based on our experiences co-teaching with both undergraduate and graduate TAs, we created a list of benefits and considerations that should be addressed before co-teaching with other TAs (Table 8.3). We recommend exploring Cook and Friend (1995), which is an article covering many key topics related to co-teaching.

Table 8.3 The benefits and considerations of co-teaching a laboratory course.
Benefits Considerations
  • Allows a less-experienced instructor to ”shadow” and observe a more experienced instructor.
  • Provides an opportunity for professional development and reinforcement of knowledge for an undergraduate TA.
  • Allows for students to receive help and instruction from an additional instructor with different perspectives and teaching styles.
  • Increased one-on-one assistance is especially helpful with “hands-on” activities in lab settings.
  • Requires extra ”set-up” time on the part of the primary instructor or TA (e.g., time spent meeting with the co-teacher).
  • Requires clear organization, communication, and respect between instructors.
  • Inefficient use of lab space with two instructors.
  • Student may have negative perceptions of lab activities with two instructors present in the room (i.e., feeling overwhelmed or pressured to perform).


Laboratory courses require a combination of teaching strategies and generally take more preparation and time-management skills. Additionally, since lab-based courses usually involve multiple TAs and may include both a lecture and lab component within the course, it is essential to keep expectations clear among the instructional team and student-teacher. Maintaining effective communication between TAs and instructors should help create a well-functioning laboratory and an enjoyable working environment. Students who take lab-based courses may not be accustomed to the hands-on nature and group-learning format of lab classes. It is the responsibility of the TA or instructor to be prepared for every lab, help students stay engaged with the learning content, and facilitate discussions regarding the importance of each topic. Perhaps the best way to succeed in a lab course as an educator is to stay prepared and organized, which will in turn increase confidence. Proper lab planning and preparation, as described in this chapter, will allow the lab field trip, activity, or procedure to run smoothly and create a meaningful learning environment for most students. To effectively oversee a lab course as the lead instructor, it is necessary to provide clear instructions and expectations for your TAs. The teaching expectations in lab-based courses go beyond what is expected from a traditional lecture-style course. Even the seemingly smallest efforts, such as creating detailed TA guides for each lab and having a weekly coordination meeting, can have a positive impact on TA performance.

Reflection Questions

  • Will you be teaching a laboratory, field, or combination course? What strategies will you use to motivate and inspire students aside from the hands-on nature of the course?
  • What are some challenges you have faced or think you might face working with a an instructional team (e.g., professor, TAs) or co-teaching with another instructor? Reflect on your experiences and consider some possible scenarios given your unique teaching appointment.
  • Describe some ways that you might positively improve your work conditions in a lab room or field setting and manage conflict if and when it arises.
  • Have you considered the benefits of co-teaching in your courses? What about the use of open educational resources or digital learning platforms? Consider alternative ways to enhance the student learning environment.
Table 8.4 Example Undergraduate TA Position Description
Position Title: Undergraduate Teaching Assistant for Soils Lab
Job Description: This is a unique opportunity for teaching and leadership experience in Soil Science. The undergraduate teaching assistant (TA) role will include shadowing the Lab Coordinator and helping with lab set-up, clean-up, and instructing. Applicants must be available on Monday mornings for lab preparation and on Tuesday mornings to attend the lab. Specific times for clean-up and set-up are flexible.

Description of specific duties:

  • Independent clean-up work, such as washing lab dishes, grinding soil, and general cleaning.
  • Instructing students on background information for lab
  • Instructing students on lab procedures
  • Assisting students during lab activities
  • Answering student questions during office hours or optional study session

The undergraduate TA may lead 2 or more labs if they have background knowledge (e.g., Soil Chemical Properties lab if the student has taken Environmental Soil Chemistry course, Soil Profiles and Description lab if the student has been involved with Soil Judging, etc.). The undergraduate TA will teach under the Lab Coordinator/Lead Graduate TA, who is responsible for grading assignments and will lead most lab sessions.

The position may be paid, up to 10hrs/week depending on available funding.

  • Junior or Senior standing
  • Crop and Soil Sciences (CSS), Environmental Science (ENSC) major preferred. Applications with similar major/minor (e.g., Biological Systems Engineering) will be accepted if appropriate coursework has been completed.
  • Must have taken Soils and Soils Lab (CSES 3114, 3124) and at least one of the following:
    Wetland Soils and Mitigation, Soil Genesis and Classification, Reclamation of Drastically Disturbed Lands, Environmental Soil Chemistry, Geomorphology, Soil Fertility and Management
  • Comfortable speaking in front of groups
  • Ability to explain soil science concepts to peers
How to Apply: Send resume and short statement of interest to:

[Department Student Support Coordinate or Course Instructor]

Contact for questions and more information: Course Instructor

Lab Coordinator/Lead Graduate TA

Example Grading Key

Text in orange represents the answer guide and point deduction.

Notebook 4: Field Trip #1 – Soil Profiles and Parent Materials

Total Possible Points: 20

(10 total; 5 pts. each) Profile Descriptions

Profile description sheets for the two FT1 soils are on the following pages. Fill these out and save them for the final report.

(10) Summary Questions

  1. What is the main soil forming factor that is different between the two soils (Brush Mtn. and TRC)?
    Parent material rock type (but not soil type, both are residuum). Brush Mountain is sandstone (soil pit 1), TRC is limestone (soil pit 2).
    3 points total:
    -2 points if parent material and rock type (e.g., sandstone) is not the answer given.
    -1 point if ‘parent material’ alone is given without rock type.
  2. How does this soil forming factor influence the soil morphological properties and land use management of the two soils? Compare and contrast for each soil.
    Soil Pit 1: yellowish brown, shallow, sandy, Bw horizon. The sandstone is not easily weatherable; thus, shallow to bedrock which affects conventional septic systems. Steep slopes and sandier, less fertile soils make forestry the best land use option.Soil Pit 2: reddish brown, deep, clayey, Bt horizon. Less restrictions. Deeper soil and higher clay content makes this a better agricultural soil. The gentle sloping landscape is easier to develop.
    4 points total. 2 points per soil for key morphological properties (depth, texture) and land use.
    -1 point if overall depth or texture is incorrect or not mentioned.
    -1 point if land use is incorrect or not mentioned. 
  3. Explain how the climate differs at the two soil locations.
    Brush mountain is on the top of a mountain, TRC is in the valley. Brush Mountain is a few degrees colder than the TRC. Brush Mountain is also north facing, which would be colder than the SW aspect at TRC.
    3 points total:
    -1 point if no thorough explanation (i.e., just ‘Brush Mtn is colder’).
    -3 points if no answer or given answer is not climate related.


Arthur Lakes Library. (2021, Dec. 9). Open educational resources. https://libguides.mines.edu/oer/findOER

Arreola, R. A. (1998). Writing learning objectives: a teaching resource document from the office of the vice chancellor for planning and academic support. The University of Tennessee, Memphis. p. 1-6. http://www.icoph.org/dynamic/attachments/resources/learning_objectives_tennessee.pdf

Cook, L. & M. Friend. (1995). Co-teaching: guidelines for creating effective practices (EJ545936). ERIC.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (n.d.) BioInteractive. https://www.biointeractive.org/classroom-resources

Lumen Candela. (n.d.). Understanding OER. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-oercommunitycourse-understandingoer/chapter/defining-oer/

The National Center on Disability and Access to Education. (2022). Resources. https://ncdae.org/resources/

The Open University and The Wolfson Foundation. (2013). The open science laboratory. https://learn5.open.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=2

New Mexico State University. (2021). Science of agriculture. https://scienceofagriculture.org/

Vaughan, K. Y. & Pressler. (n.d.). For the love of soil. https://www.fortheloveofsoil.org/about

  1. How to cite this book chapter: Ott, E.T. and Angel, H.Z. 2022. How to Oversee a Laboratory Course Taught by Teaching Assistants: Experiences in the Lab and Field. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. https://doi.org/10.21061/universityteaching License: CC BY-NC 4.0.
  2. Some of the resources provided in these websites may not be true OER as defined at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-oercommunitycourse-understandingoer/chapter/defining-oer/. Please check the copyright status of these resources before use, modification, etc.


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Teaching in the University Copyright © 2022 by Emily T. Ott and Hannah Z. Angel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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