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“What is it like to be a TA?”

Ever wondered that exact question as you attend tutorials with your teaching assistant (TA), why they even decided to become one in the first place, and how hard it is to be one?

TAs are involved in every single student’s life from the very beginning, and they can be a part-time job for undergraduate students, postgraduate students, or full-time positions for experienced educators. Some students have also experienced tutorials under their lecturing professor. Love them or hate them, they take you through tutorials, facilitate class discussion and guide you through assignments throughout the year. While few students take the effort to get to know their TAs better, most of us simply don’t have time to do so when simultaneously rushing to complete more than 20 modular credits worth of schoolwork.

So, here at ResLife, we conducted an interview with one FASS TA: and he tells all. Those who have taken GET1050 Computational Thinking – or will be in the future – might be especially interested to look out for this familiar face!


The 19/20 GET1050 team. Source: Ang Jing Wei (top row, 4th from left)


1. Can you tell us about yourself and your course of study?

My name is Jing Wei. I’m currently in Year 2 going onto Year 3, studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. My course is really intriguing as it truly provides different perspectives in which I can interpret happenings around me! For example, learning to understand random musings by prominent leaders that seem to make no sense at all.  In reality, these musings are not random, and have deeper implications than first assumed.


2. What made you want to become a TA, and why specifically this module?

I guess it was a combination of understanding how the module is useful, especially in real life work based on my internship experiences, and also a “why not?” as academia seems like an interesting choice. So, when provided the opportunity, I decided to just hop on board!


3. Is it true that you must do extremely well in the module to become a TA? What other myths are true or untrue about the requirements?

 You have to do decently well of course. After all, you have to teach the module, and often grades at least represent a certain degree to how much you understand the content covered in the subject. Your tutor and professors will often also assess how competent you are as well, and this forms the next portion of requirements – not all teaching assistants have gotten As or A+ for the modules they teach, because understanding can be expressed in other forms too. It’s not only the academic grade that matters.

More often than not, the professors approach you, rather than you approaching the professor for the position, though sometimes there will be bulletins (open calls) for TA applications. So, it’s good to have genuine questions to ask in class – professors can tell when you’re just trying to get attention too!


4. How was your relationship with the Professor of the module? Would you say the teaching team is close?

 We all had a professional relationship with each other, but naturally after a semester, you get to know each other better. In relation to the professor of GET1050, I would say we’re on the level now where I would definitely meet him for a cup of coffee to catch up once in a while. As for the other TAs, I was closer to the ones that came in with me at the same time. We would occasionally hang out together, go for karaoke, have meals together and such. However, this was cut short because of Covid-19 and related restrictions, so we didn’t grow as close we could have.

In fact, for the first one or two lessons, I had other TAs who came to help out as I wasn’t extremely familiar with the material yet. After that I taught alone, but any time I couldn’t solve a problem, I’d approach my fellow TAs knowing they’re only a text away. The community in GET1050 is great because we know we have each other!


5. How involved are TAs with the class / lesson plans – did you have any say on how the module is assessed, with regards to the assignments?

Since all TAs have been through the module, they are familiar with what kind of questions students will be able to answer; or conversely, which are too hard, convoluted, and unclear. The professor will ask for inputs and opinions on assignments he or she plans.

GET1050 lessons are structured but quite heavy in material. They’re also fast-paced, which means if you don’t review material with students, those who are struggling will find it hard to catch up. So it’s really up to the TA to decide which parts of the lesson plan they can cover within one lesson. Sometimes s/he will need to cover one part more in-depth to clear up uncertainties, etc. You do need to be adaptable and quick on your feet during lesson time!


6. Describe the ups and downs of teaching for one semester.

The ups will definitely be witnessing the lightbulb moments, when the students understand concepts that you have been driving at for the lesson, or when students finally engage you after being disinterested for most of the semester. I feel down when students have a puzzled look on their face, even after trying to explain a particular concept for the entire lesson. I guess this goes to show how much is put into planning the lessons as well. Whether students are able to effectively grasp the takeaways you’re trying to provide, really do play a large part in the ups and downs of teaching as well.


Some of the GET1050 teaching team at a pasta party. Source: Ang Jing Wei


7. How has your school routine changed?

 It actually hasn’t changed much for me. The workload is like an additional module, but there are no exams and it’s grade free!


8. Did you have a ‘student from hell’, or ‘student from heaven’ moment? Tell us about other memorable incidents took place in your TA journey.

 One day, I was conducting a tutorial when the email announcement of the 10 extra MCs worth of S/Us was sent during my class, due to Covid-19. One of my students, upon seeing the email, immediately shouted in the middle of lesson: “S/U!”

But there were definitely very rewarding moments too. I had three students from Eusoff Hall who were all in different groups, whom I noticed put in a lot of effort for the module right from the beginning. When they got stuck, they all tried their best to solve the issue. One student in particular tried to rally her group together, in which that group eventually pulled together to produce something good.

I also had another group of four students who were initially not interested in GET1050 in any shape, or form. I could tell because they were on WhatsApp during class, or even doing their other module essays. (Yes, we notice!) But, as time went by, they became more and more engaged with the lessons, and I saw them start to actively try to participate. In the end, they did well in the module!

A particular incident that stuck out to me was a student asking the same question as I did during my own time as a student in GET1050. It reminded me of the responsibility I have as a TA to ensure that I help the student understand the topic at hand in the same way that my predecessors have helped me.


9. How did you really feel when students messaged you a lot, closer to submission deadlines or final assignments?

Actually, I felt happy! All these messages showed that students cared about the module. Of course, I couldn’t answer everything immediately, as I still had to study for my own modules and exams, but what impressed me was students asking whether their direction is right, rather than trying to just ask me for the answers.


10. What was the one main takeaway you have from this experience?

 If I had to name a primary takeaway from the journey, it would have to be realizing how exhausting it really is to teach in a university setting. Really gives you a perspective on what teaching is like, and to not to take your TAs/lecturers for granted! 🙂


11. Any tips to FASS students who are going to take GET1050 in the coming semesters?

Try out every single extra practice you can get (especially for the coding components) as these things will save you more than you expect in the future, beyond the module. Basic skills that are taught will only stick with practice, and these exercises will ensure that the things you learn will be retained for a long time to come.


12. Any parting advice for undergraduates hoping to get a TA position?

 Keeping an open mind, working hard and seeking not just the grades, but the knowledge. Of course, helping your friends with their schoolwork will also be useful as practice!


Have suggestions on who ResLife should interview next for #ResLifeinterviews? Email lydiagan@u.nus.edu!

Lydia Gan

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