Teaching Assistant Handbook

Compiled by Prof. Gary E. Ford, September 1999
Revised by Prof. Richard R. Spencer, July, 2000

Examinations

TA often have major responsibilities in grading examinations and in many cases they are involved in preparation of the exam and solutions, and in administering the exam.

Preparation

The faculty member in charge of the course is responsible for the planning and preparation of examinations, but the TA may be asked to assist.

A TA is often asked for ideas for exam problems, which can be expanded upon by the instructor. From office hour or laboratory contact with students, a TA often has a clearer idea of the concepts and material that students should understand, but which may be causing them some difficulty. Further, a TA would be expected to have taken a similar course recently and should recall key topics that should be addressed on an examination. Give serious thought to possible problems and provide these to the instructor, even if you haven't developed the ideas fully.

A TA may also be asked to do the word processing for an examination from rough notes provided by the instructor. Complete this task well before the scheduled examination to allow the instructor time to review the examination.

Copies of the examination can be requested from Roberta Schreiner in the ECE Office. Originals should be provided 24 hours prior to the examination.

Solutions and Grading Guide

A TA is often asked to prepare solutions for the examination problems. Preferably, these solutions should be prepared before the exam is given, so that any errors can be found and corrected. The solutions are prepared both to aid in exam grading and to distribute to students after the exam has been graded and returned.

The solutions should be very neat, to encourage neatness by the students. All of the steps in a solution should be detailed. Different forms of the answer should be given if there are any. Alternative solution methods should be given if these are important.

In consultation with the instructor, a grading guide should be prepared. Points should be allocated for each problem and section of a problem. Deductions for anticipated errors should be specified.

Administration

TAs may be asked to administer examinations, a task that requires more preparation than might be expected. This preparation ideally should begin when the exam is in draft form. Review the exam in detail, preferably preparing full solutions. Discuss with the instructor any errors or questions that could be misconstrued by the students. If the exam has already been prepared and copied, discuss with the instructor any problems you encountered and agree on how these problems should be addressed at the time you administer the exam. Also discuss with the instructor the questions the students might be expected to ask during the examination and how you should respond to these questions. Ask about the rules that have been established as to the materials the students may use during the examination (books, notes, calculators, etc.) Complete your preparation by making sure you know the time and location of the examination and by ensuring that the exam will be copied and delivered to you in time.

Plan to arrive early at the exam location to prepare to administer the examination. If possible, arrange the chairs in the room to separate the students. Answer any last minute questions the students may have. Provide oral and written instructions concerning allowed or not allowed materials to be used during the exam and see that these instructions have been followed. Explain the time limit on the exam and the procedures you will use to retrieve the exams at the end of the exam period. Announce the number of pages and problems on the examination. Pass out the exam copies, asking students to leave them face down until all exams have been distributed. When you are certain that all students have received an exam and you have retrieved the extra exams, announce that the students can begin work.

During the exam, you can expect students to ask questions, which must be answered very carefully. You should only answer questions to clarify the questions being asked on the examination. If a student has discovered an error on the examination, this should be corrected with an announcement and a note on the board. If several students have asked about the same clarification, this should also be announced and explained on the board. Some students will invariably "fish" for more information and you must not give them an unfair advantage. You should not provide confirmation if they ask if they have taken the correct approach to the solution of a problem.

If there is no clock in the room, write the time on the board every 10 minutes. Count the number of people taking the examination.

Remain in the room during the entire exam period to proctor the exam. Scan the room occasionally to detect and guard against academic dishonesty. The following are strategies for confronting possible academic dishonesty during the exam:

  • Announce that all work is individual--no looking at other papers.
  • Announce that no talking is permitted during exams or quietly ask talking students to stop.
  • If a student is using notes or has notes visible that are not allowed to be used during the exam, discreetly confiscate the notes or ask student to put them away.
  • Do not stop a student from completing the exam, even if you believe that there is cheating instead, interrupt the misconduct as described above.
  • Identify those involved by setting their exams aside and recording their names.

For further information on preventing and/or reporting academic dishonesty, refer to:

Student Judicial Affairs

Academic Code of Conduct

It can be a difficult process to get students to turn in their examinations at the end of the period and you should be well prepared for this process. If there are more than about 60 students in the class, it helps considerably to have a second person to assist with this process. At the end of the period, declare the exam over and give students two minutes to complete their work and to write their names on their exams. At the end of the two minute period, tell students to drop their pencils and turn their exams over. It is often best to ask the students to remain in their seats and to pass their exams to the end of the aisles where you can retrieve them. As one person retrieves the exams, the second person should pick up exams of those students who have not followed the instructions to stop working. It may be necessary to penalize those students who don't follow instructions, but if this approach is taken, it must be announced at the beginning of the exam session.

Upon return to your office, staple exams as needed, then count and record the names of students who submitted an examination.

Grading

TAs are typically responsible for a substantial portion of the effort in grading exams. If there will be more than one person involved in the process, such as a TA and the instructor, or several TAs, the first decisions to be made are how to divide the work and how to carry out the process. The grading is invariably more consistent if each problem is graded by one person. If this recommended method is chosen, a decision must then be made to either grade the exam as a group, or to pass the exams around and to do the grading individually. The group approach is recommended if any of the graders is inexperienced and needs close supervision, such as the use of an undergraduate reader as an exam grader. The group approach also gets the job done faster and may be necessary in the case of the final exam. If the exams are to be passed around, a secure method of transfer must be decided upon. The boxes in 2131 Kemper Hall or lockers in the instructional labs can be used for this purpose.

As you begin grading, you should first carefully review the problem statement, solutions, and grading guide. It is often advantageous to quickly scan the solutions of several students to see if the approaches they have taken fit the grading guide. If not, the grading guide should be modified to accommodate their approaches.

You should develop a consistent and readily understandable method of marking the exam problems. It is suggested that you indicate errors with a cross (X) and correct responses with a check. Circle or underline errors and provide concise explanations. Give constructive criticism only, as attempts at humor or sarcasm are inappropriate on exams.

Allocation of points can be made in two ways. If the solution is mostly correct, the points deducted for each error can be indicated in the margin. Total the deductions and mark the score near the beginning of the problem solution in the form X/Y, where X is the assigned score and Y is the maximum possible score for the problem. If the solution is mostly incorrect, it is best to simply make a judgment call as to the assigned score and to simply mark it in the form X/Y, making no attempt to indicate deductions in detail. The score should then be carried forward to be recorded in a table to be prepared on the back side of the first page of the exam booklet. List the problem numbers in the first column and the scores in the second column. By recording the scores on the back of the page, the exams can be distributed without revealing the scores to other students, preserving privacy.

As you encounter errors in the students' work and make decisions about point deductions for these errors, record notes on the deductions on your grading guide to help maintain consistency in your grading. If a student has taken an approach to a problem that differs significantly from those in your grading guide, you may need to develop a detailed solution and grading guide based on the approach.

Each exam should be marked to indicate the extent of the student's work. Strike a diagonal line across unused pages. Record a note on the exam if no work was found for a problem. If very little work appears for a problem, strike a diagonal line through the remainder of the page. These actions will help to prevent students, after the exam has been returned, from altering their work and claiming that you failed to grade some of it, and asking for a regrade.

Don't be concerned if your grading goes very slowly at first. After you have graded a substantial number of exams, you will have encountered most of the errors the students will make and you will have memorized the point deductions, so your work will go much faster. Do the grading slowly and steadily, taking frequent breaks, so that your work will be accurate. In some cases, you will encounter an approach that you either don't understand or which doesn't fit your grading guide. Set it aside and return to it later when you have more experience with the exam. If it still doesn't make sense to you, refer the problem to the instructor.

Regrading

In consultation with the instructor, procedures should be established to review the grading of exams, if requested by the students. A good way to handle this is to require the student to resubmit his or her exam with written statements as to what was missed or unfairly graded on the exam. These requests should be reviewed by the instructor or TA who originally graded the problem in question. Adjustments in grading should be made, following the original grading guide, if this is justified. An explanation should be given if no change in the grading is to be made. The regraded examination should be returned to the student in a class session. If the student is still unsatisfied with the grading, the student should then be directed to meet with a TA, or preferably, with the instructor.

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