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Teaching Assistants

David McMurray, The International University of Kagoshima

For this issue’s Teaching Assistance I asked foreign language learners and graduate students to share their opinions about the roles of teaching assistants.

The task of planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling classroom environments is best handled by an instructor in charge of a class. The tasks of language teachers (T) at universities can be supported by different kinds of teaching assistants. Retired teachers and business professionals are sometimes recruited on a part-time contract basis as Remedial Teachers (RT). Graduate students can be hired as Teaching Assistants (TA) to support the instructor-in-charge teach in the classroom, prepare lesson plans, and discuss ways to improve future classes. Student Assistants (SA) are usually university juniors or seniors hired to provide support to their younger peers. Learning Assistants (LA), who are often the same age as the students in the classroom, can be asked to volunteer to act as native language tutors and sit alongside foreign language learners.

A debating class is an example of a teaching situation in which these different team members can work to provide synergy. In my Business English course, 50 to 80 students learn to negotiate and debate during a 15-class semester. On my own, it would be difficult to efficiently select teams of four students, set up the tables, chairs, microphones, timers, and create a list of topics for debate, let alone gather data, coach, judge, and teach necessary grammatical forms of speech to the students. But a TA could determine suitable topics and serve as M.C. and timekeeper. SAs could coach debate teams and an LA could sit on a team to assist students. An RT could assist students after class with research, and also help check grammar and vocabulary. Then, I could be free to judge the teams and keep an eye on the audience in the classroom (see figure one).

Currently the continuum of teaching faculty salaries slides down from the highest paid professor to associate, assistant, lecturer, researcher and on down to the lowest paid position of LA. The SA makes approximately one tenth the hourly salary of a professor. It is not inconceivable for students in a large class to have access to support from a paid T, RT, TA, SA and LA. With the creation of these lower paid helpers, teachers might be worried about their own worth to students. When I asked students what they thought I do in class as a class professor, they informed me that: “Professor taught me technical knowledge of language” and “Professors are experts in a particular field of study.” Knowing that students do value my expertise, I felt I could keep on teaching business English and setting up debates and other task-based activities.

The Teacher (T)

The professor holds the traditional place of authority at the head of the class with the responsibility to create syllabi, select textbooks, assign exams and determine grades. The instructor in charge of the university class is better positioned than administrators to manage the tasks of the assistants to make the classroom team function efficiently. It is recommended that the selection of teaching assistants be made by the instructor in charge of the lesson with the final decision made by the administration. The teacher can manage their class by keeping an eye on attendance, ensuring SAs carry out a social function with peers, checking that the TA keeps focused on the lesson and the classroom equipment, as well as identifying students who are ahead and who are struggling and in need of an RT.

Learning Assistants (LA)

Students respond to students. Hiring Japanese-speaking university students to tutor international students of the same age can instill enthusiasm, energy, and sociability on the university campus. University students make great part-time employees in these capacities.

Student Assistants (SA)

SAs help me as an instructor, but their primary goal is to help freshmen students feel comfortable studying at the university level. Students respond to older students, which is called the sempai effect. Hiring students who are one or two years older can make for more communication links between students of different ages. SAs can be hired from the ranks of university juniors and sophomores. Two different SAs explained their attitudes towards their roles as an SA, saying, “I am an SA for first grade university students. I am happy to be an SA. SAs give advice to help students succeed and not drop out of school. I am paid for 120 minutes per class.” Another SA said, “I am an SA for a PC class. I directly teach students to use basic computer software such as Power Point, Excel, and Word. I am paid for 90 minutes per class. I am also an SA for a physical education class. I support the teacher.”

According to students in my class who are helped by SAs, one student said that, “SAs only help students with their lifestyle. SAs are close to my age.” A second student informed me, “SAs are university students.” I was also told, “SAs are friendly.” A third student claimed, “SAs help students to learn school rules.” 

As well as aiming at helping a lesson to be more productive for freshmen students, the SAs can develop communication and coaching skills. In addition to receiving guidance from the instructor in charge, regular training seminars can help develop their abilities to be assistants. After learning the basic rules of education assistance and discussing the basics of communication skills students can deepen their understanding about the role and responsibilities of the SA. Holding SA workshops six times each semester with a concluding conference can round out opportunities for professional development. In a study by Koch and Takashima (2016) it was found that SAs also need in-the-classroom training. Some crucial moments in a lesson required more than the presence of one teacher and an SA. For example in their class some students were unable to cope, and the teacher and SAs’ instinctive responses were to come to their aid—unbeknown to them, they were generating even more stimuli. The Occupational Therapist, who was acting as an assistant, noticed this and went on to instruct the SAs rather than the students or the teacher.

Teaching Assistants (TA)

Teachers’ aides and TAs include non-professional personnel or graduate students who support teachers in providing instruction to students. The role of the TA is usually decided by the professor, the teacher (T) in charge of the class. Teaching aides refers to professional personnel directly involved in teaching students. The T usually selects who will fill the position, and this is often a seminar student or researcher who majors in the topic to be instructed. To be successful, the T and TA need to create a productive teaching partnership.

During interviews with students who worked as TAs, it was reported that they sometimes experienced classroom management problems and wished they had more time to discuss the lesson plan with the professor in charge of the class. TAs noted that, “it takes time for some students to realize that their English is in fact good enough to be understood and to believe in themselves from the bottom of their hearts.” Kawamura (2016) stated that, “typically TAs set up the electronic equipment and move desks, chairs and whiteboards for a particular language teaching activity,” (p.32) but they also, “summarize and create supporting teaching materials to help the students to understand the lesson at hand.” Realizing that TAs should not deviate from the way the class is conducted by the teacher, a TA explained that sometimes, “it seems important to me to speak in Japanese to build the confidence of some students.”

The students I spoke to told me, “TAs are graduate students. TAs know many things about the course.” They also told me, “TAs find study materials for students.” “TAs support teachers and students.” TAs prepare equipment for the classroom.” While TAs are vital sources of support for teachers, knowing how to manage them can be tricky. According to Kawamura (2016), TAs can have beneficial but also negative effects on student motivation in college-level courses.

Pedagogical concerns of large classes can be met by establishing student-centered approaches. With the help of a TA who can guide learning activities, the T can provide opportunities for pair work and group work. Therefore, having a TA in the class can promote learner autonomy.

Extracurricular Language Instructors (RT)

The building of confidence and trust is important to elicit communication between students in a remedial education program. Students receive remedial instruction from instructors or graduate students, who are not mainstream teachers. The lessons are given as a kind of scaffold or sheltered learning environment.

An extracurricular language instructor (RT) let me know that some students perk up when asked to talk about traveling abroad. I used this advice to encourage them to speak up when they attended my regular classes. I also heard that some students seemed reluctant to even move a pencil. But when these students were seated beside friends they did speak to one another in the target language.

The ultimate goal of extracurricular teaching is to keep students attending classes in a regular class environment rather than have them drop out. If university students find that they have not been sufficiently prepared during their high school years to succeed in gateway courses, RTs can help them outside the mainstream curriculum. Remedial education can help students who are underprepared for college-level classes, but nonetheless neither want to drop classes nor drop out of the university. Retention rates are highly improved by the efforts of retired teachers, part-time teachers, and graduate students.

The RT lowers the standards set for normal classes to help students learn at a slow, comfortable pace. Iwazume (2016) claimed that as an RT, “I am not pushing students to study faster and faster, I am trying to pull them along gently in tandem with their mainstream professors” (p. 29). No final examination is given in her remedial class, nor are students asked to take TOEIC or other measures that assess student skills. At the university where she studies English Education at the graduate level, a remedial education program was constructed for freshmen students as a single semester pathway into Mathematics, English, and Japanese language courses. These three subjects were identified by career development administrators as essential skills required in most careers in Japan. Iwazume (2016) found that the low-achieving students in her class tended to confide their concerns to her first rather than to classmates or teachers in the faster moving “gateway courses” of the regular curriculum.

In conclusion, a teacher with large classes could inform the department head or university administration that hiring SAs and TAs can help to improve the quality of classes. Organizing an effective team of teaching assistants seems to be a good first step toward helping underperforming students. A second step could be bringing in RTs who can provide remedial education to students identified as likely to drop out because of difficulties keeping up with peers in larger classes. Offering extra assistance in English can also prove popular with parents who ask for support in guiding their offspring towards a more promising career. The tasks of planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling classroom environments can be overwhelming, but with careful implementation of a team of assistants classroom management can be achieved. Managing the tasks of the classroom assistants to make the team efficient can achieve productivity goals desired by university administrators. More importantly, it appears to improve student engagement and learning.


  • Iwazume, N. (2016). Teaching assistance: Extracurricular English instructors on campus. The Language Teacher, 40(5), 28–29.
  • Kawamura, Y. (2016). Teaching assistance from TAs. The Language Teacher, 40(6), 31–33.
  • Koch, J. & Takashima, R. (2016). The power of an educator: Occupational therapist team. The Language Teacher, 40(3), 26–32.
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