Between Remote Teaching & Learning: Teaching Assistants in the Time of COVID-19

Charmaine N. Willis, University at Albany, SUNY

Reyhan Topal, University at Albany, SUNY

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities around the globe to move to remote teaching. Professors are overwhelmed in trying to quickly convert their in-person courses online, while students struggle to shift from face-to-face instruction to remote learning, some in surroundings that are not conducive to learning. Teaching Assistants (TAs) are both instructors and students and as such are faced with dually challenging circumstances. In this post, we extrapolate the lessons from Jahanbani, Willis, and Lee’s (2018) Journal of Political Science Education article geared towards TAs and discuss how they may apply to the COVID-19 context.

Balancing Teaching and Coursework One of the most important and difficult aspects of being a TA is learning how to balance between teaching and completing one’s own coursework; we offer a few pieces of advice to address this challenge.

First and foremost, we suggest as a general rule that TAs keep in mind that their role as students comes first. To that end, we recommend setting a flexible schedule to balance one’s teaching obligations and coursework. A schedule is crucial to allotting one’s time between coursework and teaching. However, this schedule should be somewhat flexible due to current circumstances: not only might it take longer to complete one’s own work, but things may arise personally or professionally that need to be addressed immediately. Therefore, we recommend avoiding scheduling too many items on one’s “to-do list” on any given day.

Secondly, many TAs are inundated with more student emails than usual, as their students can no longer meet with them in person for questions. To that end, TAs should consider setting specific times during which they will respond to students’ emails if they have not already done so: this not only sets a boundary on the TA’s time but sets clear expectations for their students and faculty supervisor.


Additionally, TAs can also prepare and circulate a frequently asked questions (FAQ) document in which they answer students’ frequently asked questions to reduce the amount of emails they receive. Alternatively, they may create an online forum where students post their questions and TAs answer them. Other students can then see their classmates’ same or similar questions and the answers to those questions.

Balancing the Role of Instructor and Mentor In addition to balancing the roles of student and instructor, TAs often balance the roles of instructor and mentor. Students often feel more comfortable reaching out to their TA for course-related assistance or general advice; while this is usually a rewarding connection, it can also be emotionally overwhelming for the TA. We offer a few suggestions for TAs to navigate this relationship, especially under current circumstances. Firstly, transitioning to online courses has increased the probability of students struggling and entirely disengaging from class, for a variety of reasons. TAs should consult with their faculty supervisors in situations such as these and not blame themselves for students’ lack of communication. Secondly, many students are struggling due to the pandemic and subsequent quarantine.TAs might have students who have COVID-19 symptoms, lost their loved ones to the virus, or difficulty in adapting to remote learning. Given the extraordinary circumstances, TAs should be approachable and willing to listen to their students. At the same time however, we caution TAs to keep in mind that they are teachers and students, not counselors or medical professionals. To that end, TAs should be referring students to their faculty supervisors, counseling resources, university administrators, and other resources as needed. Additionally, TAs should be mindful of their own needs and seek out resources as necessary.

Adaptability TAs, their faculty supervisors, and their students are all being asked to adapt to the current social distancing measures and, in many cases, convert an in-person course to an online one. Given the limited amount of planning for this shift, many teaching activities have and will not go according to plan. TAs might have students who live in homes with large families, share their laptops with their family members, and have poor internet connections. Such circumstances present a challenge to making an exam or class activity synchronous. To that end, having a back-up plan and keeping the desired learning outcome in mind may help mitigate teaching challenges as they arise. For example, TAs can make exams for different days or time slots, which can help students choose the one that works best for them. An alternative approach might be giving the exams in multiple-choice format, which may reduce TAs’ grading workloads. Additionally, while there is a limit to the amount of preparation one can do under the current circumstances, doing a test-run of a new software or app before having students use it may lessen unforeseen problems. For example, many TAs and professors are using narrated PowerPoint lectures, which are quite helpful for students. Unfortunately, the file sizes of such narrated lectures are generally very large and students with low bandwidths and poor internet connections might have trouble downloading them. Doing a test run can help TAs identify the problem and reduce the file size by using alternative web sources.

Final Thoughts  The lessons for TAs of learning how to balance between their roles as students, instructors, and mentors, and recognizing the need for flexibility, are perhaps more relevant now than ever before. The suggestions here aim to enable TAs to fulfill their teaching responsibilities without undermining their personal and professional needs. Additionally, communicating with one’s faculty supervisor is increasingly important as we adapt to online instruction. Finally, it is important to show the compassion to your students that you would want your professors to show to you.

Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her research interests include social movements, political violence, region-building, and pedagogy.

Reyhan Topal is a PhD student in Political Science at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her research interests include political violence, radicalization and technology.

Editor’s Note – This blog post is part of Educate’s series, “online learning during Covid-19.” This series features APSA member voices across higher education. If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact 

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