Handbook for teaching assistants in the Department of Mathematics

The Department of Mathematics is located in MacLean Hall on the UI Pentacrest. The department includes the computer classroom (Room 117), computer labs (Room B5), the Department of Mathematics Main Office (Room 14), faculty offices, some TAs, and the Math Tutorial Lab (Room 125). Also, a number of TA offices are located at MacBride Hall.

The main office of Mathematics is located in 14 MacLean Hall. This complex houses the chair and the office staff, as follows:

Rooms and occupants

  • 14A: Chairperson for Mathematics Dept. (Ryan Kinser)
  • 14B: Administrative Services Manager (Margaret Driscol)
  • 14C: Graduate Secretary (Cindy Van Ark)
  • 15: Mailboxes
  • 15A: Work-study student
  • 3: H. T. Muhly Lounge (coffee/tea room)
  • 14: Administrative Services Coordinator (Amy Simonson)
  • 125: Math Lab Director (Amanda Marr)
  • 25E: Director of Graduate Studies in Mathematics (Xiaoyi Zhang)
  • 225L: Director of AMCS (Laurent Jay)

It was assumed when you accepted the position of a teaching assistant that you would be capable of carrying out the full responsibilities of a graduate student and a half-time instructor. Your work schedule as a TA has been arranged so that it is possible to do an excellent job.

The main ingredients to being an effective teacher are always to be fully prepared, to create an environment in which the students can learn, and to convey the fact that you are sincerely interested in the intellectual development of your students.

A. Teaching preparation

It is expected that you will go to each class session fully prepared to present the appropriate materials and to answer any questions relevant to the material. Under no circumstances should you prematurely dismiss or abbreviate your class sessions. If your students do not have questions to ask, you should cover the major concepts and techniques of the current lesson to fill out the class period.

B. Office hours

The diligent maintenance of office hours at the preassigned times is essential and part of your responsibilities. You should be available at these hours throughout the entire term. These hours should be announced during the first week of class.

C. Independent sections

Instructors that are teaching independent sections should prepare a syllabus and a testing and grading plan. You should be hesitant in making any deviations from your announcements.

D. Supplies and classroom materials

It is your responsibility to prepare tests and classroom materials for your courses.

If you have copying for your classes, you may make your own.

Supplies are available for teaching your classes: red and black ink pens, lined pads, grade books and pencils are available in room 15A.

Desk copies of the text for your course are available from Math. Dept. staff in room 14. They must be returned at the end of the semester.

E. Final examinations

College policy regarding final examinations is as follows: Unless there is prior written approval by the Dean, in-class final examinations must be given in all undergraduate courses. All final examinations must be given during the time period specified in the official schedule of final examinations.

F. Language problems

Those of you who are having some troubles with the spoken English language should compensate by speaking more slowly, enunciating clearly and writing difficult words and sentences on the board.

G. Grading

It is expected that you will converse with your assigned faculty supervisor or the regular staff to obtain an assessment of our grading standards.

Incomplete grades are given only to students who, up to the time such a grade is requested, have completed a substantial portion of the course and have performed at a passing level. Incomplete grades should only be given for unusual reasons that would impede the student's ability to complete the work in a normal manner.

H. Records

Complete records are to be maintained indicating how final grades were determined. In the case of a grade of incomplete, information should be kept on what work must be completed by the student and on what basis the student's final grade is to be determined. This information must be turned in to the math department office at the end of the semester.

I. Cheating

Incidents of cheating by students should be reported to the Chair in writing, even if no action has been taken or is contemplated. Copies of such reports, together with suggested College action, will be forwarded to the Office of Academic Programs. For more information, consult the CLAS Code of Academic Honesty webpage.

J. Student evaluations

Each TA is required to have his or her classes evaluated by the students each semester.

K. Overload teaching

Due to the general imbalance of mathematics classes offered between fall and spring semesters, we may have to overload some TA appointments from 2/3 up to 3/4 during one semester. Nevertheless, the average appointment between fall and spring semesters will remain 1/2. Such an overload appointment will be required at most once during the entire time of a student's graduate studies. It will be reserved for students who passed their Master comprehensive examinations or PhD qualifying examinations. A course such as MATH:1005 College Algebra typically requires to make such kind of appointments. Appointees may register for no more than 9 semester hours during the semester with such an overload.

I. Before the first day of classes

a. Use your syllabus from a previous time or the department's suggested outline to prepare a syllabus for your class. Be specific (day-by-day program) or vague (week-by-week outline), but do include exam dates and times, final exam date and time, textbook, your name, your office number and hours. Allow for review time before each test.

b. Devise a grading policy. Your students should be asked to do homework, take quizzes, or both. In assigning points to homework, quizzes and exams, keep in mind that homework and quizzes should count enough to make them important, but not so much that just by doing well in them a student may get a passing grade. Exams must still be the basic source of grading information. Traditionally, the total amount of points in homework and quizzes should approximately equal that of one regular exam. Your first midterm should be given relatively early. You may find that your students will have an easier time deciding whether or not they belong in the course. Also they can determine earlier if they are not progressing at the right pace.

c. Prepare your first lecture. Do not dismiss your class early on that first day. Use the time to review previous courses' material or start with a new topic.

d. Spend a few minutes thinking about the course. Recall the mistakes of the past, decide where you want to be when, and how much importance you want to allocate to each topic. Most of all, it is important that you remember that each student will be seeing each topic for the first time. Make these first times good ones!

II. On the first day of classes

a. Announce general rules, discuss the grading policy, distribute copies of the syllabus (if possible).

b. Spend a few minutes giving an overview of the course:

Example 1 (Calculus I) Give an intuitive definition of the derivative and of the definite integral and connect both notions by the fundamental theorem of calculus. Show them how you can then calculate the area between two curves, or a volume.

Example 2 (Calculus I) Write a story problem (a min-max one) on the board and show them how to solve it using calculus. You may want to bring one that leads to a quadratic function, and then max(or min)imize it both ways: algebraically and analytically.

c. Begin with the course. Do not dismiss your class early.

III. During the first two-three weeks

a. Encourage students to ask all kinds of questions, maintaining awareness that there are those who may not belong in your course. If you identify such a student, talk to him/her after class or in your office. Be polite, but candid and frank (often they are in your course because of poor advising).

b. Establish the pace for the course; be rigid in sticking to your rules. Deviate from them only if absolutely necessary and present your students with a reliable and competent image. Make them realize that you are very serious about the course and that your goal is to have them learn as much as possible in the best way possible.

IV. Throughout the semester

a. Always arrive on time. Always finish on time (except perhaps when giving an examination).

b. Make an honest effort to perceive the needs of every one of your students. As the semester progresses, it becomes more important to fulfill the goal in III(a) above, so that you can keep a good pace and still accommodate the slower learners.

c. Mix lecture and exercises. In general, try to motivate by means of example. Remember, as a mathematician one usually understands the examples before one understands the theorem. Do not deprive your students of the joy of guessing a theorem. In any case, don't forget that a theorem is basically a well-organized collection of examples.

d. Always answer questions. Do not evade them with phrases like "We must go on, I'll answer during office hours," etc. You may think that if you answer too many questions, you won't move fast enough, but there are never too many questions; use them to advance the subject. Obviously, do not tell students that you will answer all of their questions, as they would undoubtedly take advantage and hamper the rate of the course. Just answer as clearly and concisely as possible. After some time passes they will get used to your style and pace and will only ask when necessary. For questions arising in the last few minutes of the lectures try to answer them as well as you can in the time left, maintaining the option for further discussion. Keep in mind that those last five minutes are hard to handle; learn to use them to your advantage.

e. If you don't know something, say so. Never cover up your ignorance. We are all human and therefore imperfect and are not supposed to know the answers to all of their questions. Occasionally, one may not even remember how to do a problem, or be unprepared to give a complete answer, or simply unaware of such a question. Just be frank and honest -- there is no substitute for honesty! After class, find the answer in order to tell them next time.

f. Begin each new lecture with a brief reminder of the last lecture and discussion. This may take a minute or two but will be worthwhile. Remember that your students need a little time to adjust to the subject (especially in afternoon classes) and they are likely going to have difficulty understanding the current topic if you do not.

g. Be a good salesperson. Mathematics is a hard subject. For one reason or another the average student regards it as a bit unnatural although we may think that mathematics is beautiful, clear and understandable. There is a generalized view that mathematicians are obscure individuals who complicate matters and always have a difficult approach to a given problem. We believe this is a misconception which one must work to dispel. Present new material as well and simply as you can but retain the rigor by giving many examples, establish connections, and make clear what you think is very important (your view will probably differ from mine and everyone else's but this is certainly good for the subject; only deep areas of knowledge allow for quite diverse opinions). Above all, make an effort to emphasize mathematics as being both an important and effective tool and as being a genuine scientific endeavor.

h. Grade homework, quizzes and exams promptly. You do not necessarily have to bring the papers back to the next scheduled class, but don't take two weeks to grade them either. Tell your students as much about the scores as possible. For instance, list all the scores on the chalkboard, calculate the median (usually better than the mean for statistical purposes), give a rough letter-grade distribution, and explain how you graded certain problems, etc. An important part of your job is to make sure your students perceive you as a fair grader, and being open about the grading process helps affirm that perception.

i. After a test, try to spend some time going over the problems. If possible, comment on student mistakes, give alternative solutions, etc.

j. Before a test, spend some time reviewing for it. Plan for this time in your class organization sheet at the beginning of the semester.

k. Be in your office during office hours. If you cannot be in your office, call the Math Department secretary and ask her to post a sign on your door.

The University of Iowa is committed to providing all students with a high quality educational experience. Our faculty and teaching assistants are central to this endeavor. While it is clear that faculty members have the major responsibility for instruction, we also believe that teaching assistants (TAs) at The University of Iowa represent one of our best and most important instructional resources. We employ TAs to work directly with students, provide guidance for laboratory and discussion sections that supplement general lectures, work in tutorial settings, hold office hours for one-on-one discussion, and provide direct instruction in classes designed to compensate for inadequate high school preparation or for which an adequate number of faculty is not available to meet student demand for courses. Furthermore, the teaching assistantship is an invaluable part of the graduate student's educational experience and professional development.

As a part of the University's commitment to ensure that undergraduates have a high quality educational experience, the following policies and protocol for evaluating student complaints about teaching assistants have been developed. The policies and protocol are effective August 20, 1990.


Teaching assistants are bound by the Professional Ethics and Academic Responsibility policy as specified in the UNIVERSITY OPERATIONS MANUAL, Section 20.290. We thus are obligated to inform teaching assistants of this policy and to assure that they meet the standards of the policy. We also are obligated to evaluate student complaints to determine if the TA has failed to meet his or her professional responsibilities. Lastly, we have an obligation to take appropriate action if evaluation of the complaint confirms that the TA is not performing his or her duties satisfactorily. The executive officer of the academic unit offering the course is charged with taking corrective steps to resolve the problem and assist the TA in improving his or her performance. These corrective steps include, but are not limited to: special tutorial help or advising for the student; a change of course or section for the student; special intensive assistance for the teaching assistant for instructional improvement; increased direct supervision of the TA from the faculty member responsible for the course; or replacement of the teaching assistant.

We believe most complaints by students about teaching assistants can be evaluated and resolved best through informal procedures. Therefore, the informal protocol described below has been developed. We also believe that the vast majority of complaints can be resolved if the student discusses the problem directly with the teaching assistant, so we encourage students to bring their concerns to their TA's attention.


A student who has a complaint about a class, discussion or laboratory for which a teaching assistant has responsibility should pursue the following informal procedure.

  • The student should first attempt to resolve the complaint by discussing it directly with the teaching assistant.
  • If the matter is not resolved satisfactorily or if discussion with the TA is deemed inappropriate, the student should discuss the complaint with the faculty member responsible for the course or the chair of the department offering the course.
  • If the complaint is not resolved at the department level, the student may take it to the dean's office.
  • If the complaint is not resolved at the collegiate level, the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs who is responsible for faculty personnel and development will review the complaint.

If a student's complaint concerning a teaching assistant cannot be resolved through the informal steps described above, the student may file a formal complaint which will be handled under the procedures established for dealing with alleged violations of the Statement of Professional Ethics and Academic Responsibility as described in Section 20.290 of the UNIVERSITY OPERATIONS MANUAL. A description of these formal procedures can be obtained from each college dean's office, the University Ombudsperson, the Office of Academic Programs in the College of Liberal Arts, or the Undergraduate Advising Center.

A. Teaching assistants are selected by our Graduate Committee (elected - 5 members). This committee is chaired by the department's Director of Graduate Studies. The Committee assesses the applicants' training in mathematics, letters of recommendation, GRE score, and where appropriate, TOEFL scores. For foreign applicants, a TOEFL score of at least 100 (internet based) is expected for consideration. TAs whose native language is not English, are usually required to attain a grade of B or better on the University's Teaching Assistant Certification Exam for renewal of their assistantships beyond the first year. The Committee also takes evidence of teaching effectiveness into account in the consideration of all renewals.

B. Teaching assistants are generally supervised by regular faculty members. Weekly meetings are held to discuss the topics to be covered and methods of presentation. Teaching assistants must serve a certain number of hours per week in the Mathematics Tutorial Lab where they receive advice about effective communication skills on a one-on-one basis from the Math Lab Director. All teaching assistants are expected to be familiar with this department handbook which contains information about teaching responsibilities, course preparation, office hours, examinations, dealing with language problems, grading, record keeping, student evaluations, tips for successful teaching, and policies regarding student complaints.

C. Both the faculty supervisor and the Math Lab Director (where applicable) evaluate the performance of newly appointed teaching assistants at the beginning of the semester and on a continuing basis. If problems are detected, the teaching assistant is given private help by the supervisor and/or Math Lab Director. The Director of Graduate Studies arranges for a change in duties when it is deemed necessary.

D. Faculty supervisors submit written evaluations regarding the teaching capabilities of all teaching assistants under their supervision. All teaching assistants are required to have written student evaluations taken in each of their courses/discussion sections at the end of each semester. The Director of Graduate Studies assesses these evaluations and consults with the Math Lab Director in determining subsequent assignments.

E. All students who are in courses either taught or partially taught by teaching assistants are served by the Mathematics Tutorial Lab. The hours are frequent (including some evening and weekend hours) and students may receive free individual tutorial help on a drop-in basis. The Math Lab has a well-stocked supply of supplementary materials, self-instructional software, workbooks, and review questions. The professional staff of the Math Lab endeavor to provide an environment designed to alleviate "math anxiety."

F. At the beginning of the semester all students are informed that they should report concerns to the teaching assistant's supervising faculty member. The faculty supervisor assesses these concerns and when appropriate meets with the teaching assistant or jointly with the student and teaching assistant in an attempt to resolve them. If this effort fails, the student is advised to report his/her concerns to the Director of Graduate Studies who again assesses the concerns and, when warranted, makes a further attempt at resolution either through consultation with the student, the teaching assistant, and the teaching assistant's supervisor, or by assigning the student to another section of the same course. 

The following guidelines are used by the Graduate Committee for TA renewals:

  1. Satisfactory performance as a TA is required.
  2. Students whose native language is not English are required to obtain a grade of B or better on the University's Teaching Assistant Certification Exam to retain priority for renewal of their assistantships beyond the first year. Students with two years of support who do not receive B certification by the start of their fifth semester will not be renewed.
  3. Students must make satisfactory progress towards their degrees in order to retain priority for renewal. In particular, it is expected that TAs take 9 semester hours each semester until the coursework requirements for their degree are satisfied. Some TAs may take 6 semester hours during their first semester, while studying for comprehensive exams, or with approval of their advisor. Moreover, for a student to take more than 3 semester hours of courses with numbers not beginning with 22M or 22A requires special approval of the Graduate Committee.
  4. Master's degree candidates will not be appointed for more than two years. If a M.S. candidate wishes to continue for a Ph.D., he or she must have his or her application for transfer to the Ph.D. program approved before being considered for third year support. All of the years of support are counted, so that when a student transfers to the Ph.D. program after being supported for two years as a M.S. candidate, this is still considered as a third year of support.
  5. An assistantship may be awarded for a student's sixth year of support only upon the recommendation of the thesis advisor. This should be based on the expectation that the student will definitely complete the degree during the sixth year.
  6. Students will not be supported for more than six years.
  7. When special circumstances warrant, the Graduate Committee may make exceptions to the above guidelines. These exceptions, however, will be rare.