Graduate Teaching Assistantships

Overview

Teaching assistantships (TAships) are the most common way for Biology graduate students to fund their Masters degree. Graduate students assist professors in teaching classes and labs and receive a modest stipend and tuition waiver in exchange. Each year the Biology Department receives funding for TAships from the Graduate Dean and the College of Sciences and Technology. The number of positions fluctuates with enrollment in the Biology program, but recently it has been about 20 TA positions each year. Each position is for 20 hours per week (a “full-time TAship”). TAships are competitive, and not awarded on the basis of financial need. Therefore the best candidates are selected if the number of available positions is less than the number of students that request TAships. The Department Chair assigns the graduate TAs to specific teaching assignments, based on recommendations from the Graduate Committee Chair, Graduate Program Administrator, and input from course instructors and the faculty. The Graduate School Dean makes the formal award. See the selection criteria in Section 8.2.1. Due to unexpected events, TA assignments can change before a quarter starts. The Graduate Committee Chair will notify students when their assignment have changed to discuss the change and solicit feedback.

A small number of biology courses are taught during the summer session, some of which need one or more graduate instructors, which are different from graduate TAs. Such summer session instructor positions are funded entirely by course tuition, and the Department Chair and course instructor assign summer instructors. The Graduate Committee is often asked to make recommendations for summer instructor awards, in which case it does so using the same selection criteria as used for academic year TA awards (see Section 8.2.1). The university does not consider the summer instructor position in the same category as an academic year TA.

As a graduate student, you are eligible for TAships to a maximum of 6 quarters while you are a graduate student at WWU. Research assistantships (RA), fellowships, and summer TAships are not counted toward the 6 quarter total. Eligible Biology Department graduate students get preference in TA appointments over graduate students from other Departments.

TAships awarded in the first year are subject to departmental review for renewal in the second year. Your assistantship may be canceled if you do not maintain a GPA of 3.0, fail to meet departmental expectations, or perform TA duties in an unsatisfactory manner (see Section 8.2.2). Usually, TAships for the second year are awarded for the entire year, but in the event that there are concerns about the performance of an individual TA, that student might be awarded a TAship on a quarter-by-quarter basis. See Section 8.2.3 regarding the appeal process, should you be denied a TAship on the basis of your performance.

Eligibility, Selection, and

Process

To be eligible for a TAship, you must be enrolled for a minimum of 8 credits in the quarter(s) in which you have the TAship, unless you have completed all course credits in your Plan of Study (other than Biol. 525, Biol. 690), in which case, you must be enrolled for a minimum of 2 credits.

The faculty members of the Graduate Committee recommend TA awards to the Department Chair on the basis of these criteria:

  • Application for a TAship. Typically filled out when you fill out your initial acceptable letter into the graduate program at WWU.

  • For applicants with prior TA awards in this department, satisfactory performance as a TA, as gauged by fulfillment of the TA responsibilities described below.

  • Knowledge of the course material and any prior experience in the discipline from teaching, courses or research experience.

  • Availability of TAships.

TA Responsibilities and Criteria for Evaluation

As a TA, you will be responsible for teaching laboratory sections for a particular lower or upper division biology course. Teaching a laboratory course requires that you adequately prepare for the lab. In addition, you should be proactive and help to improve the lab. However, be careful to balance your TA duties with other grad student responsibilities (e.g., course work and research).

The responsibilities and criteria listed below are considered collectively, and no single criterion overrides another or drives the decision-making process for whether a TAship will be renewed. Please talk with the Graduate Program Advisor and/or the Graduate Committee if you sense difficulties with any of these activities. They are here to help.

Attending the lab meeting.

This is important even if you have taught the course previously. At the lab meeting the instructor will go through the lab exercise for the week and let you know of any last minute changes or equipment issues, safety concerns, and potential problems. The lab meeting will also provide a venue for coordinating assignments and agreeing on a uniform grading system (see “Coordinating grading with other TAs” below).

Incorporating feedback.

The lab meeting is also an occasion for gaining input about the previous lab exercise. The primary way labs and lab manuals are improved is through feedback from TAs. The best feedback comes from you because you understand the material being taught and the techniques employed.

Setup and breakdown of labs.

You are responsible of keeping the laboratory picked up. You are also responsible for helping setting up and breaking down labs each week. Specific responsibilities are assigned during weekly lab meetings or by the instructor.

Familiarizing yourself with the material.

In addition to attending the lab meeting, you might need to do some background reading8 to determine the best way to present the material.

Overseeing undergraduate TAs.

Undergrad TAs should attend the lab meetings. However, if they have an unavoidable conflict, you will need to schedule a separate time to review the lab exercises with them so they can be effective. In addition, more experienced grad TAs help the less experienced grad TAs and guide them in how to teach the lab exercises. Grades for undergraduate TAs are assigned by the instructor of the course, but instructors will likely seek feedback from you about the quality of undergraduate TAs that you oversee. The biology department is also developing an undergraduate TA evaluation form that you will fill out and discuss with undergraduate TAs that you oversee during the course.

Coordinating grading with other TAs.

Grading must be fair and consistent across all lab sections to maintain Biology Department grade standards (e.g., avoiding grade inflation) and to assure students that no one is being inadvertently punished or rewarded just because they happened to end up in a particular lab section.

Holding office hours.

Schedule 2-3 hours a week in your office for answering students’ questions. Those hours should be guaranteed to students, but you should also be available at other times for appointments in case students can’t make it to your regular hours.

Time management.

As a TA you will have numerous demands on your time in addition to your own classes and research responsibilities. Your success as a graduate student depends on your ability to balance these many demands. You will need to invest the time necessary to be well-prepared to teach your sections, which can be difficult your first time teaching a class. If you are having difficulty, see your lead instructor or TA mentor for suggestions on how to prioritize. If that doesn’t help, see the Graduate Program Advisor or another member of the Graduate Committee.

Teaching evaluations by your students.

You will need to administer teaching evaluations during the end of the course–the department will order them for you. Give these to the students on or near the last day of class, following the instructions provided. See Section 8.4.8 for more details. Comments on student evaluations are important for helping to evaluate and improve your performance.

TA evaluations by the course instructor.

Your lead instructor will also fill out an evaluation of your performance during the quarter. The criteria on this form include the following:

  • Willingness, cooperation, and reliability in undertaking assignments, preparing lab materials, and maintaining a clean lab.

  • Preparedness for each lab session.

  • Willingness to learn unfamiliar materials that are necessary for effective teaching.

  • Basic knowledge of general biology and course subject matter.

  • Interaction with students: enthusiasm, ability to communicate the material, and ability to keep the material at an appropriate level for the students.

Appeals Process

If you feel that you have been unfairly denied a TA renewal, you may appeal your case to the Department Chair and Graduate Committee. You may initiate such a discussion either through the Department Chair or the Graduate Program Advisor.

Compensation and Benefits

Pay Rate and Schedule

Teaching assistants receive a stipend and a partial tuition waiver for eligible enrollment. Teaching assistantships are paid positions and are not awarded on the basis of financial need. Teaching assistants are paid twice monthly. According to requirements of the Graduate School, full-time graduate teaching assistants (no more than 20 hours/wk) earn a minimum of approximately $12,117 (cash compensation) per academic year. Half-time graduate teaching assistants (10 hours/wk) receive approximately $6,057 per academic year9. Current pay rates can be found here. Students receiving a full-time appointment (20 hr/wk) may not accept other on-campus employment during the time they are in pay status as graduate assistants. Students receiving a half-time appointment (10 hr/wk) may accept other on-campus employment up to 9 hours per week during the time they are in pay status as graduate assistants.

Tuition Waiver

Currently, a partial tuition waiver is in effect for all graduate teaching assistants. The tuition waiver only pays for courses leading to the degree as listed on a student’s Plan of Study. All graduate teaching assistants pay an out-of-pocket fee each quarter, approximately 10% of the total tuition amount (subject to change). The waiver applies only for credit taken through regular Western registration (not extended education or other institutions). Current tuition waiver rates can be found here.

Benefits

Teaching assistants funded by the Graduate School are eligible for medical benefits; details are included with each assistantship award letter. For questions concerning health insurance coverage contact the Graduate School at x3170.

Teaching Resources

Contacts

Information is available on the stockroom’s web page.

Primary Contact

Instructor responsible for the course.

Technical Staff in Biology Stockroom (BI 254)

Each lab course has a laboratory technician assigned to it. That lab tech should be your primary contact for all lab supplies and setup needs. If you need immediate assistance (e.g., chemical spill, accident, ran out of gloves or slides, etc.) during lab, come to the stockroom (or call x3644)and whoever is there will help.

The Biology Stockroom (BI 254; Hours: approximately 8am - 4:30 pm) provides the following course services:

  • The storage and distribution facility for lab supplies, equipment and chemicals.

  • Reservations for vans, laptops, and equipment.

  • Access to general and special equipment for students, staff and faculty.

  • The centralized area for the collection of hazardous waste.

  • The receiving and distribution center for incoming freight.

Peter Thut

Stockroom Supervisor (x2905)

  • Biology Department safety officer (mandatory safety training for all graduate teaching assistants)

  • contact person if you have building-related concerns (e.g., no heat, no tap water, no DI water, leaks, or problems with cold rooms)

  • contact person for office needs (e.g., computer problems, broken chair, etc.)

  • provides technical support and instruction for most pieces of equipment

  • liaison with technicians in Scientific Technical Services

  • loans equipment and supplies (when available) for graduate research

  • orders supplies for graduate student research after your Thesis Committee has approved the proposed research and the proposed budget

Jeannie Gilbert

Scientific Instructional Technician II (x7482)

  • contact person for inventory of live organisms on hand

  • contact person for collecting live organisms

  • contact person for needs for the lab you are teaching, if she is your assigned SIT

  • contact person if you have questions or problems related to Biology computers10. Wireless connection instructions can be obtained by visiting the ATUS website or by speaking to Peter or Jeannie.

Mark Price

Scientific Instructional Technician II (x3928)

  • contact person for use of autoclaves

  • contact person for needs for the lab you are teaching, if he is your assigned SIT

  • contact person for liquid nitrogen

  • provides technical support and instruction for many pieces of equipment on the 4th floor

Kendra Bradford

Scientific Instructional Technician II (x4192)

  • contact person for use of autoclaves

  • contact person for needs for the lab you are teaching, if he is your assigned SIT

  • contact person for liquid nitrogen

  • provides technical support and instruction for many pieces of equipment on the 4th floor

  • oversees keys for the Biology building

Sarah Hoag

Scientific Instructional Technician (x3905)

  • contact person for needs for the lab you are teaching, if he is your assigned SIT

  • provides technical support and instruction for many pieces of equipment on the 4th floor

  • oversees keys for the Biology building

Office Staff in Biology Department Office (BI315)

The Biology Department office is located in BI 315 and open Monday through Friday; 8:00am-12:00pm and 1:00pm-5:00pm. The Biology Department office staff consists of Mary Ann Merrill (Administrative Service Manager and Graduate Program Administrator), Maren Brinson and Alexis Slough (Undergraduate Advisors and Program Coordinators), and Hailey Rieman (Office Assistant).

Biology Office Staff provide the following course-related services:

  • Teaching-related supplies, including pens, dry erase markers, push pins, whiteout, pencils, printer paper, graph paper, and transparencies. Note that if graph paper is needed other than what is available in the office, you should contact Biology Stockroom personnel, as they have access to a software program that makes custom graph paper.

  • Advising undergraduate students regarding course registration.

The following list should help you direct your inquiries to the appropriate person in the Biology Office.

Mary Ann Merrill

  • contact person for payroll appointment and paychecks

  • contact person for reimbursements of research expenditures

  • Graduate Program Coordinator

  • provides overrides for graduate courses (e.g., Biology 690).

  • orders teaching evaluations for graduate TAs.

Hailey Rieman

  • contact person for general inquiries

  • contact person for copy duplicating requests (explain procedure and timeline)

  • contact person for office supplies

  • manages department web site

  • maintains the Biology alumni and donor databases

Maren Brinson and Alexis Slough

  • contact person for registration problems (undergraduates only)

  • provides classroom scheduling support and assists in the tracking of current Biology majors

Canvas

Canvas is a great tool for teaching assistants. Canvas allows instructors to make announcements outside of lab and post learning material, documents, web links, quizzes, grades, audio and video, spread sheets, and presentation files. It also provides class-based email, testing and drop boxes for homework. Canvas sites, for courses in which you are either a student or an instructor, can be seen by clicking on the “Canvas” button after you log on to MyWestern. Canvas sites are automatically created for each course. Students are automatically added to each Canvas course.

For general Canvas support visit the ATUS website.

Keys

See Section 2.5.3.

Grade Books

Grade books are not currently offered.

Photocopying

Large Copy Jobs ( > 12 copies)

If you need copies made of a handout or test, please submit your request to Keeley in the Biology office. The copy jobs are done by WWU Copy Services and picked up four times a day in the department office. Whenever possible, please plan ahead and allow at least 2 working days for your copy order to be completed.

To submit the copy job request, complete an online copy service request form. Go to the Biology home page and click on the Links for Graduate Students. You will find instructions on how to fill in a copy service request form, as well as the form itself. Usually, copy jobs are run on white paper, but if color paper is required, please indicate the color desired on the form (please note color paper adds extra cost).

Once the copy job is complete, Copy Services will deliver the copies back to the Biology Department office. Office staff will place the job in your office mailbox. If the copy job is an exam, the completed copy job will be locked in a cabinet and a blue note indicating the exam has returned will be in your office mailbox. Please ask office staff to retrieve the exam from the locked cabinet.

Please note that Copy Services usually completes jobs within 24 hours, but in some cases, jobs can be completed in less than 24 hours. Ask the Biology Office personnel if you find yourself in this position.

Small Copy Jobs ( ≤ 12 copies)

If you need to make 12 or fewer copies of a course teaching handout (includes Biology 101, 102, 204, 205, 206, 348, 349), you can use a copy code number that is assigned to you at the start of your TAship. Please ask the office staff how to use the copier if you are unsure.

If transparencies are needed for your small copy job, simply ask office personnel for transparencies. Instructions on how to make transparencies are posted on the bulletin board above the copy machine in BI 317. If you need assistance, office staff is happy to help.

General Resources

Teaching Materials

Many labs have teaching materials, especially overheads, available from past quarters. These are sometimes found in the teaching lab rooms, but many TAs have personal teaching materials that they may share. The stockroom also has a supply of transparencies that can be checked out. Although there is no centralized source of lecture materials or quiz questions, former TAs often have hand-me-down resources to pass on. Teaching editions of relevant textbooks are often available in teaching lab rooms or on the “free stuff” shelves in the Biology copy room. If you still can’t get a copy of the course textbook that you need, talk to your lead instructor to see about getting an examination copy from the textbook company.

Teaching Supplies

General teaching supplies available in the Biology main office include: blank overhead transparencies, pens and markers (regular, for overheads, and for white boards), chalk, white out, glue, clips, staples, index cards of various sizes, notepads, graph paper, printer paper of various colors, etc. If you need special supplies not available in the office, speak with an office staff member to find out if they can be ordered or found elsewhere.

Lab Supplies

TAs should speak with stockroom staff to acquire specific laboratory supplies or equipment, or to replace/replenish laboratory items. When borrowing glassware or other equipment from the stockroom, items must be signed out on one of the stockroom sign out sheets. To reserve a laptop/projector cart from the stockroom, be sure to check the reservation schedule ahead of time and add your name and course number to the reservation list for the time you will need it. To make reservations online, see the stockroom’s equipment and reservation web page.

Department Vehicles

The following policies apply to all drivers of university vehicles, including Biology Department vehicles:

  • must meet all requirements as described on the EH&S Risk Management website.

  • must go through van training to drive vans (Contact Peter Thut for registration for on-line training).

  • must assume responsibility for the vehicle (e.g., reserve van; complete mileage forms, available in the Stockroom; turn off lights including interior lights, lock doors, and return keys to the Stockroom after use)

  • notify Stockroom personnel if van requires fueling (1/4 tank or lower); if you are out of the Bellingham area and need refueling, the vehicle key is linked with the credit card for gas and oil purchases. Valid PIN number is on the metal sleeve for the credit card.

Teaching Evaluations

Teaching evaluation are a way to improve teaching and learning at Western Washington University, and provide one measure of an instructor’s teaching abilities.

About one month before the end of each quarter, TAs must request teaching evaluation forms from Mary Ann Merrill. Mary Ann will need the following information:

  • Name

  • Student number

  • Course title or titles

  • CRN number or numbers

  • Form type (typically the G form for lab sections11)

  • Delivery method

  • Post results (either yes or no)

After handing out the evaluation forms, you must follow the attached evaluation guidelines, which include leaving the room while evaluations are being filled out and choosing a student to return the completed evaluations to the Biology main office. Approximately 2 weeks after the end of the quarter, the results of the teaching evaluations are returned to you from the Testing Center. You should review the comments, and give a copy of the summary sheet to the Graduate Program Coordinator (Mary Ann Merrill) as part of your quarterly evaluation procedure.

In addition to the standard multiple-choice questions on the Testing Center’s form (Form G), you may wish to get student feedback on specific issues not addressed by those questions. For such additional feedback, you have three options:

  1. There is room on Form G for five multiple-choice questions that you ask of the class (e.g. by writing them on the board or projecting them on a screen). The student responses to these questions are tallied by the Testing Center along with their responses to the rest of the questions on Form G, and reported on the Testing Center’s summary sheet.

  2. The Testing Center includes written comment sheets with the multiple-choice forms. You could ask students to respond to specific questions on these comment sheets. These will not be tallied by the Testing Center, but will be returned to you along with summary sheet.

  3. You may decide to develop your own evaluation form, to be filled out by students along with the Testing Center’s form. Again, the Testing Center will not tally these supplemental forms, but will include them in the evaluation packet returned to you after the quarter’s end.

Whether or not you solicit feedback above and beyond the questions on Form G, the only evaluation you must submit to the Graduate Program Coordinator (Mary Ann Merrill) for inclusion in your Biology Department file is the summary sheet on which the results from Form G are tallied.

Graduate TA Office Assignment Policy

The Biology Department allocates office space to all graduate students who have TA appointments. The intention is to provide a space where students enrolled in a Biology course can have easy access to their graduate TAs for help outside of class, and where a graduate TA can conduct work connected with his or her teaching duties. The Department does not have sufficient space at present to guarantee office space to all graduate students; it is ultimately the responsibility of the thesis advisor to arrange work space for a graduate student who does not have a teaching appointment. The Graduate Committee assigns office space to TAs, and non-TAs (if space is available), using the protocol described below. The assignments are made in the third week of September, by which time all graduate students should be on campus and ready to move offices if required.

  • 1st year graduate students are assigned office space in BI 416; if space is limited, 1st year TAs get priority over any non-TAs.

  • 2nd year students with TAships have priority for second floor office space.

  • If space is available, 3rd year TAs will retain their 2nd floor offices. If not, they will have to relocate (which 3rd year TA will leave will be determined by lottery). This means third year graduate students who already occupy office space on the second floor will have priority over second year non-TAs when it comes to the second floor office suite.

  • If space is available in BI 416, non-TAs will be entered in a lottery to determine the order in which available space will be filled; 2nd year non-TAs will have top priority, and will participate in the lottery first. Any slots that remain will be filled by a lottery among third year non-TAs; 1st year non-TAs will be third in this order of priority.

  • Graduate students who are within one quarter of finishing their thesis (and have submitted their Application for Degree form to the Graduate School, see Section 6.5) will retain their current office through the following quarter.

  • If an office space is assigned to a student who never or rarely uses that space, this should be brought to the Graduate Committee’s attention so that the person can be contacted and their space made available to another student.

Students who wish to exchange offices in a mutual agreement are welcome to do so, but they must inform the Graduate Program Advisor and the office staff of the change.