Working with Graduate Students: Guiding AIs from Students to Future Colleagues

As both students and teachers, graduate AIs face a number of unique challenges. For many, these are disparate roles that vie for time and priority, yet as future faculty they will need to effectively integrate their scholarship and teaching. Graduates land their first teaching roles as AIs based on having been successful students, yet they are expected to be experts on their subjects and teach with skill and authority. How do graduate students manage these multiple roles and make the transition from advanced learners to effective teachers and scholars? How can we facilitate that process for them?

Diverse institutional circumstances and personal approaches to teaching preclude a universal linear process of AI development and a single best model for AI training. Yet research among developing TAs has identified common social and intellectual practices across three different stages (Nyquist and Sprague 1998; Prieto 2001). Based on their nationwide study, Jody Nyquist and Jo Sprague (1998) summarized these themes in this table:

  Senior Learner Colleague-in Training Junior Colleague
Concerns Self/survival Skills Outcomes
  How will students like me? How do I lecture, lead discussions? Are students getting it?
Presocialized Socialized Postsocialized
  Give simplistic
Talk like insiders, use
technical language
Make complex ideas clear
and without the use of
Approach to
Dependent Independent or
  Rely on supervisor
(course head)
Stand on own ideas--defiant
at times
Begin to relate to faculty as
partners in meeting
instructional challenges
Approach to
student as friend,
victim, or enemy
Detached; student as
experimental subject
Student as client
  “Love” students,
expect admiration,
or are hurt, or
angry, and
Disengage or distance
themselves from students—
Becoming analytical about
learning relationships
relationships & the
collaborative effort required
for student learning to

Nyquist and Sprague argue that each stage is necessary for TAs even though they do not move through them in the same way.  Whatever combination of concerns and strategies to teaching you may identify among your AIs, we offer these suggestions for training your emerging junior colleagues:

  • Recall with your AIs some key ways you acquired your own skills in your field, especially the ideas and methods of analysis that have become implicit. How can you transform the learning of these processes into self-conscious activities for your students? Develop a rich and precise vocabulary to define the specific learning goals you have in the terms of your discipline.
  • Work with AIs to communicate your learning goals to your students by avoiding obscure jargon and making complex ideas intelligible. Discuss how you pitch your course material to students at multiple levels.
  • Share your grading criteria with your AIs and distinguish the qualities in work that you expect to see for different grades. In addition to making grading more consistent and efficient this way, AIs can discuss these criteria with students so that they are aware of your expectations.
  • Generate a sense of community. The recent reports on the Carnegie Foundation’s long-term of graduate education show that a vibrant sense of community in one’s department can be crucial for graduate student success. Involving novice as well as experienced AIs and faculty in conversations on research and teaching in the discipline (e.g. brown bag lunches, seminars) is one way to foster this supportive community.
  • Discuss alternative strategies for lectures, discussions and exams with AIs. This conversation can open up new pedagogical options for you and your AIs to consider, it can show that teaching is complex and collaborative work, and it can help AIs avoid trivializing and privatizing teaching strategies.
  • Take time to discuss the goals and strategies you have for your lectures with your AIs and encourage them to attend.
  • Assist AIs in responding to their challenges by asking questions that open up the next stage of development for them. If they are a “senior learner” who is personally irritated by a student who sleeps in class, for example, ask them about the possible reasons that may be leading their student to this. A junior colleague might first approach the student expressing concern and suggesting resources to help them deal with this issue.
  • Help your AIs see themselves as scholars who pursue disciplinary questions in their roles as students and as teachers.  How can they model processes of inquiry for their students?
  • Aside from discussing the important content and disciplinary methods to teach, frame your work with AIs as a shared inquiry into the processes of disciplinary learning among your students.


Nyquist, Jody D. and Jo Sprague. “Thinking Developmentally About TAs.” The Professional Development of Graduate Students. Bolton MA: Anker, 1998.

Prieto, Loreto R. “The Supervision of Teaching Assistants: Theory, Evidence and Practice.” The Teaching Assistant Training Handbook. Stillwater, OK. 2001.

For additional pedagogical resources, visit the Graduate Students and Faculty webpages.