Computer Science Teaching Assistant Handbook
We hope that you will find this handbook helpful in carrying out your duties as a TA in the NMSU CS Department. We consider it a work in progress, and would greatly appreciate feedback that you have, so that we can make the handbook the best it possibly can be.
We chose to limit the focus of the Handbook to TAs in our department. As TAs are subject to regulation by the University and by the Graduate School. A general discussions of the university regulations that apply to TAs can be found in the Graduate Catalog. There is also a Teaching Assistant Handbook for 2000-2001 in the "Publications" section of the Graduate School web site. We encourage you to become familiar with the contents of the Graduate School web site as it contains a great deal of important and useful information, pertaining not only to your TA, but to your degree in general.
We would like to thank Dr. Hartley for making this possible and for discussions and editing. We would also list to thank Dr. Pontelli, Dr. Pfeiffer, Reina Clark, Machele Raglin, and Ivan Strnad for discussions and review of the Handbook.
Melanie Martin and Nemecio Chavez
August 21, 2002
Note: Throughout the document the terms professor and instructor are used interchangeably.
You will normally be assigned a either a full (20 hours) or a half (10 hours) TA, for a specific class or classes. The basic expectation is that your workload will average out to that many hours per week over the semester. Your work will most likely consist of running laboratory sessions, office hours, and grading. It may also include proctoring exams, consulting with the professor, teaching, attending class, maintaining a web site, or other duties to be determined by the professor.
Ideally you and the professor(s) you work for will work as a team to provide an optimal learning environment for the students. As soon as you receive you TA assignment you should contact you professor(s) to get a clear understanding of your duties and the professor's expectations. A key to a good relationship is timely, open and honest communication.
Whatever duties you are assigned should be performed on a timely basis. For example:
- Show up for labs on time. If you have to be late or cannot make it to the lab, let the professor know well in advance. If you cannot reach the professor, let the Office Staff (646-3723) know and ask them to put up a note or contact the professor as appropriate.
- If you are asked to attend class, be on time. Generally, you will only be asked to attend the first meeting so that you can be introduced to the students.
- Similarly, for proctoring exams or quizzes, be early.
- Homework assignments are usually expected to be graded and returned within one week. Check with the professor to understand their expectations. If you are having difficulty grading, or need to put it off a few days because of you exam schedule, let you professor know well in advance.
- Always keep your office hours, even if no one shows up.
Ask your professor how many office hours are appropriate. If you are TAing a class with labs you may want to consider holding office hours in the lab to be able help the students at their computers. Make sure that there is not another lab in session during that time. If very few students come to you office hours, you may want to consider having them by appointment (made by email), but check with your professor first. You should be courteous and helpful to students, but don't spend more time with them then you can afford.
How to Help Students without Doing it for Them
Teaching students while helping them with their homework/labs is an art form. It may take time and lots of practice to get good at, here are some things that might be of use. Please remember, that at all times you should be patient and courteous with all students.
- Showing them where to look for answers (e.g., the book, web site, etc.) rather than telling them directly.
- Asking them a series of questions that might lead them to an answer.
- Working a problem that is similar with them.
- Encourage them to try to play with things on their own (e.g., printing out value from programs, or ask them to write a simple program to try out their ideas, etc.).
- At all cost you should avoid giving them the answer directly (e.g., if you have to, tell them you will check on them later, or suggest that they spend some time on it thinking it through).
- In extreme cases, you may need to refer the student to the professor to answer the question.
Where to Refer Students for More Help
Sometimes students without adequate preparation need more help than you can possibly give them. In this case, you may want to refer them to some of the services that are available:
- The student chapter of the ACM is the undergraduate student group in our department. They offer free tutoring in CS lower division classes and sometimes in Math. Check their web site for contact information: http://www.CS.NMSU.Edu/~acm
- Student Support Services in Garcia Annex provides very low cost tutoring. Check out their web site for more information: http://www.nmsu.edu/~sss
- The Center for Learning Assistance in Hardman Hall offer help with study skills and surviving in college. Check their web site for more: http://www.nmsu.edu/~cla
- There may also be private tutors available. A good way to find one might be to post a request to email@example.com .
Please note that as the TA for the course it is not appropriate for you to tutor students in the course privately (see Ethics). If the problem appears to be wide-spread, for example, many students come to you with the same problem, you should discuss this with the professor. It might be appropriate to set up a problem session or tutorial on the issues of concern. You may also want to research web resources, so you can refer students to helpful online tutorials or readings.
Over the years TAs in our department have created web pages on a variety of subjects. We hope to catalog them and make them available on the CSGSO web site, in the near future.
Over the years TAs in our department have created a variety of grading templates. We hope to catalog them and make them available on the CSGSO web site, in the near future. Be sure to check with your professor about the appropriate format for the course.
In general, all records from the course should be turned over to the professor at the end of the semester. They will know the departmental policies on what should be kept and where it should be kept.
Handling Students' Assignments
The following is the universities policy on posting grades and handing out assignments:
- Instructors are not obligated to post grades. All course grades appear at the end of the semester on individual student Web pages accessible through their PIN numbers. Some departments prohibit posting of grades for possible privacy concerns.
- If grades ARE posted, they should NEVER include a student's name or full Social Security number. It is permissible to use the last 4 or 6 digits of a Social Security number.
- Instructors should not mention how individual students are performing on tests or other course materials to other students, unless an individual student has given written permission to do this.
- Instructors may not leave stacks of tests or papers in accessible places, since this may allow one student to learn the grades of others.
The Computer Science department doesn't have explicit polices for either posting grades or handing out assignments. But in any case you must comply with the policies of the University outlined above. If ever in doubt contact the instructor, department head, or the CSGSO.
Tools That Might Help
Here are a list of tools that might help avoid any issues that arise from posting grads or handing out graded assignments:
- WebCT - a Web based system that allows students to submit assignments, view grades, and communicate with instructors using a Web browser.
- Dr. Cook has developed a similar but less robust system than WebCT. This system has been used for several CS courses already. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Hiring paperwork and contracts are handled by Machele Raglin, in the front office (SH 123). Checks are usually available in the front office on the last day of the month.
As a TA you will be assigned to share an office in the department. There should be a computer or terminal for each person in the office. There will be a phone in the office (dial 8 to get an outside line). Offices are intended for use by the people assigned to them, please do not allow others to work in your office. Be respectful of your office mates. Office assignments are currently handled by Dr. Hartley and Reina Clark. Check in with Reina Clark to find out your office assignment.
When you move into your office, place a sign on the door with your name, your office hours and email address. This will enable your students and colleagues to locate you.
Report any physical problems with your office and anything that needs to be brought to the attention of the custodial staff to Reina Clark. While spills will happen, it is much better to report them right away so that they can be cleaned up.
Courtesy towards everyone in the department is always expected of you. In particular, courtesy toward the office staff and the custodial staff makes the working atmosphere better for everyone and will go a long way towards getting what you want.
Keys are dispensed by Machele Raglin, who also handles the hiring paperwork. You will be given a key to you office, a key to the outside doors of Science Hall and a swipe card to get into the graduate lab (SH 169). There will be a deposit of $10.00 for each key and a $2.00 deposit for the swipe card.
When the outside doors are locked it is important not to let unauthorized people into the building, as this may endanger people and property. Never give any of your keys to anyone else. Campus police can be reached at 911 in an emergency, or at 646-3311 for non emergency calls. Any university (or department) property that is stolen should be reported to the police immediately and to the department office as soon as possible. The department is not responsible for personal items stolen. It is generally advisable that valuable electronic equipment (laptops, digital cameras, etc.) be locked inside of a desk or cabinet when not in use. The department has had several items stolen recently. You have been warned!
You will have a mailbox in the department office. This may be used for official notices, so please check and remove mail from you box on a regular basis (at least once a week). Some instructors use the boxes to leave homework for you to grade.
If you need a copy of the text book for the course you are TAing, see Reina Clark. Be sure to return any books at the end of the semester.
Copies and Fax
The department photocopier and fax machine are available to department business free of charge: see Machele Raglin for your copier code and ask any of the office staff for help using the fax machine. Personal photocopies can be made for $0.05 each and personal faxes cost $0.50 per page (not counting cover sheet).
There is a printer available for graduate student use in the Grad Lab (SH 169). There is also a printer in the Undergrad Lab (SH 118), which you can use. More information about printers and how to use them is available in the "Hardware" section of the Intranet site. Please keep in mind that printers are resources that we all share, so treat them gently, report problems promptly to COG. If a printer is out of paper, more can be obtained from the Department Office, be sure to have someone who knows show you how to put the paper in the first time.
Paper and, particularly, toner costs money, so please do not print complete books or manuals and more generally THINK BEFORE YOU PRINT. Consider printing two, or four, pages on each side of a piece of paper using the "maple" command (more info can be found by typing "man mpage"). This command can also be very useful for printing text files.
Recycling: There is a blue garbage can next to the printer for recycling. Virtually all paper can be recycled at NMSU, please do your part. There are also large garbage cans for recycling in the south entry way. Boxes can also be placed in the south entry way for recycling. Aluminum cans can be placed in any garbage can and the custodial staff will pull them out and recycle them.
Grad Lab (SH 169): The Department provides a computer lab for graduate students with card access in SH 169. There are approximately 85 graduate students in our department and only a limited number of them have offices, so the lab is primarily intended for those without office space. Since there are a large number of people sharing the lab, please be courteous: work quietly, do not bring in food or drink , do not lock machines and leave for extended periods of time. Please treat the equipment and furnishings with respect: the chairs were purchased jointly by the department and the grad students; do not turn off any of the computers (many are servers and turning them off could result in serious problems for many people); report any problems as soon as possible (preferably using the problem system on the intranet). Please do not prop the doors open with chairs; report any temperature problems promptly.
People caught violating polices, particularly bringing food or drink into the lab or turning off machines, may be required to clean the grad and undergrad labs for a week; repeated violations may result in loss of account privileges.
CS Computer Account: You will be automatically given
an email account on the department domain. You can get your login and password
from COG or from any of your course instructors, if you have registered.
Otherwise, ask your advisor for an account. Your email address will be email@example.com.
Department's computer use policy is available at:
The department has a password protected intranet that has information about software, hardware, and a problem reporting system. Please become familiar with the information available on this site and check it first when you have a question. It is at:
For example, the "Documents" section of the site contains information about configuring your account, dialing in, and setting up your web page.
For new accounts, the passwords are initially set to be the same for your cs account and your intranet account. The passwords are actually independent and your intranet password by following the link on the "Welcome" page.
Cards for the Sun Rays may be purchased from Ivan Strnad (SH 137) for $2.00, these enable you to transfer your desktop settings between machines.
NMSU Computer Account
You will also be automatically give a student account through Information and Computing Technologies. Their web site is:
They are located right next door and have a help desk open during business hours. They can provide information about how to install "Aggie Access" on your home computer to enable you to remotely login to university computers. Accessing the CS domain requires Secure Shell, see:
Classrooms and the conference room are equipped with digital projectors; cables can be checked out from the Department Office. There is one set of cables for each room, so make sure you take the correct one. It is best to get help from the Office Staff the first time you check out equipment. Overhead projectors for transparencies can also be checked out. There is a sign-up book at the front desk in the Department Office, just ask any of the office staff to help you. Any equipment checked out should be returned promptly, as others may be waiting to use it.
There is a refrigerator in SH 124 that is available for use, as long as you clean up after yourself. There is a microwave oven in the Department Office and one in SH 134. Please be careful and clean up.
End of the Semester or Graduating (or Leaving the Department)
Here are some things you should do:
- Turn in any textbooks borrowed from the office.
- Turn over course records to the professor.
- Check with the CS Office Staff to see if you need to turn in your keys and swipe cards, and clear out your office.
- Return any CSGSO Library books.
Problems with Faculty, Staff, or Students
What to do
On the rare occasions where problems arise in your dealings with faculty, staff, or students, we encourage you to take appropriate steps to resolve them on a timely basis. The Gradrep and CSGSO officers are always available to talk to you and help you figure out what steps you should take.
- Problems with students you are teaching: These should be discussed with the course Professor. There are University policies which may dictate the appropriate course of action (for example, the Code of Conduct).
- Other problems with students: These should be discussed with the course Professor, or your advisor, or the Department Head, or the Gradrep.
- Problems with faculty: If they cannot be worked out with the faculty member, then go to the Department Head or Gradrep.
- Problems with staff: If they cannot be worked out with the staff member, then go to the Department Head or Gradrep.
Some general guidelines:
- Document any incidents that occur.
- Have witnesses. If you feel at all uncomfortable meeting with a student alone, set up a meeting time when someone else can be there.
- Refer person to Professor, Department Head, or other higher authority.
- Avoid meeting with students behind closed doors.
- If there is a physical threat, do not be alone with the person. If the Department Office is open, go there, if not, consider contacting the police.
For example, if you believe a student is cheating: save any evidence, document as necessary, and go to the Professor. It is not our job to confront students about cheating. If a student accused of cheating by the professor were to confront you about it, try to set up a meeting where witnesses will be present (ideally someone in authority) and document the conversation.
Misconduct takes two forms:
- Academic Misconduct;
- Nonacademic Misconduct.
As a TA for the course it is your upmost responsibility to report either to the instructor. To see the Universities policy on academic and non-academic misconduct, see the Student Code of Conduct: http://www.NMSU.Edu/~vpsa/SCOC
Academic misconduct comes in many forms, and no list could ever cover all the possibilities. Below is a list that you might find helpful in identifying academic misconduct:
The basic rule of thumb: academic misconduct is a direct violation of University policy or of the class policy set forth by the instructor of the course in the syllabus (see the Student Code of Conduct); Examples directly related to the computer science department include but are not limited to the following:
- two or more people turning in similar computer programs, handwritten assignments, tests, quizzes, essays, etc. when they are instructed to work alone;
- people within the class discussing homework assignments if the were asked not to;
- a student indirectly or directly guiding another student on a class assignment (e.g., a student typing in a program for another program or a student telling another student exactly what to type in);
Like academic misconduct, the list for nonacademic misconduct is long. However, below is a general guideline for recognizing it:
- Any violation of the Student Code of Conduct under the NONACADEMIC MISCONDUCT Title (see link above).
- Examples include any student threatening another person, any student engaging in violent acts as group or as an individual, any student entering a place where they are unauthorized to enter, any student misrepresenting themselves using a university document, discrimination in any form, any student using, distributing, or selling drugs of any form, etc.
Professionalism with students
Being a TA is an important job and you should treat it as such. If you can't do something for all of the students, don't show favoritism to one student by doing it for them only. If you say you will do something to the student, be sure you follow through on it. This is all commonsense to most of us but keep in mind that you should treat the students in your class the way you would like a TA in a class you a taking to treat you.
Don't date students you are grading
You are allowed to date students of the university. However, you are NOT allowed to date students in your class. Any relationship with a student in your class should never extend beyond the teacher-student relationship. It is understood that you cannot control how you feel for another person so if you ever have feelings towards a student beyond this, please inform the instructor so that they may handle all issues related to the student from that point on.
Grading graduate students and colleagues
Technically, graduate students should never grade graduate students. This is a university policy. However, you will most likely be asked to grade other graduate students. This isn't bad but you should inform the instructor if there are any possible conflicts such as you are good friends with one of the students or you have had trouble with one of the students in another class, etc.
Professionalism with faculty
The instructor of the course is essentially your boss (i.e. he or she is the supervisor of your employment). You should treat them with respect like you would any other person you are working for. This doesn't mean that you have to do every little thing they ask you for. But it does mean that you should try and do the best work that you can for them.
A students confidentiality is probably the most important thing to them. You should do your upmost to preserve it. Don't share any information about any student to anyone, excluding the instructor, without the student's expressed written consent.
When students offer to pay for tutoring
You cannot tutor any student that is in your class for money. This can be viewed as a conflict of interest and questions might be raised about your motives (someone might wonder if you aren't being paid for inside information - e.g., they might think they are paying you to see test or quiz question in advance).
Twice a semester, around mid-term and the end of the semester, you will be evaluated by the instructor that you are working with. The evaluation process will consist of a general set of questions which each instructor will be asked to answer about their TA. Each instructor will answer the same questions and will be invited to sit down with their TA to discuss the evaluation. This will give you an opportunity to discuss any issues that you may with the instructor and also a chance to get feedback on how you are doing.