New online course supports first-time graduate student teaching assistants

Adapted specifically for UC Santa Cruz, the course features the voices of 19 campus community members, appearing in over 25 videos.
A new online course aims to prepare new graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) for the important role of supporting student learning and promoting educational equity at UC Santa Cruz. The course, Teaching as an Ethical Practice: A Guide for Teaching Assistants, was created at the request of the Division of Graduate Studies by the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning (CITL) and Online Education, a partnership that allows for new graduate students to have a more robust, thorough introduction to teaching at UC Santa Cruz than ever before.

Teaching as an Ethical Practice was modeled on a long-standing online course at UC Berkeley designed for graduate students entering university classrooms for the first time as teachers. Adapted specifically for UC Santa Cruz, the course features the voices of 19 campus community members, appearing in over 25 videos, who leveraged their campus experiences and expertise to communicate with TAs about the importance of creating classroom environments conducive to learning and the resources available to them and to their students that provide holistic support. These videos, which are interspersed with content informed by educational research, case scenarios, personal reflection questions, and quizzes, make the course an interactive experience for first-time TAs.

Reflecting on her role developing the course with CITL, Sheeva Sabati described how issues of educational equity played a key role in shaping the course content. “One of the central goals in designing this course was to support graduate students to begin to consider how questions of educational equity and student learning are at the core of the ethical dimensions of their teaching practice,” said Sabati, who is currently a lecturer at Oakes College, Colleges 9 and 10, and the Feminist Studies Department, and was a graduate student researcher with CITL last year. “We not only wanted to equip new TAs with evidence-based pedagogical strategies, but we also wanted to demonstrate how supporting equity requires actively working against re-entrenching historically and structurally produced forms of exclusion that are often normalized within higher education.”

To this end, the course asks new TAs to consider complex questions and scenarios that take time, consideration, and reflection to address. Examples include considering how instructors’ and students’ identities, experiences, and backgrounds shape interactions in the classroom, and how TAs can plan in advance to help make classrooms more accessible spaces for learning, where everyone has the opportunity to participate. To provide concrete examples, several videos feature current and experienced graduate student instructors discussing how they practice self-reflection in their classrooms and plan activities that increase student participation.

One graduate student contributor, Mecaila Smith, Ph.D. candidate in education, explained how she hopes this resource will improve the experiences of new TAs and their students. “Being a TA puts you in a position of power over undergraduates, so it is important for graduate students to be reflective about the kind of impact they want to have on students’ educational experiences,” Smith said. “Being a TA can also be intimidating. It involves a lot of responsibilities that many new grad students haven’t had before—being in a leadership role, public speaking, creating lesson plans for sections, facilitating activities, mediating discussions, assessing the work of others, and more. Being well prepared to serve as a TA is a way for graduate students to value their work, advocate for themselves, and become proud of and confident in their teaching.”

In addition to hearing from experienced graduate students, new TAs also have the opportunity to learn from the Director of CITL, the directors of the six Resource Centers, the Campus Diversity Officer for Staff and Students, and the director of the Disability Resource Center, who all discuss inclusive teaching practices that support students who face marginalization on campus due to histories of exclusion in higher education. Likewise, since TAs are often the first people to whom students turn when they need additional support to succeed in their classes, several videos feature leadership from Title IX, Campus Advocacy Resources & Education (CARE), and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) discussing how to support student mental health and safety. Finally, to support TAs to understand their rights as student employees, a representative from the TA union, UAW 2865, discusses important information from the current union contract.

Whereas a general introduction to being a teaching assistant has historically been offered as a 4-hour, in-person event embedded within a busy graduate student orientation schedule at the start of the academic year, the new course allows for new TAs to learn about these important issues at a more manageable pace. The Division of Graduate Studies has invited new graduate students to take the course as part of their first TAship on campus, or as part of a discipline-specific pedagogy course offered within many academic departments. Both options provide TAs more time to reflect on and put into practice what they learn, while adhering to the labor union guidelines for TA professional development training.

“The Graduate Division has considered how to best make TA support and training more consistent across campus for over a decade,” said James Moore, assistant dean of the Division of Graduate Studies. “Current online learning design and strategies allowed us to re-envision the initial TA orientation as an interactive resource that both new and experienced TAs can actively engage, and as a tool that can better prepare TAs at the outset to be effective teachers. We feel the online course can better prepare graduate students to teach while at UC Santa Cruz, and serve as a solid foundation for further professional development as they prepare for their post-graduation careers.”

“You always need a compelling reason for moving a course or a training to an online format,” added Michael Tassio, director of online education, and Aaron Zachmeier, assistant director for instructional design and development. “Moving the TA ethics training online was a good idea for a lot of reasons. It’s now available at any time, and it covers more material in greater depth. It can also be used in conjunction with training provided by departments and divisions. This project fit really well with Online Education’s mission to partner with organizations and instructors to create rigorous, creative, and transformative online courses that reflect our campus’ longstanding commitment to teaching.”

While the online course promises to reach 200-350 new TAs per academic year, graduate students will be able to continue to access the content throughout their time at UC Santa Cruz, providing a rich reference guide during as many as 18 academic quarters of teaching on campus. In addition to complementing pedagogical training provided by academic departments and divisions, Teaching as an Ethical Practice now serves as a foundational entry point into a series of several professional development opportunities that have been created over the past few years to enhance graduate student education at UC Santa Cruz. These opportunities include the CITL’s teaching-focused Graduate Certificate Programs and Graduate Pedagogy Fellows program, and the Division of Graduate Studies’ Graduate Student Leadership Certificate Program and Professional Communication Certificate Program.

UC Santa Cruz faculty, staff, and continuing graduate students who would like to access the online course can email Sonya Newlyn (, Professional Development Coordinator in the Division of Graduate Studies. Graduate students new to the TA experience are automatically enrolled in the course by the Graduate Division.