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Teaching and Course Assignments

Teaching experience is considered to be an integral part of the training of all graduate students, and is required each year of all students, with the exception of students in their fifth year of study. First-year students usually fulfill this requirement by assisting with grading. Upper-level students fulfill this requirement by serving as a teaching assistant for at least one course in an academic year. Potential employers, particularly academic employers, often specifically inquire about the quality of teaching performed by job candidates from the department. Our students have found teaching experience to be a valuable asset.

Undergraduate teaching is one of the primary responsibilities of the Mathematics Department; graduate students play an important role in this function. As a part of their training, and as a necessary condition for most forms of financial aid, all teaching assistants are involved with departmental teaching activities each quarter they are in residence. Most often they assist faculty members by conducting the recitation sections of calculus and other undergraduate courses; they may on occasion be asked to grade for graduate courses.

Responsibilities to each course assignment begin on the first day of classes of that quarter and end 48 hours after the final examination. The work of teaching assistants varies with the course and the faculty member whohas primary responsibility but generally includes answering questions about homework problems in the recitation section (which meets weekly for each course), grading homework, and proctoring and grading quizzes, mid-terms, and final exams. The faculty member teaching the course makes specific arrangements with their teaching assistants concerning their duties. Recitation sections meet on Tuesday or Thursday; the lectures are on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, although there may be occasional departures from this model.

Classes begin on the hour and last for 50 minutes. It is department policy that a teaching assistant’s assigned instructional duties should take no more than six hours per course per week. A teaching assistant who feels they are overburdened should consult with the professor in charge of the course. If problems persist, the Director of Graduate Studies should be notified. 

Teaching assistants should have at least three formal, announced office hours each week during which students may meet with them. These office hours serve for all of the classes for which the graduate student is a TA. Teaching assistants should choose times when students are likely to be able to come (so 9am is bad, as are the popular lecture hours like MWF 11), so as to avoid multiple requests for appointments at other times. Holding some office hours in the early evening is another possibility. One good strategy is to have office hours straddle two class time-slots, for example 1:30-2:30pm; this will make them available to more students. Finally, teaching assistants for courses with graded homework should schedule office hours for the day before the homework is due, not the day after. Check with your professor to see what their preference is, as well.

The department and the graduate school organize several different training sessions for its new teaching assistants; all new teaching assistants are expected to attend. For second year graduate students, there is a required teaching seminar during the fall quarter (see Training section below). Faculty members are required by College legislation to have their undergraduate courses evaluated by the students; this includes an opportunity for students to evaluate their recitation sections. The information collected is returned to the faculty member and to the department chair. This, and other methods of evaluation, are used by the department in assessing how well teaching assistants are carrying out their duties. A graduate student whose teaching is determined to be unsatisfactory may become ineligible for University financial support.

Occasionally we will have a few openings for graduate students to teach a class in one of our calculus sequences, where they will receive supervision and mentoring from an experienced faculty member. To be eligible for this opportunity, the student must

  1. have demonstrated excellence as a TA, as evidenced by CTECs and in-class evaluations, and
  2. have evidence of initiative and interest in teaching, and
  3. have the permission of their academic advisor.

Examples for part (2) might be teaching in SPS in the summer or evening, or working with the Searle Center in one of their programs for graduate students. Other options are possible.

Graduate are obligated to undergo teacher training during the fall quarter of their second year by participating in Math 580 Seminar in College Teaching. First-year students perform supervised grading of exams in one undergraduate course per quarter. In order to provide teaching experience and some summer support, some students are given the opportunity to teach in the Summer School. This is usually offered to advanced students, chosen on the basis of evaluationsof performance as a teaching assistant.

In-class teaching is an essential responsibility of a mathematician in a research and/or teaching career. A graduate student must have served as teaching assistant (or, in exceptional cases, lecturer) in a role that involves meeting with a class (typically, running a discussion section – grading does not count) in at least three quarter-long courses at Northwestern or other institutions before completing a PhD. Regardless their funding situation, generally a student is expect to serve as a teaching assistant at least for one quarter during their second, third, and fourth academic years at Northwestern.