UVA CS asserts the following principle: every student deserves equitable access to learning resources. This is a more nuanced goal that it initially sounds.

Consider two students, both wanting TA help. Student X learned the current topic before class began and is seeking to go beyond the basics. Student Y did not learn it before and is seeking to master the basics. How much time should you give them each?

  • split your time equally between the two
  • give all your time to student Y until student Y catches up to student X
  • other?

Write a paragraph describing how you’d split time and why it is the most equitable choice.

Then write a rebuttal to your own choice. How could a rational person see your decision as inequitable?

Despite the complexities, there are some principles we can recommend without reservation.

1 Only TA when on the clock

If one student can access you as a TA when you are not on the clock and another cannot, inequity is introduced.

When not on the clock, special dispensations given to TAs do not apply to you; for example,

  • many courses let TAs look at and edit student code, but not other people.
  • TAs know what’s coming up in exams, etc, which other people do not.


  • acting like a non-TA is challenging, and
  • explaining this line to your friends is tricky, and
  • you can easily lose all your time if you start letting friends take it when off the clock,

we recommend the following rule:

Limit tutoring to on-the-clock times

A recommended reply if others ask at other times: Sorry, because I am a TA I can only help you when I am holding office hours.

You can make exceptions, such as

  • Typically the course will have an approved mechanism for asynchronous help, such as Piazza or a TA email account. As long as this is publicized to all students, it needn’t match a particular schedule.
  • Sometimes instructors will approve some additional out-of-schedule one-on-one help for particular students. Who gets this extra time should be an instructor decision, not a TA decision, to avoid Conflicts of Interest.

2 Trust algorithms, not instincts

If you trust your instincts or memory to help you decided who to help or for how long, you’ll be betrayed by your implicit biases.

For example, consider responding to raised hands in a classroom or lab. How do you pick who to help next? The most common approach is to try to handle them in order they came up, but realistically you can’t remember that list if the number of hands is more than two or three. If you still try, you’ll tend to spend more time with big people and close people (who occupy more of your field of view) and attractive people (who you tend to look at more often) because you notice them more, and therefore have more I’ve seen their hand up for a while signal than for others.

The most common solution to this kind of concern is to use an algorithm instead of your instincts. For example, using an external queue that can keep track of order can help. So can simply picking a path that passes every chair and walking it in a loop, asking every student you pass how you can help them.

3 Make help easy to get

Consider (and answer) the following two multiple-choice questions:

When I am a student in a lab, I see a raised hand as

  1. a public admission of inadequacy, offset by the hope that a TA will have pity and help
  2. the protocol for getting past certain parts of lab
  3. what all good students have

I believe that a good student in a class with a lot of homework

  1. does all HW while sitting with the TAs
  2. tries to do HW on own, seeking TA help for problems that were tricky
  3. doesn’t need to use the TAs

Note that different students have different opinions on these are related questions. Regardless of what you believe is correct, that difference in opinion will lead to different levels of utilization of TAs as a learning resource. Anything you can do to remove the difference in access to TAs between these students is an increase in equity.

This is one reason to have TAs proactively walk the room, talking to every student, instead of waiting for hands or enqueuings. It’s also a reason, when hands are down or the queue is empty, to move among students instead of sitting and waiting for requests.

4 Perform equity reviews

As you TA, your perspective and understanding will refine and you’ll adopt various habits and patterns. It is worth pausing and asking is my method conducive to equitable access? I advise doing this about once a month, trying to identify ways you could be more fair and equitable in how you allocate your help.