Most of this course is based on topics where I can both (a) cite multiple supporting studies in the academic literature and (b) speak from personal experience from my years of TAing, tutoring, and teaching. But being a TA in an online environment is a new topic to me, to UVA, and to most schools with our calibre of student, so this writeup is based on the plurality of advice from TAs, not on more robust research.

1 Use your Camera

Many TAs commented on the isolation of being invisible in a COVID-world without faces. Several commented on their hesitation to turn on their camera or to ask students to do the same, but also commented on how much their life improved once they did.

Stressed students can sometimes treat the invisible TA as an unfeeling machine, but tend to treat you as more human if they can see you. It can also be worth your time to spend a minute talking about their life and yours, reminding them that you are a person and a fellow-student before you get under way with the help they came seeking.

Also take the initiative to get to know your fellow TAs. Many TAs in the COVID era commented that they wished they had gotten to know thier fellow TAs better. Don’t expect the veteran TAs to initiate this: they know each other already from when they TAed in person together. Don’t expect your supervisor to do it either (see [Your supervisor is flawed] above). Take the initiative to say hi, to share anecdotes (good and bad), to create opportunities to make friends with your fellow TAs.

2 Whiteboards, not code editors

Again and again, TAs shared advice like this:

I wish I had transitioned to sharing my own screen with a virtual whiteboard earlier in the semester.

The exact reasons for this reflection varied, but it was almost universal across all different levels and varieties of classes.

When the TA was in a class that involved writing code, they usually also referred to students who shared their screen of code, generally referring to that practice as a problem that the virtual whiteboard solved. Another common approach to solving this was to employ the Socratic method

3 Encouragement works

Often students will exhibit signs of low energy, isolation, and discouragement. Several TAs expressed surprise with how well encouraging the students worked in getting them engaged and happy. As one TA (Mark Chitre) put it:

I started adding in words of encouragement to see if it would make a difference in the amount of interest that students showed. To my surprise, the change was drastic, and now I try to employ that strategy in every meeting I get with a student.

This is also a good practice in person, but was reported to have far greater impact with online courses.