Being a Teaching Assistant at WISE & SOE - A Great Experience at Xiamen University

This semester (Fall-2014), as in every semester, Xiamen University received hundreds of students from all over the world, all with different cultures, customs and traditions, but all having something in common, the ambition to become successful professionals in their chosen field. During this process, there is a special group of students who undertake the role of teaching assistant (TA), an invaluable aid to our academic studies.
Being a TA is not an easy job. It requires responsibility and good communication skills, just to mention a couple of the attributes that a good TA must have. For a better understanding of what a TA does, I had the honor to interview some of the TAs at WISE-SOE International Master’s Programs at Xiamen University: Jennifer Okonkwo (from Nigeria), Michael Garcia (from Colombia) and Philipp Müller (from Germany). 

Jennifer Okonkwo - TA of Business Statistics
Student of WISE International Master’s Program in Quantitative Economics

What are the benefits you get being a TA?
J.O.: I get teaching experience. I would like to be a lecturer or a professor, and being a TA is “learning by doing”. So I get to learn how to teach in the future and this is a great start. I remember my first TA session and I was so nervous, I did not know how I was going to do it. But after the first TA session, I became more relaxed with the students. You know, you spend your time, trying to explain, thinking that everybody gets it and then you ask, “Do you understand?” They say “NO!” (Laughing), and you have to start all over again from the beginning trying to go slowly to make them understand because if they do not understand, there is not point being there.
How much time do you spend to prepare for one TA session?
J.O.: So much time! About 5 hours preparing each weekly one and a half hour session.
What difficulties with students do you find being a TA?
J.O.: My problem with the students is that they do not ask questions. Sometimes, even though they do not understand, they do not ask. And if I ask “Are you clear?” They do not say “Yes”, they do not say “No”. So you do not really know who is following you. During the mid-term exam they did not do so well, and this is probably because they do not ask.
Before you were a TA, what experience did you have with your TAs from last year?
J.O.: My TAs were good. Ali Husain Ahmed was my TA in Business Statistics. His TA sessions were easy for us to understand. So I am trying to follow in his steps, because he did a really good job. He is supporting me very well now. If not for him, this semester would not be so easy.
After this experience of being a TA, what would you recommend to students to take full advantage of TA sessions in the following semesters?
J.O.: I think everything is OK. My recommendation is for the students to do their own job, because they may think they understand in class but cannot reproduce that understanding later. If you do not review on your own, you may mess up in the exam. I think the TA structure is good. Teachers or TAs cannot exhaust all the examples that you might encounter in the exams, so a better performance can be achieved by practicing more on your own outside of the classes and the TA sessions.


Michael Garcia - TA of Marcoeconomics
Student of WISE International Master’s Program in Finance

What benefits have you gotten from being a TA?

M.G.: Basically, I have learned a lot. The most important benefit is that this job has helped me to review all the concepts that we studied in the macroeconomics class last semester. Attending all the classes again and preparing exercises for the students, have helped me to achieve a real understanding of macroeconomics. Furthermore, I have improved my communication skills a lot. As you know, I come from Colombia and English is not my mother tongue. With the TA sessions I have had the opportunity to improve a lot the way I express myself in English; and I’m not afraid anymore of public speaking. I have improved myself, helped others and gained valuable knowledge. I really appreciate it.
Do you have enough time for your personal study and for preparing the weekly session?
M.G.: Time matters. Preparing a TA session always takes me at least 4 hours. When I have to check exams, usually I spend 6 or 7 hours per week working on things related to TA work. I think it is hard to achieve a balance because sometimes I am doing things associated with my personal studies, like homework or research for my thesis, and I have to stop and concentrate on preparing my TA session.
Some of the students do not have an economic background, how do you deal with this?
M.G.: Some difficulties arise from the differences between them. For example, there are some students who are good in some areas and they are very capable on that, and there are others with a higher level of economic speaking. What I have done is identify those students who have more difficulties and follow closely their progress and development in the macroeconomics class. Usually I finish my TA session at 4:30 but always stay with them until 5 or sometimes a bit later, to help them with further explanations. I think this extra time has helped them a lot and I am satisfied with that.
How was your experience with the Macroeconomics TA in your first year of study?
M.G.: My experience was really good. I think that is the main reason that I decided to be a TA; the sessions helped me to better understand the course and apply the concepts in real life.
Roughly speaking, what do you teach in your TA sessions?
M.G.: In the TA sessions, we learn how to apply the theory. Usually in my class, I review the theory that they learned that week, then do five or six exercises related to this theory and at the end I show them the relation that this has with the real world and the global economy. I think these sessions are necessary for the students, because in class we learn theory, and in these sessions we practice, hence, it is complementary for a full understanding of the topics.

Philipp Müller - TA of Microeconomics
Student of WISE International Master’s Program in Financial Engineering

What have you gained by being a TA at Xiamen University in terms of knowledge, experience, etc.?
P.M.: The first thing that pops into your head is that you actually get something like a salary. However I really do not care about that. I just do it in order to experience teaching. Teaching could be something important for my career and just in case I decide to pursue a PhD in the future. This is definitely a good asset I can attach to my resume, and I can already show that I have experience on teaching at a master academic level. It also improves my teaching skills, and with this I can dig myself deeper into the subject, and not only learn how to pass the examinations.
Why are you teaching Microeconomics and not in other subject?
P.M.: During the summer I decided that I did not want to pursue a PhD degree, and I did not apply for any of the TA positions advertised at that time. At the very beginning of October I got an email that WISE was looking for a new TA for Microeconomics. So I was thinking about it; this is still a chance to get some teaching experience, just in case I do apply for a PhD degree. And since the semester had already started I decided to take it.
Have you found any difficulties in giving microeconomic sessions to students, since not all are native English speakers?
P.M.: I believe English is not the problem here. Because the questions that are asked in microeconomics are from an analytical point of view rather than about what is wrong or right. For example if you write three passages of something that, after analysis you could explain in three sentences, then it means you didn’t understand the exercise. So as I said, I believe language is not a problem here. The problem could be that students are not used to dealing with analytical question that follow a particular logic, like what happened, or what are the assumptions and conclusions that I can draw in a graph. Also some students lack important algebra skills and so on.
How was your experience as a student learning from other TAs?
P.M.: I was a difficult student. For example in statistics, after some homework, I used to go to the teacher and start arguing whether this is right or not, and afterwards the teacher said, “Yeah… you are right” (laughing). I started to attend the sessions in the beginning of the semester, but then I stopped going after a while because I could not get any value added from it. However I strongly recommend attending the sessions if your academic background is not economics or finance. These sessions are designed to push up the lower 30 or 40 percent of the class and not to make the top students of the class better. That is why my goal is to support these students with some difficulties rather than to teach those with perfect understanding on the subject.
For TA sessions in the following semesters, if you were a decision maker in WISE & SOE, what would you tell us to improve the quality of the sessions, maybe have them more frequently?
P.M.: Frequency of the sessions (once a week) is good. But I would like to have a personal assistant that allows me to just concentrate on teaching the session because I also have to attend all the classes, check attendance of the students and grade all the assessments besides my personal studies.

(End of interviews)
As a student at WISE & SOE, Xiamen University, I feel proud to have classmates willing to share a part of their already busy schedule, and make a huge effort to give hope and motivation to all those students, like me, struggling sometimes, with calculations, economic models and mathematical analysis.
Thank you all dear TAs. 
By Marco Daccarett 
Student Assistant
Class of 2015 student of WISE-SOE International Master’s Programs
Contact me

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