What I Learned Teaching My First Course as an Associate Instructor!

By Shannon Brady |

For context, I’ve been a TA every quarter since Summer 2020 and have served as a teaching assistant for various courses, from introductory-level psychology to more advanced upper-division seminars. Sometimes, I had as few as five students; other times, I had as many as 30 in a single session. Though there are many skills afforded to us while serving as teaching assistants, there were many curve balls that I experienced when serving as the instructor for the entire course. 

What is an associate instructor?
Also known as an instructor of record, an associate instructor is typically a graduate student who teaches undergraduate courses at a university and serves as the “professor” of the course. Responsibilities for an instructor of record go beyond delivering lectures; it also involves decisions about exams (e.g., online versus in person? Open note? Timed? Multiple choice or short answer questions?), course content (e.g., what topics to cover? What readings to use? What TAs should cover in section), assignments (e.g., homework? Papers? quizzes?), and grade breakdowns. Due to the broad range of responsibilities, it’s helpful for instructors to think about how to best prepare for an upcoming course.

What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in your role as an associate instructor?
I spent much more time in what I called “slides jail”( making PowerPoint slides in preparation for lectures) than in a normal quarter. Because I wanted to “do a good job,” I found myself spending arguably MORE time than was probably necessary fiddling with my slides, finding content to put in, and making sure I knew the information. I strongly recommend planning to start course preparation as early as possible if you aim to serve as an associate instructor because more time spent upfront will save you time on the back end. Another pro tip would be to see if any previous instructors might be willing to share teaching materials with you–though it can be exciting to create something from scratch, we don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Lastly, set boundaries about how much time you will spend on slides and stick to them so that you’re not bleeding into the time you need to spend on your research!

What are some memorable or rewarding experiences you experienced as an associate instructor?
One of my goals as an instructor is to have students map course concepts onto their own lives (whether through personal experience, examples from media they consume, or even with examples they learned in other classes). Thus, one of my favorite parts of this experience was hearing my students share! I heard about which personality traits they thought characters from their favorite TV shows were highest in, their first words when they were babies, different cultural practices surrounding celebrating dearly departed loved ones, and more (this was a lifespan development course). These rich examples served to help students’ retention and provided diverse exemplars for others to use in their learning.

Do you have any pro tips or other advice for grad students seeking out an associate instructor position for the first time?

  • If you’re an instructor who likes to use PollEverywhere for interactive activities in class, know that the basic account has a 40-person cap. I didn’t realize this until the majority of my 200-student class was “locked out” of answering the PollEverywhere question on the first day of lecture. Solution: you can use this Google Form to request a presenter account (which has a much higher cap–I was able to have all 200 students participate with this).
  • Set up times to meet with your TAs - even if these TAs have taught for the course before, it’s always helpful to have a set meeting time to check in about any questions or comments that have come up each week (either from the instructor, the TAs, or the students) and make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • If you’re using scantrons for exams, take some time to brush up on the scoring instructions, as they might influence the types of questions you create.
  • If you’re doing online quizzes/exams on Canvas, make sure you check the settings very closely (e.g., if you allow students to have multiple attempts, it’s important to select the option to “NOT show answers” upon completion of the first attempt)
  • Ask other professors/teachers what they do! It can be a time saver to learn from others’ experiences (both good and bad) 
  • Have fun with it! I always try to imbue my teaching with positive emotions and humor–to boost engagement, boost memory retention, and make slides jail a little bit more entertaining for myself. For example, students enjoyed seeing pictures of my cat that I would post at the beginning of class time as we waited for everyone to file in–so I started to make memes like the one shown below.

[Image Description: A pan from Shannon at the podium to a pink PowerPoint slide displayed on the projection screen with a meme]

Would I do it again?
Knowing what I know now? Yes – especially if it’s for a class I’ve already taught (that would save so much prep time).

What can I do to prepare for being an associate instructor? Who can I go to for support?
There are a number of professional or teaching development opportunities that you can look into if you’re interested in teaching positions like this. The University Teaching Certificate program is a 2-quarter course that students can apply to learn more about pedagogy and develop a teaching portfolio (I participated in this program, and it was a considerable help to prepare a draft of a syllabus when I had to put one together for teaching). Furthermore, the Teaching and Development Program here at UCR offers several workshops each quarter and office hours for questions about teaching. 

If you have further or more specific questions or want to discuss associate instructor positions further, feel free to contact Shannon Brady at!