Supporting our International Graduate Students in Their Teaching Roles

With increasing global mobility, international teaching assistants (ITA) are now a major part of the workforce in higher education institutes in the U.S. In 2020 National Science Foundation reported that 29% of science and engineering faculty were ‘foreign born’ and this same demographic received 6 out of 10 doctoral degrees in engineering, math and computer sciences. While we know, and the literature suggests, international students bring critical social-cultural perspectives and strengths that contribute to diversity in all programs, they still face a lot of challenges in their work as TAs and it is our responsibility to provide the support to help them overcome cultural, linguistic and instructional difficulties (Zhou, 2009).

TA training image
Author and Teaching and Learning Specialist,  Wenjing Luo, shares in discussion with some international TAs at the Fall 2023 Graduate TA training at Cornell Engineering.  Luo began her higher education career as an International TA.

Ultimately, our ability to communicate with each other across different cultural norms, practices and languages, is crucial and can also influence the quality of learning and social interaction between TAs and students. Compared to domestic TAs, ITAs have to expend much more effort to tackle cultural, linguistic and instructional challenges in order to successfully communicate with students and even peers.

In this post, we provide suggestions from the literature and our own experiences with ITAs to help lower these barriers to communication, and to create support systems and greater understanding.

Cultural and social challenges

Cultural differences in pedagogies and social norms between students and teachers create challenges for ITAs and their students. In many cultures, teachers are respected as authority figures and have more influence over what and how students should learn. However, at American universities, students are expected to be more independent, and have more freedom and autonomy over their learning. Also, the relationship between teachers and students is more informal in the U.S. and students are often expected to discuss or argue as colleagues with those responsible for guiding their education. While making eye contact, smiling, and leaning forward may help signal involvement and listening in the United States, some ITAs, for example ITAs from Southeast Asian cultures, often do not incorporate nonverbal actions that might help them connect with students (Byrd & Constantinides,1992).

ITAs (and some of their international students) may come from an educational system where students

International TA leads training
Having international TAs who are trained in pedagogy to lead trainings can lower the barriers for some of the ITAs as they train.

are expected to be silent during class and not question their professors, and they may not be prepared for American students who expect to participate actively and ask questions in the classroom (Sarkisian, 2006). As a result, these differences will affect the interactions between ITAs and students in different teaching and learning contexts.

Ellen Sarkisian (2006) offers a guide for international faculty and TAs in her book: Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities.

Below are some suggestions about how faculty and staff can help ITAs navigate through those cultural differences:

  • Take time to recognize and listen to the educational experiences of ITAs so we can know where the challenges may be and can address the challenges rather than guess what they are! Different graduate students will face different challenges!
  • Provide workshops on those identified topics for ITAs before they begin their TA work.
  • Invite experienced instructors with strong multicultural competence to the interactive workshop for perspective and empathy.
  • Provide multiple ‘check-ins’ for ITAs to discuss successes and challenges with peers and colleagues in a “give-and-take” situation.
  • Share resources that provide effective strategies   (i.e. Communication Strategies for International Graduate Students)

Linguistic challenges

ITAs’ English language skills are another factor that might cause communication breakdowns between ITAs and students. Difficulties mentioned in the literature on this topic include that some students cannot understand and learn from ITAs (Alberts, 2008; Bailey, 1983; Plakans, 1997; Williams, 2011), that ITAs do not have extensive English vocabulary to provide clear explanations (Albert, 2008), or that non-standard pronunciation patterns can cause miscommunication and fail to provide the necessary context to assist students’ learning (Anderson-Hsieh, 1990; Molholt, 1988; Morley, 1991; Byrd & Constantinides,1992). English language skills are most challenging for ITAs who just arrived in the U.S. and have not yet been extensively exposed to the English language. These outcomes are not surprising when we invite talented and creative students to come and enrich the culture of ideas in our institutions, and then place them in the classroom to teach without enough support in either language or the  practice of teaching in a different culture.

Below are some great resources to help alleviate ITAs linguistic barriers:

Instructional challenges

ITAs are often faced with a variety of instructional difficulties that derive from social and cultural challenges. Since most of them received their previous education in another country, they are not familiar with the academic level of their students.

  • ITAs often feel anxious and frustrated with the U.S. grading and testing system. Most American universities follow a similar grading system by assigning letter or numeric grades to evaluate students’ performance. This system generally provides clearer expectations and the associated structure allows opportunities for students to access support  – some ITAs may not have experienced this.  Therefore, to help students to improve their work, ITAs will have to take on the challenge of providing feedback, comments, and criticisms that are well-structured and accurately organized. They also have to be prepared for cases when students disagree or complain about their grades.
  • Even if ITAs are consciously aware of the need to apply more student-centered and active learning strategies in different teaching contexts, they often need more support and time to develop these skills because they are often fundamentally different approaches than what they experienced.
Group of graduate students in a training working collaboratively

To address these instructional challenges, some universities provide TA training sessions, usually consisting of workshops, for TAs before they start their work. For example, at Cornell Engineering, we provide TA in-person trainings in both fall and spring semester for all new incoming TAs. We cover a range of topics tailored specifically toward engineering TAs, such as Universal Design for Learning, Active Learning, Fair and Effective Grading, and Group Dynamics and Processes. However, most of the content are geared toward TAs in general and do not offer specific guidance on how to tackle ITAs’ instructional challenges.

Benedetti, Plumb, and Beck (2022) propose an innovative model of peer-teaching and self-reflection in TA training which can be effective for training ITAs. For example, asking one of the ITAs to teach their peer-ITAs a type of student-centered pedagogy and self-reflect on their teaching practice afterwards. Peer teaching sessions offer ITAs a safe space to practice designing and delivering teaching sessions to their peers and receive constructive feedback from their peers. The peer audience also get the chance to experience teaching from a students’ perspective. Time is limited for graduate students, however a best-case scenario would be to provide more than one peer feedback teaching session in a semester.

Unpublished data from Cornell Engineering Teaching Assistant Development Program
Unpublished data from Cornell Engineering Teaching Assistant Development Program (Fall 2023)

This practice is similar to ‘microteaching’ that can be used as the culminating experience following interactive training workshops such as those listed above.  Our  Cornell Engineering Graduate TAs suggest that  this type of practice and feedback is valuable:

“It was beneficial to watch other individuals present to get a better idea of how other people structure their lessons and see how they incorporate UDL and active learning”

They also benefit from watching a video of their ‘micro-teaching’ and an opportunity to  reflect on what can be improved:

“The video replay of myself is very rewarding – I am getting critical of how I am perceived by students. I also learned a lot from what people suggest for other students and try to improve on those aspects as well”

The experiences of being observed and observing others can be a starting point for reflection, through which they will, over time and with practice, become more successful teachers and  professionals.

Some additional tips that will help ITAs to cope with their instructional challenges:

  • Conducting follow-up activities. In addition to the initial training workshops, follow-up activities from these workshops, such as mentoring, in-class observation, and self-reflection, can be conducted to craft ITAs’ teaching skills.
    • ITAs can be paired with senior faculty member/TAs, who can mentor ITAs throughout their teaching journey.
    • Peer observations can provide an opportunity for ITAs to learn from each other’s teaching practice.
    • Reflecting on their own teaching practice is another key component for ITAs to refine and develop their teaching skills.
  • Creating a clear outline for one’s daily instructional activities. Having a well-structure outline will give students a better idea of today’s instructional goals, provide a context for students to better understand the topic, and give ITAs opportunities to check students’ understanding at different points in any instructional activities.
  • Grading papers and tests with informed knowledge. ITAs should spend enough time understanding the grading policy at their own universities by attending TA orientations/relevant workshops, and reading grading policies carefully. ITAs should also know the procedure to properly handle grading disputes.

In general, more efforts are needed to gain a better understanding about ITAs experience in American universities/colleges and to provide adequate resources to overcome their challenges. ITAs’ improved understanding of U.S. academic cultures and communications will not only help them improve the learning of their students. Educating faculty, staff, and American students about the cultural differences and the barriers their international peers face, can  also encourage American students to embrace a more global mindset and to work with others across culturally diverse backgrounds (Council, 2009).

Anderson-Hsieh, J. (1990). Teaching suprasegmentals to international teaching assistants using field-specific materials. English for Specific Purposes9(3), 195-214.
Ashavskaya, E. (2015). International Teaching Assistants’ Experiences in the US Classrooms: Implications for Practice. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning15(2), 56-69.
Di Benedetti, M., Plumb, S., & Beck, S. B. (2023). Effective use of peer teaching and self-reflection for the pedagogical training of graduate teaching assistants in engineering. European Journal of Engineering Education48(1), 59-74.
Byrd, P., & Constantinides, J. C. (1992). The language of teaching mathematics: Implications for training ITAs. Tesol Quarterly26(1), 163-167.
Huang, T., Chen, S., Lin, J., & Cun, A. (2023). Marginalized, silenced, and struggling: Understanding the plights of chinese graduate teaching assistants. International Journal of Chinese Education12(1), 2212585X231156996.
Molholt, G. (1988). Computer‐assisted instruction in pronunciation for Chinese speakers of American English. TESOL quarterly22(1), 91-111.
Morley, J. (1991). The pronunciation component in teaching English to speakers of other languages. TESOL quarterly25(3), 481-520.
Sarkisian, E. K. J. (2006). Chemical Education Today-Book & Media Reviews-Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities. Journal of Chemical Education83(12), 1763-1763.
Williams, G. M. (2011). Examining Classroom Negotiation Strategies of International Teaching Assistants. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning5(1), n1.





Becoming Teachers: Engineering graduate students reflect on their diverse professional journeys at Cornell


Teaching is a calling. It’s a calling that can be awakened at different points in one’s experience. But once awakened; evidence-based teaching practices must be cultivated. Part art and mostly science, the research that informs the best teaching practices is as wide and diverse as any. When a passion for teaching finds itself lodged in the heart of a creative, critically thinking, Engineering graduate student, it is incumbent upon us to provide a network of increasingly responsible leadership opportunities to help illuminate that path. Cornell engineers who find themselves with such a passion have opportunities in the College (ELI) to begin their leadership growth, and the University (CTI) to practice and broaden those skills. The path is not easy and it’s not always clear, as the authors of these 4 vignettes confirm. The best teaching applies the same practices as great leadership. These leaders of tomorrow need networks, expanding opportunities, and mentors. These inspiring stories show that it can be done, and that we have begun to build institutional networks and collaborations that benefit graduate students like these.

 Celia A. Evans, Ph.D., Associate Director, Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI)

Colleen at the boardColleen

My first TA position in graduate school was the spring semester of my first year. While trying to settle into my research group and take a class of my own, I was also supposed to help third year engineering undergraduates learn the difficult subject of Process Dynamics and Control, and it did not go well. Unlike when I was a TA as an undergraduate, these students did not know me, and I could have better expressed what my role was within the teaching team. My undergraduate department was smaller than the chemical engineering school at Cornell, with only six main faculty members, which created a close community. I always appreciated my undergraduate professors, and a potential career in academia is part of the reason I went to graduate school, but I did not comprehend how much prep work they had to do before class to be effective!

As a graduate TA, my responsibility was assisting with homework, which required reviewing textbook sections, completing the assignment, and thinking through where the trouble spots would be for the students. This small aspect of the course still took several hours per week. The sentiment for graduate students is often that research is the only priority, and being a TA is not an opportunity, but a burden. This perspective is damaging to the undergraduates, who have unprepared or apathetic TAs, and to the graduate students, who do not realize that being a TA is a chance to learn a subject more deeply, practice effective communication, connect with others, experience being in a position of authority, learn management skills, and test information retrieval to answer unexpected questions, among other things. These skills are all transferable, because there are teaching opportunities in every career, such as mentoring, engaging with clients, and presenting to multidisciplinary teams. Once I realized this, I embraced being a TA and pursued more opportunities to learn about best practices for pedagogy.

This led me to seek out the CTI Fellowship and the ALS 6015 ‘Teaching in Higher Education’ course.  Developing teaching portfolio components for these programs was a great exercise, because it showed me how my perspectives on teaching and diversity in the classroom are really based on my everyday interactions with people. I am seeking a position in industry as a next step, but I know that I am better prepared because of my experiences with teaching in graduate school.


A few years ago, my friend asked me to take an online course in teaching with her. I had TA-ed once before—instructed labs, graded, held office hours—and gotten “good” evaluations from students. I said “yes,” not because I thought I needed to take the course, but because I like learning new things. However, that course showed me, a person who always thought of themselves as a “good” teacher, that I knew nothing about teaching. I also learned that not knowing may be okay as a graduate student, but if I wanted to be a better teacher, I needed to learn more.

My teaching style, until this point, had been similar to those of my undergraduate professors: mainly, uninterrupted lecturing. I realized that the only reason I graduated college is because I was able to learn from the “traditional instruction” style, which is not how everyone learns, or should learn. In fact, studies show that students learn best when they actively interact with the material and through a variety of ways (videos, readings, examples…). The more I learned about teaching, the more I wanted to learn; I attended several of CTI’s GET SET Workshops and took more courses. In the end, I have decided to get a teaching-related job when I graduate.

Photo credit: Michael Suguitan,

As an engineering PhD student, what will put my job application ahead of other candidates is the teaching knowledge and experience that I have developed. I had already covered the former, but getting enough experience was challenging. At an R1 university, it is sometimes hard to get as many quality teaching opportunities as we want, simply because we are expected to spend most of our time doing research. For this reason, in addition to TA-ing every semester, I applied to ELI’s Teaching Assistant Development and CTI’s Fellowship Programs.

In these programs, I have had the opportunity to develop my own teaching workshops and train both graduate and undergraduate TAs using state-of-the-art education research.  One thing I am very grateful about being a part of Cornell’s teaching community is the help and feedback I receive. For example, I was TA-ing and taking the Engineering Teaching Seminar (ENGRG 6780) course in Spring 2020, when all teaching had to transfer to online. It is a reflection-based course, and every week, I was reflecting on some aspect of my teaching I was struggling with. The instructor’s kindness and guidance helped me tremendously, and I went through that semester learning more about teaching than at any other time in my life.


I will never forget my first graduate teaching memory at Cornell. During my first year in the biomedical engineering PhD program, I served as the graduate teaching assistant (TA) for an undergraduate Thermodynamics course. Despite having years of undergraduate teaching experience, I remember the disaster that was giving my first lecture. I was deriving equations for a ‘Carnot cycle’ problem when a student pointed out a mistake. I froze up and did not recover, largely due to the anxiety that was imposter syndrome fueled with having an entire classroom’s eyes watching my every move. It was a completely different environment than what I was familiar with back at my undergraduate institution.

As an undergraduate TA, I was used to facilitating peer learning sessions for dozens of my classmates, many of whom I knew from other on-campus activities. When I was the graduate TA for Thermodynamics, I struggled with learning how to effectively navigate the new power dynamic with the students in my course while concurrently adjusting to a new state, institution, and lab environment!

Coming into Cornell, I knew that I was primarily interested in pursuing a tenure-track faculty position with a focus on both research and teaching. However, it was at that moment in the classroom when it genuinely seemed (to me) that I was not fit to teach in academia and that I might need to find a new career path. As dramatic as that was, it was truly a humbling experience that led me to seek out CTI, first as a participant of the Teaching Portfolio Institute, and now as a CTI Fellow to further expand and refine my pedagogy.

Attending the Teaching Portfolio Institute genuinely transformed my perception of what teaching in higher education could look like. Designing a syllabus, crafting teaching philosophy and diversity statements, curating a teaching portfolio—all of these components were new concepts to me as a second-year PhD student at the time. However, the exposure and advice I received from the institute facilitators, all of whom spanned various disciplines across Cornell, motivated me to apply for the CTI Fellow program and became instrumental in helping me identify an action plan and seek out additional resources to further my training with the long-term goal of becoming a tenure-track faculty member.


In my third semester as a PhD student at Cornell, I was assigned as a Teaching Assistant for the Feedback and Control Systems class. I was responsible for conducting Discussion sections, in which I summarized key points of the lectures and answered questions from the students. Even though I had previous experiences teaching science and engineering to undergraduates and high schoolers in my home country, Brazil, this was my first time teaching in English. I learned English by watching YouTube videos and, therefore, I was not confident about my communication skills. As the semester here at Cornell went by, I realized that no matter which country I was in, class I was teaching or language I was speaking, all the students trusted me to teach them something new and important. It was my job to give them my best and fulfill their expectations.

Thais presents at a Robotics conference

So every day before the sessions, I would practice what I needed to say to the students by myself. I worked as hard as the students to help them understand the difficult concepts of this class. At the end of the semester, I was awarded the Sibley Prize for Excellence in Graduate Teaching Assistance based on feedback from students. I was thrilled by such recognition and decided to improve even further my teaching and communication skills by becoming a CTI fellow. Organizing the workshops and participating in the meetings as a CTI fellow has helped me to better communicate a variety of subjects to a diverse audience. I particularly enjoy interacting and networking with grad students from different fields during these events. It is refreshing to hear and learn from people with different backgrounds and interests other than mine.


These diverse voices showcase how varied, yet similar, teaching experiences can be even within the same college. The Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) Fellows are passionate about teaching and engage with their peers across campus to explore innovative teaching practices. This passion is evident in these four CTI Fellows. What began with Engineering Learning Initiatives’ (ELI) training to be successful TAs in their discipline, has clearly been transformative. Their diverse teaching and learning experiences in their engineering departments led them to seek out additional support through ELI and CTI graduate programming to further develop their teaching skills. This culminated in their interest in joining the CTI Fellows Program to learn more about teaching, mentoring and leadership through their work with graduate students and postdocs from across campus. Each of these stories share a common thread of exploring the various opportunities available at Cornell. By taking advantage of an opportunity to network with their peers from across disciplines, these four fellows have begun an exciting journey in their professional development as future leaders in their fields.

Derina S. Samuel, Ph.D., Associate Director, Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI)






Intrepid TA Development Consultants are Certain to be Needed in Uncertain Times

in·trep·id      /inˈtrepəd/     adjective

  1. fearless; adventurous. (Origin:  late 17th century: from French intrépide or Latin intrepidus, from in- ‘not’ + trepidus ‘alarmed’. Source: Online Oxford dictionary)

ELI TA Development Consultants are Cornell Engineering’s academic leaders of the future. Always intrepid, they are passionate about the craft of teaching and excited to become leaders and peer educators to improve teaching and learning. Eight engineering PhD students become part of the ELI team each year to do the challenging work of providing intensive TA training workshops for Graduate and Undergraduate TAs in the College of Engineering in the early weeks of each semester. At the beginning of this past spring semester (2020) TA training workshops began with approximately 100 TAs in an auditorium, after some delicious self-served bagels and continental breakfast foods.  Trainers introduced and over-viewed the day’s agenda in the lecture hall, and TAs heard from multiple University representatives and discussed policy issues in the large group session. This was followed by concurrent sessions, led by ELI TA Training Consultants, in several smaller rooms, then back to a group session in the auditorium again with self-serve lunch, back to concurrent sessions… etc.  You see the picture:  a large number of people, face-to-face, sharing food, shaking hands, heads bent together in group work or ‘think, pair share’ activities.

In the coming Fall semester of 2020, as University leadership makes the best decisions possible for education practices during the COVID 19 pandemic, this model will likely be different. But the quality and collaborative nature of teaching and learning must be maintained, whatever the temporary new model.  The work of TA Training consultants will never be more challenging or more critical!

The young professionals who applied and interviewed to be leaders in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, during the chaos brought on by the COVID -19 pandemic, deserve this descriptor in bold, uppercase: INTREPID.  In a typical cycle, the summer includes nearly 30 hours of team building, learning from the literature and from each other, developing best practices, presentation and active workshops – all in-person, on campus.  This prepares trainers for organizing, implementing, and assessing the face-to-face training of all the TAs in the College come the start of the academic year. But for Fall 2020, at least, all bets are off. These dedicated engineering graduate students came to their online interviews with the knowledge that TA training may be a ‘whole different animal’ this round. They will train online, as long as is necessary, and become experts in creating inclusive engaging pedagogy in every possible delivery venue. They put their best forward at a time when the only thing that was certain was how much they would be needed in this uncertain time.

Introducing this year’s INTREPID TA Training Consultants: top left – Sanjuna Stalin (CBE), top right – Katie Adler (TA Fellow, CEE), middle row left-to-right: Vivienne Liu (Systems), Kyle Wellmerling (MAE), Doga Yucalan (MAE), bottom row left-to-right: Arnaldo Rodriguez-Gonzalez (MAE), Prayag Biswal (CBE), Doga Yucalan (MAE), Andrew Kang (MAE).

At the first online training of this season, just before the end of one of most difficult teaching semesters in the history of the College due to a mid-semester online shift, the smiling faces, thoughtful comments and engaged intelligent suggestions, made it clear that these Engineers were “not alarmed,” but ready and willing to be nimble and prepared for whatever was to come.  In addition to engaging students in the classroom face-to-face, these educators will to be ready to train their peers about online engagement, diversity and inclusion, discussion forum best practices – not to mention being sure that their own presentations were ADA-compliant and incorporating those best practices in the information for course TAs.

This group knew from the beginning that they would have to be prepared for all/any possible scenarios for Fall 2020 TA trainings.  As we add ‘online’, ‘hybrid’ and ‘ADA compliant’ to our list of adjectives for TA training that already includes ‘accessible’, ‘student-centered’, ‘engaging’, these Engineering Grad Students have signaled to ELI and to the College that they are ready for the growth and the challenge.  INTREPID indeed.