By: Uriel Marantz, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

There are two common perspectives on what it means to be a teaching assistant (TA). The first point of view – “doing the bare minimum” – stipulates that TAs are solely responsible for doing what they get paid to do: running tutorials, grading essays and exams, holding office hours, and any other administrative duties included in their contract. Anything else is superfluous. While this characterization is not wrong, it robs the TA and the student of a fulfilling experience. The second perspective – “motivating and engaging students” – holds that TAs have a unique and valuable role to play in encouraging their students to go above and beyond the course material. TAs can create opportunities to learn and grow, both for themselves and for their students, by applying what is taught in class to the students at a practical level, leading to much more interesting teaching experiences and learning outcomes.

This article argues that motivating and engaging students is preferable to doing the bare minimum, and that one of the best strategies for realizing that goal is to use tools for online engagement in the classroom (Coates and McCormick 2014). Considerable evidence from the social sciences supports the claim that the benefits of online engagement are numerous. These benefits work in several ways: students can learn without even knowing it by playing games and running simulations, they can receive support quickly and easily from TAs’ online interventions, and they can learn more with social media than ever before. Furthermore, the wide range of tools and resources available online make these learning interventions simple and inexpensive for instructors and TAs to implement. While instructors set the tone for the course and should implement online engagement as a general principle to enhance student learning, TAs can motivate and engage students online – even if instructors adopt a different approach. Students are most likely to be motivated when they are engaged online, and TAs can motivate student learning by pushing innovative online learning approaches.

Learning through Games

Students can learn without even noticing it by playing games and engaging simulations online. We learn by doing things and applying them in practical situations, not by merely reading textbooks and attending lectures. Learning by doing, or playing, allows students to construct unique worldviews. Online games are active learning environments in which any subject matter can be brought to life, and students from all over the world can interact with each other in real time. Research suggests that students are more likely to be motivated when they feel like they are “playing games” for fun rather than “learning lessons” in a formal classroom (Whitton 2010). Since online games raise motivation and engagement, TAs can use these insights to set up interactive games, such Jeopardy-style game-show tests of trivia-based knowledge or puzzles based on the course material, where students compete against each other to score the most points. Healthy competition is likely to spark further learning.

Online gaming is also useful for student learning in a variety of contexts. In the field of politics and diplomacy, strategic forecasting exercises and real-world simulations are prime examples. These exercises help policymakers formulate solutions to policy problems by seeing how complex situations would unfold, with several implications for policy. Most importantly, these simulations motivate students to engage with the material in new and exciting ways that help them learn. Brynen (2010, 2013) brings the subject of civil wars, foreign interventions, and peacebuilding missions to life for students, teachers, professionals, and policymakers through gaming techniques. Instructors would be responsible for creating or copying these simulations, but TAs would be more than capable of implementing them after minimal training and guiding students through the process. TAs would also be able to duplicate these efforts when they became instructors. Since these lessons are deliverable online, it is simple for educators to incorporate them into their lesson plans and motivate students with online engagement.

Learning through Support

Students can receive support quickly and easily from educators online, and this support is crucial for motivation. The literature suggests that support for a student’s autonomy and structure is necessary for motivation and engagement (Jang et al. 2010). Supporting student autonomy means responding to their needs, interests, goals, and preferences to create relevant opportunities, provide suitable challenges, and emphasize meaningful outcomes. Likewise, teachers who provide solid structure for students and communicate clear expectations keep students on task, manage their behaviour, and foster stability during hectic transitions. TAs can enhance student motivation and engagement by providing for student autonomy and structure. This could be as simple as surveying students early in the course to determine their preferences for tutorial format or communicating clear expectations about the course outline and protocol.

Other times, student motivation is more subtle. Even the types of messages students receive in classroom settings can impact their learning. Moreno and Mayer (2000) tested the ability of students to retain information and solve problems under different conditions. One set of students received instructions in a personalized manner, using the first or second-person point of view, while another set of students received instructions impersonally, in the third-person. It turns out those receiving personalized messages performed better across all measurements than those who received instructions impersonally. This means TAs can motivate and engage students by personalizing instructions on projects and assignments. Since most instructions are posted online, using a personal tone may improve student performance. TAs will, of course, have to follow an instructor’s lead here, since too personal a tone could be misconstrued, but the point is that students do better when addressed in a personal manner.

Learning through Social Media

Student motivation may also come from engagement with social media, which has become a new pedagogical tool. Students are more likely to participate in the classroom if social media engagement is part of the curriculum (Al-Bahrani et al. 2015). Students reported using social media outlets (such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube) more often than email or learning management systems. Combining these findings social media may be a more effective learning tool than the university learning systems, although the implications for privacy and confidentiality are unknown. Still, the potential for student engagement is clear; if students are already spending most of their time socializing online, it makes sense to redirect some of that time and energy towards online learning opportunities.

For instructors and TAs, this means engaging students online where they are already proficient in the communication and information technology. Some professors, such as Dr. Mira Sucharov from Carleton’s department of Political Science, include op-ed format blogging assignments and social media engagement projects in their course outlines (Sucharov 2017). These projects ask students to create Facebook pages with relevant posts and sufficient commentary to promote dialogue and debate within their online communities. While not all instructors are as willing or able to engage with modern technology and online resources, TAs are ideally situated to assist students in setting up these pages, moderating online discussion, and problem solving in this arena. Meanwhile, students are learning by doing and positively engaging with social media.


Motivating students is not always easy, but TAs are uniquely situated to do the job. One strategy TAs have at their disposal is to use online engagement techniques with their students. The pedagogical literature illustrates how effective online resources are for learning outcomes. Online learning tools are ideal because they can be used to teach through gameplay, to bolster student autonomy and provide a supportive learning structure, and to leverage the social media habits of students towards enhanced learning outcomes. By engaging students online, instructors and TAs can motivate their students to get more out of their learning opportunities.

Works Cited

Al-Bahrani, Abdullah, Darshak Patel, and Brandon Sheridan. “Engaging Students Using Social Media: The Students’ Perspective.” International Review of Economics Education 19, no. 1 (2015): 36-50.

Brynen, Rex. “(Ending) Civil War in the Classroom: A Peacebuilding Simulation.” PS: Political Science and Politics 43, no. 1 (2010): 145-49.

———. “Gaming Middle East Conflict.” Middle East Journal 67, no. 1 (2013): 133-38.

Coates, Hamish, and Alexander C. McCormick, eds. Engaging University Students: International Insights from System-Wide Studies. Singapore: Springer, 2014.

Jang, Hyungshim, Johnmarsall Reeve, and Edward L. Deci. “Engaging Students in Learning Activities: It Is Not Autonomy Support or Structure but Autonomy Support and Structure.” Journal of Educational Psychology 102, no. 3 (2010): 588-600.

Moreno, Roxana, and Richard E. Mayer. “Engaging Students in Active Learning: The Case for Personalized Multimedia Messages.” Journal of Educational Psychology 92, no. 4 (2000): 724-33.

Sucharov, Mira. “PSCI 3702: Israeli-Palestinian Relations.” Course Outline. Department of Political Science, Carleton University. Winter 2017. (accessed February 27, 2018).

Whitton, Nicola. Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.