By: Emma McLarens, Institute of Cognitive Science

In a time when five years of secondary education (Grade 13) no longer exists and it seems like an undergraduate degree is the minimum education requirement to apply for any job, adolescents are entering university without always knowing what they want or are interested in studying. This situation can lead to students entering courses and programs that they are not always excited about. For teaching assistants (TAs), this circumstance can cause issues in the classroom. While we are considered experts in our field and naturally interested in the subject matter, we must keep top-of-mind that this is not always the case for the student. We need to be, I argue, enthusiastic and engaged in our approach to teaching to keep our students interested and motivated in the course material. This essay will examine the effects of teacher enthusiasm on student learning, and then will look at a variety of ways TAs can engage with the class to get students interested and motivated.

As a TA, your level of enthusiasm in the classroom can have positive and negative effects on your students’ learning (Stephens, 2015). Research shows that when teachers appear to enjoy what they are teaching, that impression has positive effects on the students in their classroom (Martin, 2006; Stephens, 2015). Additionally, Martin (2006) and Stephens (2015) found that teachers who are confident in what they teach also have positive effects on students. In contrast, research shows that less engaged students expend minimal effort, have more negative emotions, and pay less attention compared to engaged students (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004), ultimately resulting in lower grades and an increased number of dropouts (Connell, Spencer, & Aber, 1994). It follows, then, that as a TA your approach and method to teaching have direct effects on student motivation (Stephens, 2015). With this in mind, TAs should display their enthusiasm about the course and teaching even when things may not be going as planned.

There are several ways a TA can engage with students in the class to try to motivate and engage them. In my opinion, the first and most important way to get students engaged is to approach your job as a team position; it’s you and the student, not you versus the student. Your focus should be on student learning and embracing the opportunity to help others learn. A good place to start is getting to know your students by name and showing you care about their learning and them as people. I believe this creates a sense of equality in the classroom and makes them feel important (or at the very least that they belong there). Studies show that when students believe their teachers care, they learn more (Teven, McCroskey, 1997; Stephens, 2015). As well, positive relationships with your students promote emotional, cognitive, and behavioural engagement within the classroom (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Stephens, 2015). However, it is important for the TA to establish professional boundaries with their students. Getting to know your students will also allow you to be accommodating to those students who need more encouragement and, in other cases, to create stricter boundaries. For example, if you have a student who is nervous/anxious to speak up, preventing him from participating in class, you could reassure him that he would not be called on in class, but he would need to provide you with an email after each tutorial with questions and/or ideas he had.

Once you’ve gotten to know your students, another way to engage them is to tailor class work examples to things that interest them. For example, if you are teaching a math class and one student who is not particularly fond of the course is very interested in sports, create questions that involve sports. Appeal to the football fan by asking, “If one touchdown is worth six points and one field goal is worth one point, how many different ways can the Ottawa Redblacks reach 32 points in a game?” In order to reach all the interests of the different students in your class, you could have the students collectively pick the theme of the class each week.

As TAs, we are at times required to run tutorials. You could have the students help create the format of these classes. At the beginning of the semester, have the class collectively decide how they would like the tutorials to run. For example, do they want the class to start with examples, followed by their questions and discussion, or would they prefer to have a small lecture to begin, followed by group work and then a quiz? Tutorials can be intimidating for students as they are often required to share their ideas. If the students are given the chance to influence the format of the tutorials and know exactly what is expected of them each week, it can help reduce anxiety and encourage participation.

Finally, it is important to find ways to make course material fun and engaging for all types of learners (visual, auditory, hands-on). This could be as simple as showing YouTube videos explaining course concepts, playing educational games (e.g., Jeopardy), or having students work together to solve problems. I also believe helping students understand the practical uses of course content can increase interest in the material.

As a TA, remaining enthusiastic and engaged with your approach to teaching will improve student learning and result in increased student motivation and engagement. A lack of it, by contrast, could negatively impact your students. The above are just a few ways that TAs can engage their students to help encourage motivation and participation, and to increase student satisfaction overall-there are many more that could be added to this list. From experience, the rewards for going above and beyond for your students far outweigh the disadvantages. It is important to remember that as a TA, if you find yourself in a situation you don’t know how to handle, your TA peers, professors, Union representatives, and other campus support services are there to help you.


Connell, J., Spencer, M., & Aber, J. (1994). Educational risk and resilience in African-American youth: Context, self, action, and outcomes in school. Child Development, 65, 493-506.

Connell, J., & Wellborn, J. (1991). Competence, autonomy, and relatedness: A motivational analysis of self-system processes. In M. R. Gunnar, & L. A. Sroufe (Eds.), Self process in
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Fredericks, J., Blumenfeld, P., & Paris, A. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concepts, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74, 59-109.

Martin, A. (2006). The relationship between teachers’ perceptions of student motivation and engagement and teachers’ enjoyment of and confidence in teaching. Asia-Pacific Journal
of Teacher Education, 34(1), 73-93.

Stephens, Tammy L. (2015). Encouraging Positive Student Engagement and Motivation: Tips for Teachers. Accessed January 20, 2018 from

Teven, J., & McCroskey, J. (1997). The relationship of perceived teacher caring with student learning and teacher evaluation. Communication Education, 46, 1-9.