College freshman courses are known for being large anonymous courses in crowded auditoriums and lecture halls. Or that they are taught not by professors, but by graduate students, known as teaching assistants. This is true in some cases, particularly with lowest level general education requirements, like Freshman Composition or general science courses. But there are a variety of formats for college courses and how they are taught varies with the school, and even the department within the school.
Large Lecture Courses
Many of these across the board freshman courses will be taught by professors in large auditoriums. On stage, there will be a tenured professor who lectures usually once a week. The other day or two that the class meets, will be in a smaller classroom taught by a teaching assistant, or, TA. This class will be around twenty to thirty students, and the TA will reinforce the professor’s lectures, elaborating and answering questions. The professor will give assignments as posted in the syllabus, but you will submit them to your TA for grading.
A good example is at Florida State University. The most senior professors teach the introductory lectures of about 1500 students, but smaller laboratories and help sessions are taught by TA’s. The same is true of UNC Charlotte’s engineering department. All of the faculty members are required to have industry experience, but one-on-one interaction may be left to a lab session led by a graduate student. The University of Richmond, however, claims that that they have zero classes taught by teaching assistants.
Classes Taught by Instructors
A myth among high school students, and even some college students, is that the word, “professor” replaces “teacher” in college. This is not true. A professor is a specific rank among university teachers. Teachers who have not attained this rank, may be called “instructors.” Instructors are more common as you progress into your major courses—particularly if your major is something more vocational, like computer science, rather than academic, like English. Depending on what courses you take freshman year, you may have a few big lecture courses interspersed with instructor led introductory classes of twenty to thirty students.
Classes Taught by Teaching Assistants
Depending on the type of school, and the school policy, you may have a teaching assistant teach an entire course, but they are usually working closely with the supervising professor. You must have attained a full Master’s degree to teach at the college level, so graduate students cannot teach completely alone. However, you may get quite a few instructors straight out of graduate school. They may have served as a TA the year before, and were promoted to full instructor for the next year.
Classes Taught Fully By Professors
Some schools will have a full professor or instructor teach the class, and the TA simply assists. They can be behind the scenes, or sitting in the lecture, handing out papers and helping with crowd control. Lehigh University claims that their TA’s are exactly what they are supposed to be, assistants.
Academia is a strange world, full quirky personalities, each vying for their own academic career. It can be confusing at first. But as you navigate beyond your college freshman courses, it will get easier.