PhD, Professor

Project Management for Teacher Assistants and Instructors: Balancing Workload

Running a class requires lots of preparation, administrative and repetitive tasks, time management, and coordination if TAs and graders are also involved. Most PhD students in the US are TAs (Teacher Assistants) for one or two courses their advisors or other professors teach in order to earn their stipend. TAing a course as a PhD student with other PhD students and a professor that is active in the research community can be quite challenging! Besides the usual problems of only having limited time to run a specific course due to teaching multiple courses or other responsibilities, PhD students and their advisors may attend one or more conferences during the semester. Making them unavailable or have very limited availability during their travels and conferences.

Hence, using project management techniques to plan tasks needed to run the class can make the workload more manageable. Though the techniques I share in this post may apply to any instructors and TAs, I use these in the context of being a PhD student TAing a course with a very research-active advisor, 1 co-TA, and 2 graders. Hope you find these tips helpful!

11 Project Management Steps for TAs and Instructors to Balance their Workload

1. Define Responsibilities

It’s important for everyone to know what is expected of them, especially the TAs and graders. Every instructor is different, and may want help with different aspects of the course. Hence, it’s better to have this understanding ahead of time. Even if you TA for the same instructor for multiple semesters/years, it is possible that the instructor wants to try new things, hence, changing the kind of help he/she may need.

2. Use Microsoft Project

There are a lot of project management tools out there, but you want a project management tool that determines how long a task will take based on required effort and available time. I created an Excel sheet to do something very similar for me when I worked in the industry, and it worked perfectly. However, every time I added a task in between other existing tasks, or moved tasks, I would have to redefine the dependencies, the start and end dates, etc. Microsoft Project makes it easier as all fields are generally updated automatically in such instances.

EffortDrivenSettings

I have looked at many different project management tools, but you have to define your own start and end dates, or they are suited for collaboration among team members. The problem with setting your own start and end dates is that you might not notice when you have too much to do at the same time. Microsoft Project will notify you when a team member is over-assigned, and you can try to adjust tasks that could be completed earlier or later to balance the workload across the semester. This especially helps with tasks that need to be done before, after, and during conferences, travels, or time off. Hence, if you need to use an alternative, you want a tool that calculates effort-driven duration and flags when resources have too many tasks to do at a time.

OverallocatedResource

Note: I am not saying other project management tools are not beneficial. I have used Trello to manage an actual project, and it was perfect for that project! You need to find and use the tools that suit the type of project you have at hand and the environment in which you will use it. While I would love to try a collaboration tool, my advisor and co-TA are 60+. Hence, using new technology and tools is not always plausible. I stick with good old email, and that works for my team.

3. Define Average Work Time

At my university, TAs and graders are paid to work 10 hours/week. Hence, I used this as the average number of hours the TAs and graders work per week. I set my advisor’s average work time to 15 hours/week. During the first year I tried this, I found these work hours worked well. You may need to determine how much time you and other staff members will actually be able to contribute to your course.

WorkTime

4. Define and Categorize All Required Tasks

Brainstorm and list all the assignments and exams, preparation and grading tasks, all the possible tasks you need to do before and during the semester for the course. Large and small. Your knowledge of the tasks may change or improve as time passes, and that is fine. Do your best with what you know at the time. Be willing to change and improve the project plan with time.

I like to categorize and sub-categorize the tasks. Doing this helps you see on a high-level what needs to be done when, as well as help define tasks that are needed. My hierarchy of tasks are:

  • Summer Preparations
    • TA Preparations
    • Administrative Preparations
    • Course Schedule Planning
    • Hire Graders
    • Website Preparation
    • D2L Preparation
  • Semester Grind
    • Train Graders
    • Class Lectures
    • Assignments
    • Exams
  • Semester Wrap-Up
    • Final Regrade Sessions
    • Submit Final Grades
    • Final Clean Up!

5. Define Deadlines and Required Effort/Work

After you have defined all the required tasks, set deadlines for them. Some tasks will have hard deadlines, other’s will not. For the tasks that don’t have a hard deadline, set one such that tasks depending on these have sufficient time to be completed. Also estimate how much time each task needs if you were to sit down and focus on only that one task and do nothing else until it finished. Don’t worry about the actual duration of the task – since we will be using an effort-based project management tool (Microsoft Project), the duration will be adjusted according to other tasks we need to do at the same time, and the amount of time you have allotted to this course.

DeadlineWorkUpdated

 

6. Define Dependencies and Constraints

There are a few types of dependencies and constraints that apply to tasks. Below are the ones I find myself using the most:

  • Dependent on other tasks (Predecessors): Some tasks might need for other tasks to be completed first. For instance, you need to set up your course website, before you can begin uploading material to it.
  • Date Dependent: In some cases, you cannot start a task until a certain date. Actually, these tasks are generally dependent on another event, but not always. For instance, we cannot grade an assignment until after it’s due date for the students. Since the assignment is not a task for us, I don’t have it listed as a task. Therefore, I set the dependency such that grading cannot start before its due date.
  • Do as soon/late as possible: Ideally, most tasks can and should be completed as early as possible. In practice, however, we tend to do tasks as late as possible. Which is perfectly fine – several times we construct assignments and exams based on what we go over in class. Also, Microsoft Project tends to set all of the tasks to start on the project start date when using the “Do as soon as possible” option. Hence, I usually set most of the tasks to be done as late as possible, with some of the preparation work being done as soon as possible (i.e., setting up the course website).

Dependencies

7. Determine when team members are unavailable

Find out if the Instructor and TAs are planning to go to any conferences during the semester. They might not be sure, yet, as they have not received notification of whether their submissions were accepted or rejected. In such cases, I like to mark them as unavailable during this time, anyway. It’s much easier to make adjustments with more available time versus having constrained time last minute. Another tip: give them an extra day or two before and after the conference dates to travel and rest.

TimeOff

Graders are typically not PhD students, but they might have some personal days off. Instructors and TAs may schedule some personal time off, too. Include these as time the staff member is unavailable.

8. Adjust Project Plan as Necessary

Ideally, after setting up the above steps in Microsoft Project, the tasks are automatically scheduled. However, that is not exactly the case. Microsoft Project will flag tasks during which one or more resources are overallocated. Some tasks might be set to complete after the deadlines. Some tasks might be set to start and end too early (even if you have all of the dependencies set correctly – not sure how and why that happens, perhaps it’s an intermittent defect in the application). There are a few ways I like to adjust these tasks:

OverallocatedResourceOptions

  • If you right click on the task, Microsoft Project offers to reschedule the task. This is quite a nice and handy feature, and sometimes it really is able to reschedule the task such that it is not too early, completes before the deadline, and makes the resource’s workload more balanced. However, sometimes, it is unable to find a time for the task to fit all the criteria.

TeamPlanner

  • Another incredibly useful feature is the Team Planner view of tasks. Microsoft Project lists all the resources vertically and the tasks horizontally per their duration. Red rectangles outline the time and tasks during which a resource is overallocated. From here, you can drag tasks forward or backwards to help balance the load.

ModifyDateManually

  • It’s not always easy to see when the deadlines of the tasks are or the surrounding, dependent tasks from the Team Planner view. Hence, in the Gantt Chart or Tasks View, I sometimes simply play with different start dates to see which one will work better. If nothing reasonable is working, I try to move another task during the time a resource is overloaded.

Using these 3 methods, I move tasks around until all tasks are completed by their deadlines (with the occasional exception of tasks with soft deadlines where being a day or 2 late is fine), no tasks are assigned to be completed too early, and resources are not overloaded during any time during the semester.

9. Remind and Follow-up Regularly

I send out weekly emails of tasks each person needs to work on during the next week (typically on Friday or early Saturday so that we have the weekend to work on them, but sometimes Monday mornings, depending on my schedules and deadlines).

TasksEmail

If you’re using a tool that allows for better team collaboration (one in which a person can see what’s due when and what they should be working on now), such emails might not be necessary. However, it is still a good idea to remind everyone to be checking the tool regularly, or remind them of urgent tasks if you’re not sure they’re being worked on.

10. Adjust and Solve Problems as Necessary

Just because a plan has been made, doesn’t mean it is perfect or that unexpected things won’t come up. We have to be ready and willing to adjust the plan and/or improvise. I have now been TAing a specific course with the same professor and co-TA for a few years (what can I say, the PhD journey is long). Although by the end of year 1 the responsibilities and roles were well-defined and haven’t changed since, we have always had different and new challenges every year. For example, not finding graders as early as scheduled, one of the team members suddenly being injured and unavailable, etc.

11. Lessons Learned

After posting the final grades, my co-TA and I like to sit and talk about what we felt went well or could have been better during the semester. Later, we also go through our emails to add to our list of lessons learned that semester. At the beginning of the next semester, we like to review this list and make plans for improvements or adjustments, accordingly.

References

I have tried to see if anyone else wrote about instructors and teachers using project management techniques, but I did not find any articles that address the things I have in this article.

The following article talks about how using some project management concepts helped the teacher be a better teacher:

Students should also learn project management so they learn to break big projects and tasks into smaller, doable pieces and complete their projects on time, as described in this article:

Finally, for PhD students and professors, the following 2 articles talk about how to use project management to scope and write research papers:

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