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Teaching is another way of learning: The rewards of being a teaching assistant

 Jiao xue xiang zhang. (“Teaching benefits both teachers as well as students” in Chinese).

——Thirteen Classics Explanatory Notes and Commentaries ( shi san jing zhu shu in Chinese)


Each of us has a reward system in our brain. The structures that compose the system are located primarily within the cortico-basal-ganglia-thalamo-cortical loop. Teaching and learning is also like a feedback loop, an ever-strengthening positive one. As such, it’s no surprise that our blog has shared posts about the benefits of teaching many times (see posts from fellow writers Steven, Naureen, and Emma for example). Today, I share my experience as a reminder that teaching will always be one of the best ways to learn.


Overall class arrangement

I have been attending literature discussion classes since 2013. This class is followed by a two-day lecture course, called BIO2000 which was established by several professors from Peking University in 2000. The paper to be discussed is provided by the professor who gives the courses. Most of the time the paper is related to a heated topic in the lecturer’s field. The first year, I was simply an obedient student; but when my teaching assistant (TA) career got started in the fall of 2014, the roles were reversed. I went from being just a recipient to both a leader and an audience member, learning a great deal from the experience.

Discussion class falls on every Friday after classes on Monday and Wednesday. The topic of every week’s discussion paper varies, from cell mitosis to cell death, from epigenetics to ubiquitin, from mammals to plants, from genetic editing to clinical trails. Usually three students prepare presentations for introducing the background of the paper discussed, methods used, and summarizing the whole story. Other students participate in the discussion period.




Expansion of knowledge

As a TA, I listen to the students’ introduction to the whole paper from various perspectives, answer their questions, and grade. Since I study mitochondrial dynamics and metabolism of hepatocytes, I am less familiar with issues such as embryonic methylation or how to kill cancer cells. However, it is a TA’s duty to figure out how the questions were addressed and have a thorough understanding of the whole story. So, a TA should prepare extremely well for the discussion. The preparation is beneficial, for you have to look at many academic terms. Take epigenetics, for example. If a paper focuses on RNA epigenetics, which is a rather new term, I as a TA have to check the definition of “epigenetics” versus “RNA epigenetics,” and compare the different mechanisms between RNA and DNA methylation modification and the physiological significance of the biochemical processes. In our case, the TA workload is pretty time consuming but highly meaningful. While searching in the databases, we learn what else is happening in academia, what kind of questions still remain unknown and the new techniques other scientists are applying to their research. The new approaches, techniques, and ideas could be applied in my research project–the knowledge is intertwined.

In my class, during the second semester, I asked my students to prepare mini-talks on their topics of interest, ranging from simply introducing their lab, latest scientific discoveries, or their favorite professors or conferences they attended. While this part is not required for everyone, they shared afterwards that this was the part they liked best.

I found what students mostly want to acquire from their teachers are knowledge and experience. I prepare one story from my own personal experience for each class. Some of my students told me that they remembered this experience long afterwards, even though they forgot some of what the teachers or mentors told them, which was a big reward to me–a positive feedback.


Gaining confidence

Standing in front of about 30 students, a TA’s usual job is to arrange a class and “give orders.” I was a little nervous  initially, but I managed to speak loudly enough and participate in their discussion. The idea that appearing shy is viewed as being irresponsible for students was always in my mind. With this motto, I’m making every effort to make myself knowledgeable and professional by preparing extremely well before class. A TA being fully engaged with the students’ discussion makes a class vivid. The teacher’s vigorous attitude influences students. A dull teacher can never deliver an active or positive class. Confidence training in order to achieve this goal of being an engaging TA is essential for a graduate student. If given a chance to give a talk in an official and large circumstance or even lab seminar, confidence is a must.


More friends

We make friends with people in various fields as a TA. I learned from my students and they gained advice from me. Although they are freshmen in post under-graduation education, they never fall behind their older fellows who have been graduates for several years. Older students can still derive knowledge from these green hands. On top of that, these interactions may lead to  cooperation with each other in future research work.



Through the arrangement of my discussion class, both the TA and students benefit. However, for the TA, challenges always exist. I have my own research project to do and making a schedule for my everyday life is one of my greatest challenges. During my first year as a TA, I sometimes would sacrifice my project to prepare the whole week for the paper. I was always afraid I would not do well that year. Later, as I gained experience, I could manage my time more effectively.

Some say that a PhD students’ job is to focus on their own scientific field rather than learn broadly, while others say general knowledge is one of the basic skills we need. I insist that no matter who you are or what job you are doing, having more knowledge will always be of benefit. Taking part in more activities in PhD life, such as making the time to be a TA, is essential for both academic improvement and healthy psychological development.



Featured image by Joris Louwes CC-BY-ND 2.0



Wikipedia of Thirteen Classics,

Chinese encyclopedia of Shi San Jing Zhu Shu,十三经注疏/9664325?fr=aladdin

Reward system,

Cortico-basal-ganglia-thalamo-cortical loop,


Cell death,




Genome editing,

Clinical trial,


DNA methylation,

Cancer cell,

Liu N, Pan T. RNA epigenetics. Translational research : the journal of laboratory and clinical medicine. 2015;165(1):28-35. doi:10.1016/j.trsl.2014.04.003.

Parker R. Molecular Cell Forum. Skill Development in Graduate Education.DOI 10.1016/j.molcel.2012.05.003


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