Are College Freshman Courses Taught By Professors or Teaching Assistants?

When you enroll in college classes for freshmen, you typically expect to see a professor standing in front of the class on that first day. Depending on where you attend and whether you attend a public or private school, your professor might only appear at a few classes before handing over the teaching duties to a teaching assistant. Whether an assistant or a professor leads your class depends on the school, the major and other factors.

What is a Teaching Assistant?

A teaching assistant is someone who functions as the right hand to a professor. These workers are typically graduate students, and the school pays those students a salary for their work. Also known as TAs, an assistant will generally take over a few duties held by the professor. The professor might ask the assistant to grade papers, meet with students during office hours and proctor exams. Teaching assistants usually pass out tests, watch over students as they take the test and return the tests to the professor either graded or ungraded. In some cases, the professor will also let the assistant teach the class. This usually occurs in larger schools where professors teach multiple classes every semester.

Responsibilities of a Professor

According to Lynn A. McFarland, professors fall into two categories: those with tenure and those without. Tenure occurs when a teacher remains at the school for a set period of time and makes a name for himself or herself. Once an individual has tenure, the school cannot fire that person and the person usually makes a higher salary. There is also a difference between full professors and adjunct professors. Adjunct professors usually teach one or two classes each semester and work elsewhere at the same time. A lawyer might run his own law firm and teach a class at the local college. Full professors primarily work for the school and carry a full course load every semester.

Professors or Assistants

One of the biggest factors that determines who teaches the class is the class size. In smaller classes, professors are usually on hand to lead discussion groups and meet with students. In larger classes, the professor will hand over the work to an assistant. Assistants often take over larger introductory classes in large public schools as well. At a school like Ohio State University or the University of Alabama, assistants typically take over classes and let professors focus on the more advanced students.


You also need to keep in mind that there is a difference between community colleges and public and private universities. The professors working at community colleges typically work part-time at the school and full-time or part-time in the field. Many community colleges do not have any type of teaching assistant positions available, which means that most of your classes will feature a professor in good standing teaching and leading the class.

Teaching assistant positions help graduate students pay for their college tuition and the other costs that they face. In exchange for their salaries, they handle many of the duties and responsibilities that usually go to a college professor. As a freshman, you will likely see assistants run a few of your classes. Professors typically teach larger classes and more advanced classes, but you’ll also find professors leading smaller classes in both community colleges and on private college campuses.