What are the biggest challenges new Teaching Assistants (TAs) at UT Austin face? Confidence? Time management, to balance TA duties with already challenging graduate student workloads? Not knowing what, exactly, a TA does? While all of these are hurdles, the biggest obstacle many face is a lack of support and training. Teaching Fundamentals, a seminar for first-time TAs currently being piloted by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), the Graduate School, and partners in the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) and the Department of Mechanical Engineering is working to fill this need.
The University of Texas at Austin employs over 2,500 Teaching Assistants. TAs’ responsibilities range from grading to leading discussion sections and labs. They review topics covered in lectures to make sure students absorb key concepts, encourage critical thinking and discussion stemming from these core ideas, and act as a friendly face for large undergraduate courses by engaging one-on-one with students who might be too intimidated to ask a professor for help. Graduate School Dean Judy Langlois notes, “We cannot undervalue the contributions of TAs to educating our undergraduates. Not only do they enhance the learning experience, but they are also an essential part of the courses’ success.”
TA-ships are a form of financial aid for graduate students, so most TAs are chosen on the basis of their academic potential rather than their teaching experience. For many TAs, though, the assistantship is an important professional development experience during which they build teaching skills they will later employ as Assistant Instructors, or in academic or teaching careers. Most departments hold orientations to help their TAs get off to the right start in their new teaching roles, but formal training often stops there. For the most part, TAs mirror the methods their teachers used, find support though informal networks like mentors or fellow TAs in their departments, or they learn on their own through a semester or two of painful trial and error.
In fall 2011, the Graduate School, then headed by Dean Victoria Rodriguez, and Dean of Undergraduate Studies Paul Woodruff approached Joanna Gilmore at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) to develop a program to address the need for increased TA training. Gilmore, Coordinator for the CTL’s Graduate Student Instructor Program, brainstormed ideas with the Graduate School team and consulted higher education research on best practices for TA training. The proposal she developed became the basis for the pilot TA Fundamentals course launched in fall 2013.
Meanwhile, the College of Liberal Arts was developing its own plan for TA training. Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies Esther Raizen recalls,
"[Our interest in TA training] was part of a broader initiative to provide graduate students with training that would enhance their professional profiles and better prepare them for the job market. We approached the Graduate School with two ideas: The first was the creation of a graduate teaching fellowship, which would allow ABDs to teach upper-division seminars of their own design, and the second was pedagogy training for teaching assistants, as most of our graduates move on to positions that have teaching as their primary duty yet very few receive training in pedagogy. This conversation coalesced with a discussion that took place at the CTL on TA training, and this meeting of the minds led to the development of the course."
Liberal Arts and Mechanical Engineering were selected to pilot the program. CTL and the College of Liberal Arts selected Laura Beerits, a graduate student in English, as their course’s instructor. Beerits has 5 years of TA and AI experience under her belt; experience she gained while completing an M.A. in Rhetoric and starting doctoral study in English, specifically, on English-language coming-of-age novels of the 21st century. She says she has a “freakishly good memory” of what it was like to be a new TA, and she brings that personal experience into her teaching. She worked with Gilmore and other CTL staff to combine educational theory with pragmatic concerns, like grading, encouraging discussion, and working constructively with supervising professors and fellow TAs.
COLA selected eleven students through a formal application process, creating an interdisciplinary group from the departments of English, History, Religious Studies, Sociology, Latin American Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies. Participating TAs all lead discussion sections for their courses. They meet for an hour and a half most Thursday evenings.
During the TA Fundamentals class meetings, Beerits provides input on teaching methodologies, and leads exercises to develop skills like writing good discussion questions. Perhaps more importantly, students share the real-life experiences of teaching and learn from one another. Can’t get your students to answer questions on the readings? Chances are someone else in the group is working through the same problem. Having trouble discussing sensitive topics, like violence, social justice, or gender? Most likely, another TA facing the same challenge has ideas about how to address this. Beerits encourages the TAs to come up with their own solutions before she provides feedback, giving the new TAs experience in creative problem-solving that will serve them throughout their teaching careers.
Beerits notes that, by virtue of signing up for this course, these TAs are poised to be good teachers. They are willing to invest time in learning how to teach, are willing to examine and change their own methods, and have a desire to be part of an interdisciplinary community that cares about teaching. But the class acts as a “consequence-free zone” in which the new TAs can ask questions and work through problems. One TA commented that even though students are encouraged to ask questions in the department, “you don’t want people to know you need help.” The pressures of adjusting to a new department can be intense, and many programs are competitive. Revealing even the slightest weakness may not be easy for students still adjusting to a new academic culture.
CTL staff are conducting formal evaluation of the pilot and will present their findings at the American Educational Research Association and plan to publish on the program. Beyond that, the future of the program is uncertain. “Our hope is that departments and colleges will pick up the idea and modify it to fit their own needs,” says Gilmore. CTL’s other pilot program, in Mechanical Engineering, has already done just that, and will take the lessons of this semester’s pilot to inform their own program.
Graduate Dean Langlois sees the course as a model to be used across the University. “My hope is that every program will engage in training their TAs by using TA Fundamentals, or by incorporating similar programs that give TAs the tools to effectively reach undergraduates in the classroom, labs, and discussion sections.” In Liberal Arts, Associate Dean Raizen would like to see it become a component of the graduate curriculum. She notes, “with over 70% of students moving on to positions in which teaching is the primary activity, and with the immediate interest of our undergraduate students in mind, I would like to see the course become an integral part of the training we provide in the College.”
Whatever format the program takes in the future, the goals of TA Fundamentals are simple: to create a community of people who care about teaching, to make graduate students more effective teachers, and, ultimately, to improve undergraduate learning and satisfaction. Beerits hopes that the TAs learn to see teaching as something enjoyable, too, not just as a paycheck. So far, the biggest measure of the success of the class is that the TAs keep showing up, week after week, on a more or less volunteer basis. One TA commented, gesturing to the full conference room, “We’re here, aren’t we?”
Contributed by Melanie Morgan, Office of Research and Graduate Studies, College of Liberal Arts.
In addition to TA Fundamentals, the Center for Teaching and Learning offers a number of training opportunities for graduate students. These include online services like the “Becoming a Teacher” website, supplemental instruction for the AI pedagogical seminar 398T, learning communities, midterm assessment consulting and individual consultations. For more information CTLs Graduate Student Instructor Program, please visit https://ctl.utexas.edu/initiatives/GSI.
CTL and COLA will run another pilot this spring, and CTL is accepting applications through December 13, 2013. To apply, please complete the online application at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/TAFundamentals.
The form will ask you to provide:
Applications are due on December 13 by midnight. You will be informed of acceptance by December 20.