There was an interesting post, and comment thread, over at Built on Facts — on How to Be a Good TA. I’ve been wanting to respond to it for two weeks and have been too busy. It is interesting that this discussion came up just as I was forwarded a great article about TA Training — Growing a Garden without Water: Graduate Teaching Assistants in Introductory Science Laboratories at a Doctoral/Research University (Luft et al, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol 41, pp 211-233, 2004). That article delves into the dearth of training giving to graduate TA’s, who bear a large brunt of the work of communicating science to undergraduates [I’ll send you a copy if you ask]. They write:

In the past 3 decades there has been a rising concern about the instructional support afforded to Graduate TAs, and an acknowledgment by faculty that expertise in teaching does not occur instantly in higher education.

No kidding. Even faculty don’t often get this kind of training. And then they’re supposed to teach the next generation of worker bees. (One of the exemplary training programs is called Preparing Future Faculty). TA’s are called on to make all sorts of decisions about their courses (curriculum, what concepts to emphasize, how to evaluate students) and faculty aren’t guiding them very much. Faculty aren’t often well-informed about undergraduate education reforms, anyhow, which suggest that there are better ways to teach and assess students how we were traditionally taught.

The blog post from Built on Facts, in some ways, exemplifies these problems. I have no doubt that Matt is a great TA. He understands that it’s important to engage students in the process of learning. But many of his comments suggest that being a great TA is just about doing traditional instruction the best that you can. Here is what Matt said about his extensive experience as a graduate TA:

What (students) need in recitations is only so much theory as is needed for an understanding of the concept, with lots of worked example problems. Lots of them. Do them as interactively as possible, so that instead of just working through the problems yourself in front of sixty glazed-over eyes the students are actively involved in figuring things out. …

Put real thought into how you present your lectures. What seems beautiful and elegant to you might be obscure and overly complicated to a new student. Try to be clear with concepts and buttress each new idea with a concrete example problem. A real one, not a toy problem that’s orders of magnitude easier than what they’ll face on the homework.

He also suggests giving students extra practice in working problems by giving quizzes and review sessions.

I think a lot of these methods would work if there was good evidence that lectures work. But so far, the evidence suggests that students don’t learn by telling, they learn by doing. As long as you’re up there in front of the blackboard, you’re stuck in a classroom structure where information is supposed to travel from teacher to student. I don’t think that’s the best approach, based on the evidence. Get the students talking to each other, working through problems, discussing and arguing. Then act as their “guide on the side” (not the “sage on the stage”) to help them learn. You can’t teach anybody anything.

Now, I’m really not slagging on anything that Matt’s saying (or any of the other good suggestions in the comments of his post), just that the initial structure of the teaching environment he’s using is flawed. For instance, I can’t argue that it’s good to give clear explanations, to think about your lectures in advance, and to give example problems. I love his suggestion of giving quizzes — research shows that the act of trying to recall information increases your memory of it (even if you don’t get the answers), so taking as many tests as you can is a really good thing. But the “good lecture” techniques only go so far. Students plead for us to give them example problems often because they want to see something that “looks like” the homework so that they can follow it as a recipe.

The comments to Matt’s post suggest that at least the better students don’t want those boring example problems, though — like Matt says, they want “real” problems — interesting, tough problems that get them engaged in solving it. I’ve seen that desire in our physics majors here as well. What would be great is if we could really model to students how we go about solving such a problem — taking wrong turns, thinking back to worked examples, looking at limiting behavior, etc. But that takes a very long time, and is hard to do justice in front of a class.

One idea that I’ve found really compelling is called Preparation for Future Learning. The idea is that sometimes there is a time for telling (for the “theory” part of the presentation, tying things together, giving out facts), but it is after a student has already struggled with the ideas. One way to do this is to give them a canonical problem and ask them to come up with the solution. For example, ask biology students to come up with a strategy for eagle conservation. That’s a huge, open-ended problem (they don’t have to be that unstructured) but after students come up with a bunch of (poor) strategies, they are better equipped to hear and understand a lecture about conservation techniques.

TA’s aren’t well-trained and teaching is undervalued

But when would a TA learn these kinds of techniques to teach?  The article I mentioned at the top of this post (about TA training) argues that it’s not enough to know the content (in this case physics) — you also have to have Curricular Knowledge (instructional methodologies) and Pedagogical Knowledge (how to take the content of your particular discipline to the learner).  And graduate TA’s are taught neither of these — they’ve been prepared for research careers, for the most part.  Teaching is often seen as a lower-tier calling than research.  Thus, TA’s aren’t rewarded for working on their teaching, and their faculty mentors aren’t well prepared to help them in these endeavors.  TA’s feel that teaching is important, but an interest in teaching doesn’t really help their professional development as scientists.

Here is a faculty’s comments on the lack of importance of teaching for a TA, from that paper:

Sydney did think that teaching  was important, but there is a reason that it is not emphasized. He goes on to add that at the graduate student level it is perceived as being more prestigious to hold an RA appointment instead of a TA appointment. At the faculty level, research productivity is important in the yearly reviews, not teaching. Faculty may talk about the importance of teaching, but during the department reviews the focus is on research and funding. At the national level, grants are funded for research and not teaching. When grants are funded, they pay more for RAs, not TAs. Sydney pauses again and states that it is clearly a cultural thing.

TA training is poor

In keeping with these cultural expectations, TA training meetings aren’t sufficient to teach such a complicated and difficult task as teaching. Here is one TA’s comments on the usefulness (or lack thereof) of weekly training meetings, from that paper:

The staff meetings address what the lab is about. They are necessary, but are not done well.
Some TAs just like to talk and so we listen to them and they take up so much time. I just
don’t get a good view of what the lab is about from the staff meetings. I’ll ask a
question . . . and the laboratory coordinators can’t answer the question and I get frustrated.
I know that they try really hard, but it’s not exactly what I would want. I guess I need
more clarity than the other TAs and the 2-hour staff meeting is just not an efficient use of
my time. I end up going to Monday lab before I teach my sections to really get a sense of
the lab.

TA’s are left on their own

One other quote reminds me a lot of what Matt said about his teaching, since it sounds like he was pretty much on his own as he decided what to cover in recitations:

The lack of faculty involvement was also evident when GTAs discussed their preparation for teaching each laboratory. No GTA indicated seeking out the assistance of faculty members or even the laboratory coordinator when planning for their classes. Instead, as Samie stated, she often “. . . read through the laboratory manual, making sure that I understand the order of things
and what it’s asking. I interpret the lab, reword things, make the objectives clear, and think
of ways to introduce it to students and think over what I want to lecture on in the
laboratory. “

These sorts of decisions are fairly complicated for a beginning teacher to make!

The article concludes quite strongly:

In this study, GTAs and laboratory coordinators who were involved in preparing GTAs had limited opportunities to enhance their instructional abilities. The constraints of the working environment often led GTAs to make intuitive decisions, or decisions based on their own experience as students; thus their practices were often disconnected from the literature base in education.

The title of this article, ‘‘Growing a Garden without Water,’’ represents the expectations and  potential of GTAs in the absence of adequate support to facilitate their growth. GTAs have an  essential role in universities and colleges, but without proper instructional support they may not  achieve their potential. Furthermore, it is estimated that by the year 2014, 500,000 new professors  will be teaching American college students (Jones, 1993). Many of these professors will have served as GTAs. Improving the education of future students depends on the thoughtful, careful, and purposeful training of future faculty members. To meet the needs of the community, the garden must be properly tended by involved caretakers, and it will yield its fruits.

They say that rewards and incentives should be given for good teaching, and TA training programs should draw on the research base in education that informs us how we best learn to teach science.