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  September 3, 2002

TA Training Seeks to Boost
Teaching and Learning
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

Two days before the start of classes, they were both excited and anxious. The campus felt new and unfamiliar, and they were wondering whether they would like it here. Above all, how would they get on in class?

Freshmen? No. These were the 200 or so new teaching assistants gathered in Schenker Building for a day of training. A few days later, they would face a classroom full of undergraduates, most also new to the University and most, for their part, more than a little anxious about how they would fare at UConn.

Image: Rishika Rishika

Rishika Rishika, a graduate student in marketing, practices her teaching during a workshop for new teaching assistants, part of a day-long orientation August 26. During the workshop, the new TA's gave an eight-minute lecture to a panel that critiqued their performance.

Photo by Shannon McAvoy

The Aug. 26 day-long orientation for new TA's, organized by the Institute for Teaching and Learning, was designed to help ensure that both sides have a positive experience in class. Seasoned educators and established TA's offered insights and tips that ran the gamut from principles of effective teaching, to the demographics of the undergraduate population, what constitutes academic misconduct, and how teaching is evaluated.

"The goal of our initiatives with teaching assistants at UConn is twofold," said Catherine Jarvis Ross, director of teaching assistant programs. "We want to improve the quality of undergraduate instruction at the University, and we want our graduate students to gain the maximum benefit they can from their teaching experiences. We believe the training we provide for the new TA's and the support we offer for all TA's is critical in order for the learning experience to be productive and positive for both the students and the TA's."

For the first time this year, the training was mandatory for all new TA's, with attendance tracked through PeopleSoft. Some departments were excused, however, because they already provide their TA's with effective training.

Keith Barker, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, emphasized the importance of establishing expectations from the start. "Tell students the rules about attendance and make-ups, and give them detailed guidance on preparation and homework," he said. "If they don't understand what they can and cannot do, they'll blame you for things. We want to create an environment in which they can learn."

He suggested that TA's collect evaluations from their class early enough in the semester to make changes. Without such adjustments, he said, evaluations in the second or third week of the semester are usually the same as those at the end.

Ask your students which things help and which hinder their learning, he advised the TA's. "You may be an instructor, you may be a teacher, but the important thing is - are the students learning?"

David Ouimette, director of the First Year Experience, explained to the new TA's how important they are to undergraduates. "In First Year Experience, students talk a lot about TA's," he said. "You may think, 'it's my second day on campus,' but they see you as experts in the classroom."

He said many of the issues TA's face in their interaction with undergraduates have less to do with the particular class than with the overall college experience. Undergraduates go through "an intense amount of developmental issues" during their college years, he said. "It may not just be your class where they're acting attitudinal."

Many students don't understand the importance of taking liberal arts courses such as English or philosophy, and may be thinking, "I have to do this so I can get to the real stuff," he noted. They also don't fully appreciate the difference between high school and college, and the need to take responsibility for their own learning.

"They need you to challenge them, but also to understand where they're coming from," he said.

The University employs about 1,500 teaching assistants, of whom 300 to 400 a year are new to UConn. About one quarter come from overseas. New ITA's also take a week-long orientation during the summer that introduces them to issues of language and culture as well as pedagogy. A recently developed Teaching Assistants Handbook, distributed to all teaching assistants, serves as a resource. And the Office of Teaching Assistant Programs, part of the Institute of Teaching and Learning, also provides year-round support for teaching assistants.

Teaching assistants' tasks are varied. Some have full responsibility for the class, others supplement the work of a faculty member. They may be called upon to lecture, lead discussions, run labs, lead review sessions, test, grade or hold office hours.

The questions the new TA's have are as multifaceted as their assignments. Kristen Keegan, for example, a first-year Ph.D. student in geography, will be responsible for the exams in Professor Dean Hanink's class. "I'm concerned about putting together an exam that doesn't plunge students into despair," she said. "My goal is neither to flunk everybody nor give everyone an A, but to ensure that they attend class and do the reading assigned."

In a session dubbed "TA Talk", a panel of second-year graduate students shared their experiences with small groups of novice teaching assistants.

Tips for balancing teaching responsibilities and studying included allocating a fixed number of hours to each task and limiting quizzes to short answers rather than essays in order to keep the time needed for grading manageable.

One TA said she had a problem with students chatting in class because they felt too comfortable. Another had one student who answered all the questions and dominated the class. And a third struggled over where to draw the line on make-ups, when a student took advantage of the absence of a clear policy.

"It's better to be strict at the beginning and relax the rules later if it's appropriate," said Rim Baltaduonis, a graduate student in economics. "It's much harder to establish new rules in the middle of the semester."

Several of the panelists said that students tend to use e-mail for their questions more than in-person visits during office hours. The office hours can then be used for replying to e-mails. But limits need to be set. "I tell my students I can't be responsible for checking e-mail at midnight if they're doing their homework late," said Kate Odabashian, a graduate student in accounting.

Odabashian said the small age gap between TA's and undergraduate students is generally an advantage. "We know what we liked and didn't like in teachers," she said, "and that helps us teach better."

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