Oregon State trains graduate students to be better TAs

College of Education Assistant Professor Jessica White leads a graduate student seminar on teaching for TAs. Students from left, Ian Pfingsten, Catherine Searle and Evan Bing-Sawyer look on. Date: Feb. 15, 2010 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Oregon State University graduate students teaching introductory biology labs are now being taught how to be more effective teachers, engage their students in critical thinking, and even craft their own curriculum.

The students are part of a Graduate Teacher Training Program supported by a portion of a four-year Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant the university has received. The training program is operated by members of the Biology Program and the College of Education.

When Bob Mason was a graduate student, he remembers being assigned to teach a course with no preparation.

“They said, ‘Here’s your section, knock ‘em dead,’” he recalled. “That’s not really an exaggeration.”

Now chair of the Biology Program in OSU’s College of Science, he recognized a strong need to better prepare graduate students who are teaching a class or leading a lab section for the first time.

“Not just anybody can get up in front of a class and teach effectively,” he said. And better preparing graduate students to be TAs doesn’t just benefit the graduates. It also benefits the undergraduate students, many of whom are not science majors but are taking introductory courses because they’re part of the baccalaureate core requirements.

Students Mattie Squire, left, Gwen Bury, center, and Sarah Moore discuss teaching techniques in a seminar aimed at helping TAs become better teachers. Date: Feb. 15, 2010 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Mason said that across the country, interest in pursuing science as a career is lagging. He suggested that students who are taught by innovative, enthusiastic TAs might encourage more of them to become interested in science.

For the last five years, College of Education assistant professor Jessica White has been looking at the graduate student experience, and more specifically, what keeps some students in their graduate programs while others leave.

“There’s a much lower persistence to degree completion rate among graduate students than there is among undergraduates,” White said.

Part of the research involved interviewing graduate students at OSU and MIT about their assistantship experience, whether it be research or teaching. White said it appeared that being a TA both helps and hinders graduate student retention. It helps because students reinforce their own learning through teaching, but it can also add a lot of stress and strain to their lives.

“I had students in my office crying and telling me how woefully unprepared they felt and they felt they weren’t delivering the student experience they wanted to,” White said.

So when Mason approached her about helping craft a TA training program for graduate students, she was excited to participate.

College of Education Assistant Professor Jessica White leads a graduate student seminar on teaching for TAs. Date: Feb. 15, 2010 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

“It was a great dovetail to the research I’d already done, and took one vein of what we’d found and allowed me to go into greater depth about what the TA experience is like,” she said. “This allowed me to take it from the theoretical into practice, and that’s really exciting.”

After two years of planning, in Fall 2008 they launched the pilot TA training program. Each term, approximately 30 graduate TAs who teach introductory biology labs attend a weekly Monday night seminar. The graduate students come from the departments of zoology, botany and plant pathology, microbiology, molecular and cellular biology, biochemistry and biophysics and environmental science.

Additionally, a number of undergraduate teaching interns in biology take the seminar. The undergraduates either want to become teachers, or plan on going to graduate school and recognize they could benefit from the program.

White teaches the one-hour seminar, with assistance from two experienced mentor TAs. The topics include anything from creating a good syllabus to how to work with a student who has a disability, to how to deal with issues of academic dishonesty. In addition to the nuts and bolts, graduate students also learn pedagogy, including how to probe critical thinking and engage students in collaborative learning.

“They’re very practical and they very much want to see an application they can implement that week,” White said. “We may present some theory but always with an eye in mind toward effecting change or improving their daily work in the classroom.”

Graduate student Sarah Eddy participated in the program as a mentor TA, having had three experiences teaching in the introductory biology series. When she first began teaching, her nerves often got the better of her.

“I was self deprecating and obviously nervous while presenting to the students, I would defer to the other TA in the room, even though I was supposed to be the lead TA, and didn’t know how to write effective quizzes or grade student papers efficiently,” she said. “I definitely did not think about important components of teaching such as setting the tone in the classroom, developing a syllabus, being explicit in my expectations, etc.”

Mattie Squire examines a worksheet in a graduate student seminar on teaching for TAs. Date: Feb. 15, 2010 (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Although she had years of experience by the time she took the seminar, Eddy said she has benefited in a number of ways from the training program.

“I’ve learned that students generally do not learn best by passively listening to lectures. Instead they need opportunities to engage with and test their knowledge of the concepts pertinent to theirs labs,” she said. “With this knowledge, I have begun designing activities to incorporate into my introductions that allow students to apply the concepts I’ve introduced before they even begin the hands-on portion of the lab.”

Eddy’s experience with the program has already provided her with tangible benefits. She won the 2009 OSU Frolander Outstanding GTA award, and directly credits the program for her win.

For White, one of the most satisfying parts of the program is watching the students take hold of new ideas and learn how to apply them to their teaching experience.

“They really want to be good teachers,” she said. “They’re incredibly engaged in this experience. The classes are a whirlwind of participation and ideas.”

Former OSU graduate student Anthony Graziani is now a faculty member at Santa Rosa Junior College, and said the time he spent in the TA training program at OSU has helped him in his new position.

“The TA training program was an extremely worthwhile experience,” he said. “Not only did it serve its immediate purpose, making me and other TAs more effective in the classroom, but the skills and knowledge obtained were extremely valuable as I prepared and proceeded through the academic interview process and now as I face the challenges of my new position.”

Graziani said learning how to write syllabi, developing a good rapport with students and accurately assessing student learning was a daunting task, but the program helped him become more confident in his own teaching, as well as helping him become aware of areas where he needed improvement.

“I find myself continually referring back to the notebook I kept for ideas about learning activities, writing exams, and “shrinking” large classrooms just to name a few,” he said.

Mason said the Hughes grant runs out this academic year, but the university has applied for a renewal. The grant renewal application will include a curriculum design piece that would allow graduate students to redesign the introductory biology series with more inquiry-based, hands-on investigations, and would give undergraduates the chance to do real research.

He said the graduate TAs have already demonstrated they’re capable of creating exciting new approaches to undergraduate teaching, and he’s excited to move forward.

“It’s one of the best projects I’ve been involved with in my life.”

~ Theresa Hogue

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