TA Training Gains Ground

Rod Searcey

On one side of the lab, boxes of beakers, round-bottom flasks, Pasteur pipettes, funnels, test tubes, gloves and goggles were stacked, waiting for the first chemistry lab of the new fall quarter.

But the week before classes started, new TAs—teaching assistants—had come to campus to master an experiment on vapor pressure they soon would have to teach to undergraduates. They put two small bags, one filled with methanol and the other with an equal volume of water, into a bell jar, sealed it and began to pump the air out. As one of the bags, which looked like a small white balloon, began to expand, the TAs followed questions on handouts and came to conclusions through a process of “guided inquiry.” Yes, the vapor inside the bags exerts more pressure than the pressure outside, causing the bags to expand. No, water doesn’t expand as quickly.

In Building 20 on the Main Quad, a group of human biology TAs—called CAs, for course associates—were talking about how to teach a fundamental process in the core course. On a classroom blackboard, they wrote, erased and rewrote a description of what they wanted undergraduates to take away from a particular discussion section: “Understand the process by which lactose is absorbed in the small intestine.” But it wasn’t quite precise enough, and with help from Robyn Dunbar, senior associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and consulting associate professor of geology, they continued to rewrite and refine, until everyone in the room was satisfied with the learning goal: “Diagram the mechanism by which lactose is absorbed in the small intestine.”

The session was a huge help, says Lauren Rimoin, ’07. Even though she TA’d a course on stem cells last year and had been a peer tutor in human biology, she says learning to articulate goals for discussion sections was a pedagogical eye-opener. “It helps you set a road map for your lesson plan. You know where you’re going and what to expect.”

In departments across campus, new TAs like Rimoin sat down with experienced graduate students to learn from them how to ask provocative questions in discussion sections, and how to grade papers and write effective exam questions. Some TA training is developed in-house, like the program the chemistry department is offering for the third time. Third-year doctoral student Adrienne Diebold, whose red polo shirt identifies her as head TA, was a “developmental TA” last year and helped hone the presentations that included lab activities and “Introduction to Section.” Says Diebold: “We hope we got all the kinks out in the first two years.”

But for all the homegrown training, far more workshops and sessions—89 in 2005-06, for an estimated 1,000 graduate students—are conducted by CTL, at the request of departments. In a recent report on TA training, the center looked at improvements over the past 10 years. In 1996, only 14 of 35 departments with TAs had training programs. But by 2006, just three departments lacked programs, and those three had a small number of TAs who taught mostly graduate courses.

An analysis of a decade of student evaluations of TAs in the School of Humanities and Sciences also shows important progress, according to Michele Marincovich, associate vice provost and CTL director. “We found that the overall scores of all TAs went up a statistically significant amount, from 3.92 to 4.28 [out of a possible 5].” Evaluations of science TAs were particularly en-couraging, Marincovich, ’68, adds. “Our [undergraduate] students tend to have the most problems in the large, introductory science and math classes, and those are the ones that [improved] the most dramatically.”