Prepare Teaching Assistants to Enter the Classroom

This page was written by Kelsey Bitting (Dept. of Geology, University of Kansas) and Geoff Cook (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego), drawing on discussions and contributions from the 2014 Getting the Most Out of your Introductory Courses workshop.

Despite having spent many years as students, both undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants often begin their roles with limited understanding of educational philosophies and effective approaches to cultivating student learning in Earth science. Helping your students make the transition from student to teacher is critical. Institution-level TA training and orientation is often limited to broader topics such as benefits and sexual harassment prevention, understanding students at your college or university, and general advice from experienced TAs or instructors. A department-wide preparation program creates a community of practice and provides a venue for modeling, implementing, and evaluating STEM- and discipline-specific approaches to effective teaching and learning.

Training Prior to Teaching

Effectively preparing TAs involves building their teaching and communication skills as well as making them aware of policies and procedures. An investment in preparing teaching assistants to enter the classroom can result in more confident and capable students in the lab, classroom, field, and during office hours. A workshop can range from a few hours to a full week, can be run by a combination of experienced TAs and instructors, and should cover the following topics:

Logistics

There are many logistical and procedural aspects of working as a teaching assistant, including:

  • TA roles within the department and expected time commitment
  • Departmental and institutional policies regarding accessibility, sexual harassment prevention, academic codes (if not already covered in institution-wide preparation)
  • Procedures for making photocopies, reserving vehicles for field trips, etc.
  • Resources in the department and on campus for students facing academic and personal problems
Ideally, this information can be compiled in a department guidebook or website that TAs can refer to at any time, but they should also be introduced to it prior to teaching.

Teaching strategies

Select the key aspects of teaching that are most critical for your teaching assistants to learn about before they enter the classroom. These could include:

Additional training and workshops can cover topics later in the term or throughout a teaching assistant's career.

Balancing research and teaching

Students have many responsibilities, and graduate students in particular may face conflicts in balancing their teaching responsibilities and interests with their research responsibilities and interests. Explicitly address these potential conflicts by discussing:

  • Time management strategies
  • Communication strategies, including regular communication with research advisors and lead instructors
  • The value of teaching experience in future career paths

Ongoing Training and Continued Professional Development

A single workshop prior to entering the classroom is enough to get students started, but many students will be interested in participating in more training or will need more support. There are several options for ongoing training for teaching assistants at all levels:

  • Offer workshops that address specific pedagogical techniques, such as
  • Provide opportunities for those interested in teaching to develop their skills. These might include teaching workshops specific to geology, teaching workshops co-sponsored with other STEM departments, or even colloquium speakers who explore teaching innovations, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), or geoscience education research.
  • Create a list of relevant professional development sessions and workshops on campus. Centers for teaching and learning, online and distance learning, instructional technology, writing centers, and libraries often hold events throughout the semester that can provide an in-depth discussion on specific topics of relevance to your TAs. Consider creating a public space in the department (perhaps in a colloquium, on the department website, or within a blog or learning management system) where an up-to-date list of coming events offered outside the department can be publicized. Within weekly instructional team meetings, you might ask TAs who have attended recent events to give a brief summary of what they learned, giving them the opportunity not only to share their new information, but also to fine-tune their teaching skills.
GEOS 606 is a two-credit hour graduate course developed by Dr. Julie Monet and Dr. Rachel Teasdale at the State University of California, Chico. GTAs are required to take the course during their first semester independently teaching a laboratory section in the geology department. Key features of the course include constructivist theory, TA video-taping, peer observation, and the assembly of a teaching portfolio.
Download the syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 124kB Sep23 14)
  • Offer a for-credit course on teaching in the geosciences. An extended course about teaching can introduce students to the scholarship of teaching and learning. Consider having students use the SWOT tool to conduct individual needs assessments. Then have them use that information to modify the course, addressing common goals, deficiencies, and misconceptions. Course topics can include evidence-based teaching methods in geology, the role of metacognition in the learning process, cognitive science, or educational research literature on student motivation and learning, and can give students a chance to practice developing and evaluating teaching materials (with a rubric like this one from Barb Tewksbury) or complete a course design tutorial. Training TAs to use the RTOP or other classroom observation rubric and having them conduct self- and peer-teaching evaluations helps to clarify reformed teaching in geology and give a structured opportunity for reflection and improvement (Monet, 2014). Finally, a semester-long course can provide an environment for TAs to develop a virtual or physical teaching portfolio to showcase their development as instructors.
  • Offer a for-credit course for experienced TAs to apply their research skills to teaching questions. This type of course might include various readings in STEM and geoscience education, discuss the methods and approaches used in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), and task TAs with developing their own SoTL projects to analyze elements of the courses in which they serve. Especially in departments with a high level of investment in improving teaching and learning, TAs can be a valuable resource to help move this process forward, given some direction and training.
  • Provide funding for TAs to attend teaching workshops at meetings. NAGT and the Geoscience Education Division of GSA sponsor and run geoscience teaching workshops at the GSA and AGU annual meetings. Encourage students who plan to attend the meeting to also attend a teaching workshop by providing a small stipend to cover the cost of registration.
  • Prepare future faculty. Teaching assistant positions are an excellent stepping stone to a professional future. Offer a workshop on how to highlight TA experience on students' CVs and teaching statements.

References

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