TA’s effectiveness is debated

Tom Lopez

Teaching assistants’ responsibilities range from grading tests to teaching classes. But some University undergraduate students question if their quality of education suffers when they are taught by other students.
“That definitely is a concern,” said Joyce Weinsheimer, the director of the Faculty and TA Enrichment Program. “However, a department that uses the TA as the instructor of record will put quite a bit into preparing that TA. It is not something that decreases the quality of education.”
According to the University teaching assistants’ resource manual, last year there were about 2,000 TAs on campus.
Weinsheimer said TAs help undergraduates by providing a link between students and faculty members, an idea echoed by many graduate students.
“TAs bridge the gap between the subject matter and the students. They’ve been there. They know the pitfalls,” said Tom Foster, the president of the Council of Graduate Students.
Both Weinsheimer and Foster said a TA is not necessarily less qualified than an instructor who holds an advanced degree. “Obtaining a doctorate doesn’t necessarily prepare someone for classroom teaching,” Weinsheimer said. “We have to examine our assumptions.”
However, Milan Milovancev, a sophomore in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science, said that although his experiences with teaching assistants have been good, he would be concerned if a TA were the primary instructor of a class. He said TAs might not effectively teach classes because of their lack of experience. “There’s a potential for problems to arise if the TA isn’t devoted to the job,” Milovancev said.
To deal with that problem, Julia Stephen, a physics assistant mentor, said a comprehensive orientation process, along with a mentorship program, prepares graduate students for their responsibilities in the classroom.
Such teaching assistant programs, said Mark Brenner, dean of the Graduate School, are among the best in the country. The Faculty Enrichment Program offers TAs orientation programs in which students discuss University policies and model strategies for creating positive classroom climate. The program also provides workshops and mentorship programs to give support to TAs throughout the quarter.
Catherine Guisan-Dickinson, a TA in political science, said teaching assistant programs benefit graduate students, professors and undergraduates. “It allows more time for professors, as well as more time for students to get individual attention and advising,” she said.
Although freshman chemical engineering major Dan Ellingson said he prefers smaller class sizes, he considers TAs important in large classes. “It gives students an opportunity to talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about,” he said.
Besides the short-term advantages TAs offer the University, Foster said TA programs have future benefits. He said the hands-on teaching experience will strengthen graduate students’ skills in other professions outside of academia, such as in corporations and research jobs. “If you have good teaching skills, it will help you in all walks of life,” Foster said.
He said he has heard criticisms that students are disadvantaged when a TA provides the majority of the instruction in a class.
However, he said that depends on the graduate students. “Any individual TA could be better than any individual professor,” he said. Foster said that in some cases, the TAs carry “the lion’s share of the work load.”
This “lion’s share” can be a disadvantage to some graduate students, said Guisan-Dickinson. She said some TAs are exploited by professors who ask them to do too much. “It’s very important for the professors to use TAs responsibly,” she said.
Weinsheimer also said graduate students have to juggle different responsibilities. “They are carrying out multiple roles,” she said. “They need to balance out teaching with their own education, and continue to make progress with their degree. There’s a little bit of tension there.”
Bruce Bomberek, the president of the Graduate And Professional Student Assembly, said TAs’ strengths lie not only in the individualized attention that they can provide, but also in their fresh perspective and creativity. Strong teaching assistant programs, he said, are important for the future of the schools. “The graduate programs of today are producing tomorrow’s faculty,” Bomberek said.