TA training varies by department in absence of coordinated program

by Ben Goessling

When Jennifer Pfeifer decided to become a teaching assistant four years ago, no one had taught her how to lead a class, plan a syllabus or grade papers.

After her first semester teaching, the political science graduate student realized she needed guidance. So she pressured the political science department to begin a training program.

“We need to go into the room with a better sense of what we are doing,” Pfeifer said. “It really took the push of TAs to get it instituted.”

Pfeifer had to fight within her department because the University does not have a policy about teaching assistants’ training or classroom roles.

Joyce Weinsheimer, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Services, said the University tends to be decentralized.

“Colleges and departments determine their own policies,” she said. “My guess is that University-wide policies often do not exist because it is expected that colleges and departments will know best about what their TAs and students need.”

Wilbert Ahern, the University Senate Committee on Education Policy chairman, said the issue has not been brought before the committee.

“The departments are held accountable for teaching assistants in that they are held accountable for teaching,” Ahern said.

It is difficult to propose an effective University-wide policy because each department has different needs, he said. What is enough training for one department might not be enough for another.

“Many departments require the TAs attend ‘New TA Orientation.’ In addition, many departments require training in the department’s discipline,” Weinsheimer said.

The teaching and learning center offers TA training in the fall as well as assistance throughout the year. The training is geared toward students teaching their own courses.

Pfeifer said the broader training at the center isn’t as important as departmental training.

“I think one thing to keep in mind is that there is such a range of what TAs do in different departments,” Pfeifer said.

Teaching assistants in the physics department arrive at the University two weeks early for their orientation, a graded course
students must pass to teach.

And even that isn’t enough sometimes, said Lance Lohstreter, a physics graduate student.

“There were still questions (after the orientation),” he said. “It’s really hard to teach someone a profession in a two-week course. They taught us enough to get started.”

Most physics teaching assistants work with professors. The teaching assistants grade exams and lead labs and discussions.

“We always give them a structure so they can be successful,” said Ken Heller, a physics and astronomy professor.

The physics department TAs are observed throughout the semester. There is also continual graded training throughout the term.

“We’ve actually gotten federal grants to support this type of program,” Heller said.

If international graduate students want to teach, they must go through an additional English proficiency course and pass the SPEAK Test.

International students with poor English proficiency can enroll in courses to improve their pronunciation and student interaction skills at the teaching and learning center.

Some TAs are responsible for more than assisting a professor. In the English department, they are responsible for their own courses.

Rachel Mines, a graduate student in English, was first hired to grade for an English professor. Then she led discussion sections for a larger English class and finally taught her own English composition course.

The composition section of the English department begins a campus-wide search for its teaching assistants each January for the following fall. Teaching assistants are hired based on their previous experience.

Because all students must complete a writing course, a large number of teaching assistants and adjunct faculty are hired to teach those courses.

When Mines was hired six years ago, she had a week of orientation and mandatory course-specific training.

Pfeifer and other political science TAs won their battle to get teaching assistant training in their department.

This fall she led a TA orientation so new teaching assistants will feel more prepared to enter the classroom than she did four years ago.