Courses focus on student teaching methods

The Rothenberger Institute works to offer online public health courses.

by Kristina Busch

An online University of Minnesota public health program was recognized last week for helping students improve their well-being.
The School of Public Health’s Rothenberger Institute, which offers one-credit online life-management courses to undergraduates, trains its student teaching assistants online and in person on a weekly basis to help them connect with course enrollees. 
The institute received an Online Learning Consortium award last week for its online training practice, which some instructors say helps students get more out of class material.
The program offers courses like “Sleep, Eat and Exercise,” “Financial Issues” and “Success Over Stress,” which aim to help students better balance their personal and academic lives, TA instructor Sarah Keene said.
Institute classes use online material, like videos and a Moodle site, to teach the TAs techniques students later learn in class, Keene said. For example, she said “Success Over Stress” TAs learn to better manage their time, so they can teach students. 
As enrollment grows annually — class registration reached 4,000 this year — the institute hires an increasing number of teaching assistants to meet the demand, Rothenberger Institute executive director Jerri Kjolhaug said. This rise in interest has put strain on the institute’s in-person training practices, she said.
“It became harder and harder for us to schedule face-to-face training time,” she said. “We are able to cover the foundational instruction — like the information they need to know — in an online format, so the face-to-face time can be spent on having discussions and doing more applications and examples.” 
TAs complete online training before the semester begins, and meet face-to-face weekly thereafter, Kjolhaug said.
Each TA is assigned to manage a group of students and serve as their primary contact throughout the semester, said dance senior and “Success Over Stress” TA Laura Osterhaus, who took the class as a freshman. She also said it made her feel supported during her transition into college. 
The assistants also send weekly emails to students and provide personalized written feedback on every assignment, she said.
“We’re trying to really help our students build a relationship with their peers, so everything is really approachable,” Kjolhaug said. “Students might feel more comfortable going to a TA rather than an instructor.” 
While the instructors acknowledge students take the class for an easy ‘A,’ Keene said, they report high satisfaction at the end of the semester.
“A lot of students enroll because they’re trying to meet their credit load requirement,” Keene said. “But what we read in our evaluations is that they get more out of it than they thought they would.”
Biology senior Taylor Helle enrolled in “Sleep, Eat and Exercise” her freshman year because she thought the course would be a good GPA booster, and it would be fun to take with friends. Three years later, she’s enrolled in “Success Over Stress.”
“You choose a course that you think will give you some useful information, but you know it won’t be a stressful class with a heavy workload,” Helle said. “You really think you’re going to learn stuff you already know, but even now, in ‘Success Over Stress,’ you learn about stuff you didn’t think about before.”