Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
July 13, 2017
“The biggest thing that I do to make sure my assessment methods are fair, especially in larger, first-year classes, is train the TAs.” – Dr. Jason Donev
Many undergraduate classes rely on the use of graduate Teaching Assistants (TAs) for running laboratories and assessing students. Ensuring that TAs can teach effectively leads to better teaching and learning across a course and a program. Most instructors and professors have many opportunities for teaching development throughout their careers, but TAs are often overlooked in that respect. Dr. Jason Donev, a Senior Instructor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Natural Sciences Program notes how extensive TA training can help them develop into really great teachers and assessors. He has worked with the TAs for several of the large first-year physics classes, such as PHYS 211, 221 and PHYS 227, which are various courses on classical mechanics.
When working with the undergraduate students in all of his courses, Dr. Donev makes sure to demonstrate to his students that he wants them to be successful. He constantly reminds them that his role is to support them as they learn. “It’s not me versus the students. It’s all of us against the material,” says Donev. Once he figured out that this approach was also helpful when working with the TAs, he noticed a huge difference. It is easy for TAs to feel like they are working against the instructor or the students. Allowing TAs to realize they have a vital role in the class creates a better learning environment for the undergraduate students and a better environment for the TAs.
Dr. Donev ensures that the teaching experience is meaningful for TAs. He involves TAs in the course design process, particularly the rubrics used for laboratory assignments. At the start of the semester, Dr. Donev meets with all of the TAs to create an assessment criteria for the PHYS 227 laboratories. The TAs discuss the importance of each laboratory exercise and what students should be learning from it. Together, they build the rubrics that they will use throughout the semester to assess students in the labs. This is beneficial for two reasons. Firstly, TAs have some ownership over what they are teaching. They have helped to select the grading criteria, so they are marking what they and their colleagues think is most important for students to know. Secondly, it ensures that all TAs are clear about what the expectations are. They participate in discussions about the rubric so no one has to interpret meaning from vague statements. This creates consistency between different TAs and different lab sections. Students will all be graded on the most important learning objectives, and they will all be graded fairly.
Being careful of TA workload, Dr. Donev puts a lot of thought into how much work he gives TAs and what they are specifically asked to do. It is his job to balance TA responsibilities so that they feel engaged and a part of the teaching team, but not overwhelmed by unfairly high workloads or inappropriate tasks. Teaching should not be a burden to them, otherwise, they will be averse to it. But they do need to feel like a part of the teaching team and to see the value in their work. When TAs understand the important impact they have, they do a great job of teaching and assessing their students.
Good TAs always results in a better course experience. When students learn from their TAs in labs or tutorials, they begin to trust them more and use them as an available resource when working on assignments or studying for exams. TAs are responsible for ensuring that students are understanding vital concepts and they play a huge role in learning. In first-year courses, this is especially important because they will build on the content in all of their subsequent classes. In his department, Dr. Donev says he is lucky and grateful to have an outstanding group of teaching assistants to work with. TAs are an incredibly valuable resource for teaching large classes, especially when given the right guidance and support.