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Teaching Practicum Models Strategies For Teaching Assistants

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Approximately 850 graduate students teach or assist in teaching undergraduate courses at the University of Pittsburgh. These teaching assistants (TAs) excel in their major areas of study, but many are teaching a college course for the first time. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for TAs to receive their teaching assignments just a few weeks before the semester begins. Although some academic departments offer support, TAs may have time only to prepare an outline of course content before plunging into their new roles.

“Then it hits them. Teaching is hard work that requires a lot more than knowing the subject, and they realize they don’t know how to go about doing it,” comments Abel Franco, TA consultant with TA Services, an office providing support to TAs through the Center for Instructional Development & Distance Education (CIDDE).

Teaching assistants who enroll in the one- to three-credit University Teaching Practicum, taught by Carol Washburn, CIDDE instructional designer, find an opportunity to learn to apply teaching and learning theories. Cognitive psychology and learning theory serve as a foundation for the course, which emphasizes student engagement through real-life application. “In this course, theory is reflected in everything we do. We actually think by doing. Each class is centered around our experiences in the courses we are teaching, and it is taught in a way that models effective classroom strategies,” comments Franco, who assists Washburn with the class.

The practicum also provides TAs with a collaborative atmosphere where they can air concerns, get supportive feedback, and share what works and what doesn’t. Washburn begins each session by inviting students to share specific problems and issues. For example, being both students and teachers themselves, many TAs find it difficult defining their relationship with the students they are teaching. Attendance, class participation, and grading create other common difficulties for TAs. “These kinds of problems can affect their morale, their whole outlook on life,” says Franco.

In the practicum, students soon become comfortable discussing their teaching experiences—even their perceived shortcomings. “Students are not graded on how well they teach but rather on their own reflections, i.e., can they accurately evaluate their own teaching and can they apply principles they’ve learned in class to experiment and try new techniques?”

“Although students in the course initially tend to be skeptical about the ability of peers from other disciplines to offer valid suggestions, by the end of the semester they highly value this feedback,” notes Washburn. Students even find that feedback from classroom observations by TAs from other disciplines is especially objective and valuable. “When the TAs observe people from other fields, their input is much richer, complete and useful” than that from observations by peers within the same departments.

Furthermore, students are comfortable with the classroom videotaping and subsequent scrutiny of their teaching that precedes these observations, largely because it is conducted by TA Services consultants like Franco, who are themselves graduate students.

Acknowledging that the students learn a great deal from one another, Washburn concedes she also learns from them. As a result, she systematically adds new ideas to her repertoire to share in future classes, explaining, “Good ideas perpetuate themselves.” Readings and activities have been evaluated and recommended by TAs who have previously taken the course. Likewise, consultants in TA Services draw ideas from the practicum, using them to plan workshops and orientation programs.

Referring to her work with faculty, Washburn comments, “We give students the same tools that CIDDE instructional designers give faculty across the University. Even faculty who have worked here for years find these tools extremely valuable.” Consequently, CIDDE instructional designers observe a growing faculty interest in teaching pedagogies that engage students; likewise, Franco sees this same awareness of good teaching practices growing among the University’s TAs.


OCTOBER 2003

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Teaching Practicum Models Strategies For Teaching Assistants