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New Teaching Assistants, Avoiding the Blind Leading the Blind


I have an incredible respect for the work done by most Teaching Assistants (TAs). The majority of TAs want to connect with their students and to ignite some spark of the passion that they, as graduate students, feel towards their disciplines. In general, TAs want to teach undergraduates skills that are relevant in today’s world with strategies that teach knowledge and skills in ways that students will remember and continue to use. TAs often have more contact than faculty with undergraduates through conversations in recitations and informal office hours. How can we maximize the potential of these teachable moments?

CIDDE’s Teaching Assistant Services begins each academic year with a day-long orientation for new TAs, when 250 teaching assistants spend a few hours learning about topics such as leading recitations, teaching problem solving or grading exams. For most, this is the only formal training that they have had in instruction. Furthermore, new TAs haven’t yet had the opportunity to participate in advanced discipline related coursework that would facilitate their own deeper, broader understanding of the topics they are teaching.

CIDDE’s Teaching Assistant consultants encourage new graduate TAs to regularly talk with (or) establish routine meetings with their supervising faculty to get assistance on developing materials or quizzes, discuss how the class objectives integrate with recitations, and request feedback on their progress. The time that faculty spend planning with the TAs directly benefits undergraduates. Yet, when I listen to TA conversations about the directions given to them by faculty, it becomes obvious that the need for TA-faculty interaction is often overlooked.

I am reminded of an earlier blog on August 5 that discusses the expert blindness of instructors when planning lessons for undergraduates, and I see similarities with faculty as they begin to consider the role that the TA will play within their own classrooms. Expert blindness refers to fact that, as we begin to learn new skills, we are not conscious or aware of our level of incompetence.

Teaching Times blind leading blind

While novice learners struggle to grasp basic concepts, as we develop expertise, it becomes easier to draw relationships among ideas. As we chart a trajectory to fill in knowledge gaps, we become acutely aware of what we don’t know. This is termed the “conscious incompetence” phase. Finally, we cross over the line to “unconscious competence,” where we become blind to our levels of expertise, and assume that others function at similar levels of “knowing.” Faculty who are aware of the pitfalls of expert blindness painstakingly prepare early lessons with simple information and examples, directing attention to relationships, confirming understanding, and then scaffolding their instruction to support the needs of new students. However, everyone who is part of the teaching and learning mission at the university needs to remember that the art of teaching well is also a new skill to be learned. New teaching assistants are novices who are only beginning to learn the process of becoming future faculty. Admittance to a graduate program does not come with immediate transferal of pedagogical skill, a discipline’s content, or awareness of how best to communicate and work with faculty. Unless TAs are challenged to reflect on their behaviors and encouraged to learn evidence-based practice, most teach the way they were taught.

New graduate students don’t understand how recitations support a course, and how courses support the goals of a curriculum. These are the kinds of Faculty – TA conversations that should occur on a regular basis to help TAs prepare for their responsibilities to undergraduates. Unfortunately, learning briefly about a topic a few days before starting a new job is not enough. Teaching assistants, like other students in new learning situations, will grow with clear expectations, structure, and consistent feedback on how to improve in their jobs.

Teaching Assistant Services at CIDDE can consult with faculty in working with TAs and in developing materials so that TAs are consistent in supporting large lectures. If you would like to explore how we can help you, send a request to teaching@pitt.edu.

By Carol Washburn, CIDDE