November 14, 2011

T.A. Troubles: The Teaching and Learning Gap in Higher Education

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Tremendous Academician or Terrible Abecedary? What do the letters T.A. mean to a college student? Both definitions probably explain our experiences with teaching assistants.

You’re among the fortunate minority if you have managed to avoid the T.A. who scribbles barely legible characters with chalk for 50 minutes straight, uttering fewer words than Poe’s Raven but leaving a message just as cryptic before dropping his chalk and exiting the room without even turning to face his students. I doubt this experience from my undergraduate years at Princeton doesn’t extend to other ivory towers. I would also contend, however, that you share company with a forsaken few if you have never learned from an intensely engaging T.A. who uses a panoply of pedagogically innovative techniques to cement a thorough understanding of the course content in your mind and helps instill in you a love of learning, an intrinsic desire to further academic inquiry.

This huge variation in quality of teaching assistants is a major problem in institutions of higher learning. It affects the academic preparation and general well-being of the student and the instructor. When a monotonous stream of esoteric babble issues forth from the T.A. who does not have the skills to teach effectively, the students fail to develop the knowledge and nuance needed to apply and evaluate key concepts. Even worse, they may lose interest in a topic they previously found exciting. They do receive, however, a wonderful opportunity for daydreaming. The T.A. himself, on the other hand, misses a great opportunity for professional development and probably experiences a good deal more stress than the T.A. who is confident and well-prepared. T.A.s show their quality not only in teaching, but in all interactions with students. In a climate of increasing concerns about mental health and academic integrity violations, it is essential that T.A.s understand how to accommodate and interact with students on matters beyond course content.

The problem, thus, is this: Some T.A.s are amazing while others are abysmal. I am no egalitarian who feels that every instructor should be at the same level, but I recognize the need to raise the standard for what is minimally acceptable. The first question in solving this dilemma is why it exists. To begin with, we must acknowledge that some people simply enjoy teaching more than others; they are both willing and able to think more critically about how to teach effectively. As a sociologist, however, I must contend that there are structural drivers at play beyond any forces operating at the individual level. I offer two macro-level explanations: a lack of continuity in good training and a lack of assessment.

Good training. Some departments require extensive training for their T.A.s, both in course content and teaching methods. Some individual faculty members either provide training or direct their T.A.s to available resources, for example through Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Other departments and faculty members leave brand new T.A.s oblivious to the fact that they should be critically reflecting on how they teach. Far too often have I heard fifth or sixth year graduate students exclaim excitement at having just discovered free workshops in teaching pedagogy available at Cornell. Not only are many T.A.s not required to learn about effective teaching before stepping into the classroom, many are effectively denied the opportunity to learn because they are never made aware of it.

Assessment. Students are asked to evaluate their T.A.s at the end of each course, but what happens to those evaluations? Unless a T.A. takes it upon himself to take the comments to heart, little will ever come of them. Many T.A.s work with different faculty members over their time at Cornell, and there is minimal accountability for applying suggestions for improvement across courses. Some faculty members invest substantial time in their T.A.s, providing constant feedback and suggestions for improvement, while others are aloof, unconcerned and unsupportive. Some T.A.s ask their students to provide mid-semester feedback and constantly evaluate whether their students are achieving learning outcomes, but these practices are neither the norm nor even commonly considered by most T.A.s.

I feel strongly about these problems and I believe they can be solved. I have been working with relevant administrators to consider structural approaches to improving the T.A. experience at Cornell, both for the students and the T.A.s themselves. If you have thoughts, ideas or comments on this matter, please do not hesitate to share them with me.

Darrick Nighthawk Evensen is a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and the graduate student-elected trustee. He may be reached at Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Darrick Nighthawk Evensen