Teaching assistants should be taught how to teach

November 22, 2018
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes
Photo C/O Madeline Neumann

By: Kyle Ansilio

Throughout a student’s undergraduate career, they will likely be taught under dozens of teaching assistants. Students are then bound to experience varying encounters with their TAs in regards to differing teaching values, instruction methods and marking.

These diverse experiences do not merely extend to separate courses. In fact, it is conceivable that two students taking the same course could have dramatically different learning experiences primarily due to different TAs instructing or grading them. The reason for this disparity is rooted in three distinct problems.

First, the vast majority of undergraduate programs do not prepare students for teaching roles. This in and of itself is not a problem. Developing skills required to teach in addition to meeting standard program outcomes would be an immense undertaking with little to no benefit for most graduates. But, as some TAs are even undergraduate students themselves, this lack of preparation can serve as a serious hindrance to the students being taught.

Additionally, some universities do not conduct standardized TA training. At McMaster University, the faculty of engineering requires TAs such as myself to participate in a six-hour training session in which we are taught the fundamentals of good grading practice and lesson planning. On the other hand, my colleagues from the faculty of science were not provided formal training from the faculty itself, leaving their expectations to the discretion of their individual departments or instructors.

Finally, the faculties that do offer training for their TAs often do not enforce their expectations. During McMaster’s training, engineering TAs are told to give marks based on the student’s thought or work process and not solely on the final answer. Marking schemes though are ultimately created by the instructors, who are free to reject the principles endorsed by the faculty.

With these factors in mind, it is difficult to view teaching assistantships from the perspective of the university as anything more than a means to subsidize someone’s education in exchange for lightening the workload of faculty members. Without approaching this role with the appropriate care, and the proper training, the unpreparedness of TAs can severely impact student learning.

For example, due to this problem, York University has experienced several strikes. According to the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, the York administration was “not interested in improving the working condition of its workers, or the learning conditions of its students.”

The role of a TA is incredibly important to get right. TAs share responsibility over student learning with the instructor and are often the first point of contact for students seeking clarification and feedback. They are leaders in the classroom and have incredible influence over the quality of a course.

For graduate students seeking faculty positions, teaching assistantships are their first opportunities to grapple with the teaching responsibilities that will be expected of them. University faculties have an obligation to these TAs, and by extension the students that they teach, of providing some form of standard in teaching that cannot be overwritten at the departmental level.

Though there is certainly much to be improved, McMaster presently offers some resources for TAs. The MacPherson Institute is the teaching and learning center on campus, and they offer plenty of resources to both undergraduate and graduate students, and are currently developing a TA guide.

For those seeking to learn more about pedagogy, the Students as Partners program allows students to work collaboratively with faculty and leaders in education to conduct research or complete projects.

For graduate students seeking to improve upon their teaching methods, MacPherson offers a series of courses at no charge which can be completed towards two certificates of teaching and learning which appear on the student’s transcript. MacPherson also offers support to departments and faculty upon request, and has been working to increase awareness of the services that they offer.

McMaster would do well to make use of these services to create and enforce standardized TA training so that students can expect some degree of consistency throughout their program.

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