TA's as the Key to Science Teaching

November 22, 2005

In 1997, Elaine Seymour was one of the authors of Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences (Westview). She found that a reason cited by student after student -- at a range of institutions -- was poor teaching. And at many institutions, teaching assistants were a major part of the problem.

Since then, she has been convinced that efforts to reform science education -- while they deal with many issues besides TA's -- will falter unless teaching assistants are given real professional education on how to teach and how to handle the issues they face in the classroom. A new book of which she is the lead author provides evidence for that thesis. Partners in Innovation: Teaching Assistants in College Science Courses (Rowman and Littlefield) reviews three national efforts to reform science education -- one in astronomy and two in chemistry -- and examines to role of TA's in making reforms either take or fail.

Seymour, who recently retired as director of ethnography and evaluation research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, found much to worry about and also models that she believes can be replicated. Of the former, she said the sad fact is that most science TA's don't receive much help in doing their jobs well. Many get absolutely no preparation and those who do tend to receive a brief session with no ongoing mechanism to learn about their teaching.

"Training," Seymour says, is "a very unfortunate word," and she prefers to talk about "educational professional development" for TA's. One of the major problems, she found, is that when teaching assistants want to become better teachers, they often feel the need to keep quiet about it. "They consistently told us that if they want to teach and they are interested in that, they keep that to themselves. They are afraid that they will be taken as less serious students" by the professors supervising their work, Seymour says.

So colleges and universities serious about reforming science education need to reach both senior professors who supervise intro courses and the TA's, she adds.

At the same time, Seymour says, professors need to monitor what their TA's are doing to be sure that reform efforts are taken seriously. "If you don't get TA's' active trust and engagement, they can sabotage new approaches to teaching. They fight you or don't do what they are supposed to and just go ahead and teach in any way they like," she says. "We have found active and passive instances of TA's undermining what professors are trying to do."

What should colleges be doing to help teaching assistants? Seymour offers several strategies that are discussed in her book:

  • Creating semester-length courses that teach pedagogy. "You have to show them how to do it."
  • Involving science faculty members demonstrating techniques of teaching so that the pedagogy is not just theoretical.
  • Scheduling regular meetings -- at least once a week -- for teaching assistants to talk about how their sections are going and the issues that are coming up. "You have to troubleshoot," she says.
  • Providing support for teaching, so that TA's dissertation committees and advisers know that their teaching duties should be taken seriously.

Seymour stresses that all types of colleges and universities need to examine these issues. While many liberal arts colleges like to say that they provide better science teaching than do research universities, Seymour says she saw the same problems in both sectors. The difference, she says, is that at liberal arts colleges, the TA may be an undergraduate, not that the TA has been better prepared or backed up. (While her book only examined science TA's, Seymour says that she suspects problems are similar in other disciplines.)

The bottom line, she says, is that helping TA's doesn't just help their current students, but those who will be learning from them for decades after the TA's have finished their doctorates and taken on full-time faculty jobs.

"If you don't do something to more adequately educate graduate students, they will go on to be the same kinds of teachers as their teachers are, and they will have no clue and perpetuate the cycle," Seymour says.

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