Report on S-9913: "Review the training of graduate
students by departments for teaching undergraduate-level
courses at Rutgers. For example, compile data on the range of teaching
assignments, teaching evaluations for graduate students who are responsible
for teaching, and the amount and kind of training provided to graduate
students, particularly in current instructional technologies. Consider
the evaluation of skills (specifically fluency in the English language)
and the training provided to students from foreign countries. This should
include further study and consideration of recommendations made by the
Rutgers College Governing Association report entitled "Teaching Assistants,"
which has been received by the Senate for review, and should be coordinated
with the Graduate and Professional Educational Policy Committee of the
New Brunswick Faculty Council, the Graduate School-New Brunswick deans'
offices, and with units on Camden and Newark campuses, as appropriate.
Make recommendations for improvements, as appropriate."
I. Executive Summary
II. Background and Process
III. Undergraduate Concerns About Teaching Assistants
IV. Training Issues
V. International Teaching Assistants: Language Issues
VI. Hiring and Compensation Issues
VII. Numbers of TAs
VIII. Other Instructional Personnel
Appendix A. Sample mid-semester evaluations
Appendix B. Sample Guidelines for Faculty Supervising Teaching Assistants
I. Executive Summary
In evaluating the RCGA report and other suggestions to improve the training of teaching assistants, the Committee came to a number of conclusions within which it framed its recommendations.
Recommendations Related to Teaching Assistant Training
II. Background and Process
Many graduate students at major research universities
will enter academic careers which include both research and teaching. Graduate
student education has traditionally been focused on research and training
within an academic area of concentration. However, the importance of providing
training in teaching techniques for graduate students has been increasingly
recognized over the last twenty years, and many universities now provide
some form of training in teaching. There exists a sizable body of literature
relating to teaching assistant training issues and programs.1
While the earlier emphasis was on more narrowly defined issues of improving
the performance of teaching assistants in the classroom, in the last decade
the focus has shifted to the broader issues of adequately preparing graduate
students to become faculty members.2
Increasingly, teaching assistant training is viewed as not just an enhancement
tool for job performance, but an important component of academic career
Teaching assistants provide a significant part of the classroom instruction at Rutgers; university-wide, approximately 13.5% of the instructional units (IUs; where three IUs are approximately equal to one course) are taught by teaching assistants. Tenured and tenure-track faculty provide 51% of the classroom instruction, and PTLs provide approximately 25%. The percentage of instruction provided by teaching assistants varies across the campuses, with TAs providing approximately 17% of the instruction in New Brunswick, 4% in Camden and 7.5% in Newark. It is clear from these data that issues of training for teaching assistants are most critical for the New Brunswick Campus. However, teaching assistants provide instruction on all campuses, and regardless of where they are based, the University has a responsibility to provide graduate students with appropriate training before they enter our classrooms or begin careers in teaching.
The various training programs in place at the University were designed both to help graduate students cope with their new responsibilities as teachers and to enable them to better serve our undergraduate population. Like all teaching faculty, graduate students who are teaching assistants are regularly evaluated through the standard University course evaluations form. However, there has never been a systematic university-wide review of these training programs, and a recent review of teaching assistants as classroom teachers by the Rutgers College Governing Association (RCGA) points to the need for such an examination. Although the RCGA report provides only the perspective of one college on the New Brunswick Campus, the quality of instruction is an important issue across the University, and across the nation. The issues raised by the RCGA report, and the system of teaching assistant training programs generally, are being simultaneously reviewed by this committee from a University-wide perspective and the Graduate and Professional Education Committee of the New Brunswick Faculty Council (NBFC) from a New Brunswick perspective.
The complex issues centered around teaching assistants and their training have been extensively discussed within this committee, and the committee has considered the materials and preliminary recommendations from the NBFC as well as the original RCGA report. Representatives of this committee have met with graduate student groups, the staff of ESL, representatives of the TA Liaison Committee and a focus group within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, New Brunswick. Members of the committee have also discussed these issues, at least in part, with a number of individuals representing the three campuses, the Graduate Schools, the TA Training Project (NB) and the Teaching Excellence Centers. The issues raised by the RCGA and additional issues arising from discussions are discussed below.
III. Undergraduate Concerns About Teaching Assistants
Nature of Undergraduate Concerns:
The RCGA report voices general student concern about the level of training of teaching assistants in some disciplines and the lack of a comprehensive training program. Although the report does not explicitly state this, it is apparent that there is a general concern among undergraduates that not all teaching assistants are adequately trained. The report points out the importance and impact that teaching assistants have on the undergraduate experience, and the importance of having effective teaching assistants as part of the overall academic experience of our undergraduates.
The issues raised in the report or arising from it can be divided into five categories:
There does not seem to be any quantitative information on the extent to which teaching assistants are poor classroom teachers. The RCGA report is based on verbal concerns expressed by a number of students to RCGA members; certainly there exists a widespread belief that teaching assistants in some disciplines are poorer than in others. Data on actual TA evaluations are difficult to obtain easily; although teaching assistants are regularly evaluated by the University-wide evaluations, the Teaching Excellence Centers do not have rank information on each instructor. While in courses where these data are available (e.g. in General Biology all lab sections are taught by teaching assistants) the ratings overall do not give cause for concern and averages are consistent with departmental averages; clearly there may still be individual problems. Moreover, if large numbers of undergraduates perceive teaching assistants to be poorly trained, the perception itself presents a problem which should be addressed. It is also not clear if students always know whether the person in front of their classroom is a teaching assistant, a PTL, an instructor or a faculty member. In many programs, PTLs are often graduate students who do not hold teaching assistantships. This makes it even more difficult to identify which group among instructional staff have given rise to the undergraduate concerns. While poor performance in teaching is not limited to any particular instructional group, teaching assistants, who frequently come to graduate school directly from undergraduate training, are least likely to have had training in teaching techniques. Providing and improving this training is a responsibility of the University even in the absence of clear evidence of problems.
IV. Training Issues
One of the central issues of this review is whether the training of teaching assistants can be improved, and whether additional training will improve classroom performance. The RCGA report makes a number of specific recommendations that the undergraduates feel would improve TA training. Most of their suggestions are based on elements which already exist within programs that the RCGA felt were successful (based on perceptions of TA performance in each discipline).
Recommendations of the RCGA Report
Rec. 1 Extend training for new TAs from one day to two
Rec. 2 Institute a policy of weekly meetings between the professor and the TAs of a course.
Rec. 3 Appoint a Head TA for large lecture courses to coordinate what takes place in the individual sections of a course.
Rec. 5 Departments should host monthly refresher training sessions for TAs.
Rec. 6 TAs should be routinely videotaped in the classroom.
Rec. 7 TAs should be required to create a teaching portfolio of their lesson plans, tests, videotapes, and student evaluations.
Rec. 8 There should be more opportunities for students to give feedback to their TA throughout a semester.
Rec. 14 Each department should be given a $3,000 grant to establish the position of a TA coordinator in every department.
Existing training programs
Training programs for teaching assistants include both the one or two day programs developed by the teaching assistant project in New Brunswick and Graduate School, Newark and individual programs organized by departments. The departmental programs in New Brunswick have been reviewed by the New Brunswick Faculty Council, and programs within FAS-NB are currently being reviewed. The existing departmental programs are organized in a variety of ways and include diverse formats, from formal courses (History-NB) to intensive courses at the beginning of the semester (Physics-NB) to semester long training associated with large courses (General Biology, NB). There appears to be no clear correspondence between type of training and the undergraduate perception that teaching assistants in that discipline are well prepared. What the "successful" training programs may have in common are Faculty commitment to the importance of professional development of teaching assistants, some level of supervision, continuity, and accountability throughout the semester.
Graduate student perspectives
Graduate students from humanities, social sciences and sciences were emphatic in pointing out that disciplines were very different, and that training programs should be tailored for each discipline. Most were not in favor of a "one-size-fits-all" training program, nor an expansion of the current TAP training program in New Brunswick for the two weeks suggested by the RCGA report. However, one or two teaching assistants who had attended extended training programs at other universities did feel that an extended general program could be helpful. Many of the graduate students in the Life Sciences (NB) found the General Biology training program and support system useful, since it provided them with a structured context for their first teaching experience. Many of these graduate students felt that "just-in-time" training was most helpful, and that long training sessions before they had a context in which to apply the information would not be productive.
Some of the graduate students also felt that there were problems with the level of supervision and input they received from the faculty in charge of courses. Several graduate students remarked that it would be helpful to have written guidelines as to their responsibilities, and several remarked that regular meetings with the supervising faculty member would be useful.
It is the consensus of the Committee that training programs must be discipline specific, and that universal proscriptions for training programs would be counterproductive. It also seems clear that training is only one of a number of factors that may contribute to good TA performance. One critical factor is a department’s overall commitment to teaching as an important part of faculty and TA responsibility. Those departments which take this responsibility seriously have created appropriate training programs, each designed for the particular discipline or type of courses taught. While it may indeed be useful to compile and disseminate details of these programs as a means of sharing ideas and best practices, we do not feel that there is anything to be gained by forcing departments to adopt particular strategies. We therefore can not endorse most of the above RCGA recommendations per se, and feel that none of these should be imposed on existing programs.
The Committee is also unable to endorse the recommendation that the Teaching Assistant Project’s program (or any other generalized program) be extended to two weeks. Although this program does include discipline specific "master classes" it must by its nature be close to a "one-size-fits-all" program and as such contrary to the discipline-specific model that we find most useful. If the program were subdivided so that there were more discipline-specific activities, there would seem to be little benefit over departmental programs. This program currently provides an excellent generalized base on which departmental programs could build; as such a base, it might be desirable to extend it into a three day session. Many of the graduate students interviewed felt that "just-in-time" training that they could apply immediately (e.g., exam writing skills as they were about to write a first quiz) was most useful; therefore having an extended period of training prior to teaching would not necessarily be useful.
An extended program before the semester begins would present enormous logistical problems; many graduate students do not have housing available until September 1, and many non-New Jersey TAs do not arrive until close to that date. If graduate students were required to be here two weeks earlier, some contractual adjustments would have to be made, and additional compensation paid. The program would be very expensive, and it seems to this committee that it would provide little benefit for the expense. If the program were extended to three days, the logistical problems would not be as severe.
The Committee did, however, feel that some of the RCGA training recommendations could potentially have a significant impact on the quality of departmental instruction, and would recommend that programs wishing to implement these recommendations be funded to do so. There is certainly merit, for example, in the recommendation that departments appoint a "Head TA" or staff member to assist with training and supervising TAs in large courses. In some departments (i.e. Life Sciences, NB) this has been very successful, and several graduate students commented that it was particularly helpful to them as they taught for the first time. However, if this is done it is critical that the Head TA be given adequate release from other teaching responsibilities so the position does not negatively affect progress toward degree; for example, the head TA in General Biology is released from teaching for one semester in return for serving as Head TA for one semester. We realize that this is an expensive recommendation as it requires the commitment of a full TA line to this position. Nevertheless, we feel that the University should make an effort to provide resources for these types of positions for departments/courses where they could be used most effectively.
We also feel that the recommendation for more frequent evaluations is one that should be implemented in most training programs. Some TA training programs already do a mid-semester designed to provide constructive feedback about improving teaching. The TEC-NB and the Teaching Assistant Training Project also make an on-line mid-semester evaluation available which can be used in any course; a mid-semester evaluation is also done for each on-line course (see Appendix A for examples).
Although the committee felt that it would be inappropriate to endorse suggestions that dictate how individual faculty supervise their TAs, it was clear from comments made by the graduate students that improvements could certainly be made in this relationship. There are two ways that this could most appropriately be addressed: first through the mentoring guidelines developed by the Graduate School, and second, through departmental guidelines and best practices. Development of such guidelines within departments should be part of the development or enhancement of training programs.
It is clear to the Committee that some departments/programs have less successful training programs than they should have. While the University must ensure that all graduate students receive adequate training and supervision, this can best be accomplished by ensuring that departments are held accountable for the performance of their teaching assistants. To that end, each Dean should meet annually with a designated departmental officer to review the teaching evaluation data for the departmental TAs.
Overview and Discussion:
A number of concerns in the RCGA report center on language skills of international teaching assistants. Again, actual data on the frequency of language problems in the classroom are lacking, although anecdotal reports of problems are frequent. However, contrary to concerns expressed in the RCGA report, all international teaching assistants are tested before they may assume classroom teaching responsibilities. Each prospective teaching assistant is interviewed by a member of the ESL staff, and is then required to give a brief lecture on a topic in their field. This lecture is video-taped and reviewed by the ESL staff and forms the basis for the classification of the teaching assistant. Teaching assistants may be classified as "able to teach without further training," "able to teach but must take ESL courses," or "not cleared for classroom teaching."
The RCGA report makes one specific recommendation (#3) about international teaching assistants: "Require TAs who speak English as a second language to practice their first few lesson plans with their professor." The committee felt that as a policy this would be difficult to enforce and would not be appropriate in all contexts. It seems discriminatory to single out international graduate students to practice when in fact many new teaching assistants have difficulty with their first few lessons. The unique problems of international TAs could better be addressed by recommendations to strengthen the ESL programs and testing. The need for new TAs to practice could be a "best-practices" recommendation for individual department programs.
Despite the fact that international teaching assistants
are tested, the widespread concern of students suggests that language skills
are not always adequate. We also believe that some of the problems international
teaching assistants may experience in the classroom result from a combination
of factors. Many international teaching assistants face not only the challenge
of teaching in a second language, but teaching for the first time, and
in a culture that may be very different. Many are also new to graduate
school, a challenge in itself. Some faculty involved in training teaching
assistants note that when international teaching assistants have problems
in the classroom, cultural issues and lack of experience often compound
the difficulties of teaching in an unfamiliar language. The Committee agreed
that many of the problems faced by international teaching assistants are
not directly related to language3,
and that improved departmental training programs would be beneficial in
helping international teaching assistants feel more comfortable in their
new roles as instructors. We also felt that it would be beneficial to international
teaching assistants if greater efforts were made to help them understand
the culture of American classrooms and students.
However, some international teaching assistants undoubtedly
do have less that adequate language skills.4
Although the ESL program does an outstanding job, their ability to test
graduate students in the summer and provide liaison with departmental programs
is limited by small staff size and limited resources. Increasing staff
size would help to ensure that teaching assistants who will have problems
in the classroom are identified more accurately. It would also be beneficial
if the committee which reviews prospective teaching assistants always included
an undergraduate student, preferably one from a discipline different from
that of the student being tested. Not only do we think that the undergraduate
can give an important perspective about a graduate student’s ability to
present material, but it may help improve undergraduates’ perceptions of
the process by which teaching assistants are screened.
Overview and Discussion:
The RCGA report expresses a number of concerns about qualifications of graduate students appointed as TAs and makes several recommendations concerning the hiring of teaching assistants. These recommendations are:
It is clear that for graduate students, whose main priority is to finish their education, fellowships or graduate assistantships are a preferred means of support. Although many graduate students recognize the importance of having some teaching experience, there is no incentive for graduate students to continue as teaching assistants if another means of support is available. Teaching requires a large time commitment, and teaching assistants are currently paid on the same scale as research assistants. Restructuring the pay scale for teaching assistants, so that those who remain on teaching assistantships rather than on fellowships or graduate assistantships receive some benefit, may make it easier to retain the most experienced graduate students as TAs. It is also clear that different teaching assistants have widely different responsibilities, ranging from grading to planning and teaching entire courses. All of these are currently paid on the same scale, making it clearly less attractive for a graduate student to accept the more demanding assignments. Since compensation falls under the collective bargaining agreement, we cannot make binding recommendations in this area; however we feel that it is an area that the University and the bargaining unit should examine.
Overview and Discussion:
The RCGA report also calls for increasing the number of teaching assistants; this recommendation is based primarily on interviews with some graduate students who felt that they could do a better job teaching if they had fewer teaching assignments. Some of the graduate students the Committee spoke with also mentioned crowded classes and feeling overextended as a problem. The perception that Rutgers has too few teaching assistants is also supported by the recent report to the Senate by University Vice-President Seneca on part-time faculty; this report shows that Rutgers as a whole relies less on teaching assistants and more on PTLs compared to other AAU institutions.
Nevertheless, the Committee is not convinced that there is a clear causal relationship between the number of teaching assistants and the quality of classroom performance. Although there are clearly places where we feel that Rutgers could benefit academically from additional teaching assistants (for example, by adding recitations to large introductory courses) increasing the number of teaching assistants is a complex issue. Cost is one factor that we did not feel able to evaluate; a more critical issue educationally is whether individual graduate programs have the resources and faculty to add additional graduate students, and whether the employment opportunities in each field can support additional graduates. Finally, the Committee was reluctant to make any recommendations about numbers of teaching assistants when members felt that they had little understanding of how programs/departments currently use teaching assistants: It is clear from discussions among faculty and graduate students that there is a great diversity of teaching assignments that run the gamut from grading only to teaching whole courses. Since these issues clearly extend beyond graduate student training, the Committee is not prepared to endorse the recommendation of the RCGA that the number of teaching assistantships be increased beyond those mentioned in Section IV.
However the committee members did feel that a special committee should be appointed to examine how programs use teaching assistants, where teaching assistants might benefit undergraduate education, and how such an increase might be funded. This committee should also examine the issues of differential workloads mentioned above.
Use of Undergraduate TAs:
The RCGA report recommends that where additional TA lines cannot be provided, undergraduates be used as teaching assistants (RCGA recommendation 10). The committee discussed this suggestion, but was not in favor of hiring undergraduates as teaching assistants per se. Committee members felt that teaching assistant positions carry responsibility for instruction and assignment of grades which should not be given to undergraduates, who may feel pressured by their peers with respect to grading and instructional decisions. However, the committee discussed several circumstances where undergraduates have been successfully used as "peer mentors" in instructional positions that do not include regular teaching assistant responsibilities. For example, several New Brunswick mathematics courses use undergraduate peer mentors in workshops, and the Rutgers College EOF program uses peer mentors in several of its programs. Although the committee does not support appointment of undergraduates as teaching assistants, we would encourage their use in supervised instructional settings where we believe they can contribute significantly to enhancing undergraduate education.
Part Time Lecturers (PTLs):
As mentioned above, the Committee felt strongly that undergraduate concerns toward teaching assistants were at least partially addressed toward PTLs; or at least, that undergraduates were not reliably able to distinguish among the different levels of instructional staff. Few departments include PTLs in any departmental training programs; in fact, inclusion of PTLs is difficult since contractually, PTLs are hired only to teach a specific course. Inclusion of PTLs in training programs would presumably require some additional compensation and contractual adjustments. Nevertheless, the University relies heavily on PTLs and other non-tenure track instructional staff to meet instructional needs, and there should be some level of accountability regarding their performance.
Training of teaching assistants is a complex issue compounded by many factors, including the diversity of disciplines in which teaching assistants are utilized, the multicultural nature of our University, and the different categories of instructional staff whose status may not be clear to students. The recommendations presented here should be considered a first step toward improving overall performance of teaching assistants in our classrooms and ensuring that those choosing to enter academia are adequately trained to begin their own careers.
Evaluation used in General Biology
The purpose of this evaluation is to help your TA improve his/her teaching. Separate evaluations will be conducted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the end of the semester to evaluate the course as a whole. Please try to be as helpful and honest as possible in answering these questions. All responses will be anonymous.
To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements (a=strongly agree, b= agree, c=uncertain d=disagree, e=strongly disagree).
1. I feel comfortable asking my TA questions.
2. My TA answers questions clearly.
3. My TA gives a well-organized introductory lecture.
4. My TA speaks loudly enough.
5. My TA writes clearly on the board.
6. My TA has an adequate command of English.
7. My TA is enthusiastic about biology.
8. My lab section is well-organized.
9. I understand what is expected of me in lab.
10. I interact with my TA at least once each lab session.
What suggestions do you have to help your TA improve his/her teaching? (Please write your suggestions on the back of this page.)
On-line evaluation available from the Teaching Excellence Center
Please answer the following questions. When you are finished, click the "Submit" button. All responses are anonymous.
The instructor is prepared for class and presents material
in an organized manner.
The Instructor responds effectively to student comments and questions.
What do you like about this course?
What do you think needs improvement?
How would you suggest the improvements be made?
Role of Laboratories and Recitations in Instruction: Laboratories are designed to enhance students’ understanding of course material by allowing them to see and experience materials themselves. They also provide an opportunity to teach students laboratory techniques and experimental design first-hand. Laboratories cannot serve this purpose unless laboratories are coordinated with lecture material in a way that is meaningful to students. Design of laboratories and laboratory manuals and materials is therefore ordinarily the responsibility of the faculty member, and not the teaching assistant. Recitations are also designed to enhance course material, to provide a review of important concepts and to provide students with assistance in working problems. Recitations must coordinate closely with lecture material in order to serve this role, and their design and supervision is therefore also the role of the faculty member in charge of the associated course.
Responsibilities of faculty supervising laboratory/recitation Teaching Assistants
The faculty member should plan the lab/recitation in coordination with lecture and develop written materials.
Whereas, the University Senate’s Instruction, Curricula and Advising Committee has examined and reported on Teaching Assistant Training at Rutgers; and
Whereas, the University Senate has reviewed the Committee’s Report and its Recommendations, finding those Recommendations to be sound and in the best interests of Rutgers University;
Therefore, Be It Resolved, that the Rutgers University Senate
endorses the Report on Teaching Assistant Training at Rutgers, and urges
the Administration to implement its Recommendations.