How TAs Make a Difference in the Classroom

This post is the first in a series of posts in collaboration between PERbites and Astrobites about best practices in science education. Teaching is an important aspect of a researcher’s job, whether it be formal teaching in a classroom or informally when training new researchers. Therefore, it is important that researchers are aware of the best practices in education. As graduate students make up a significant portion of the Astrobites readership, these posts will be targeted toward them, but the practices are equally useful for any science educator. Before going into best practices in the coming weeks, we start with a recent paper suggesting that graduate teaching assistant behaviors in the classroom significantly impact how well students do in their courses and hence, the importance of  training teaching assistants on best practices in science education.

Title: Graduate TA Teaching Behaviors Impact Student Achievement in a Research Based Undergraduate Science Course

Authors: Ariana S. Huffmyer and Judith D. Lemus

First Author Institution: Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa

Journal: Journal of College Science Teaching (closed access)

If you ask someone about their undergraduate physics courses, you’ll probably get a handful of stories about useless discussion sections, boring labs, and unintelligible lectures. A common theme tends to be the awkward teaching assistant, well-intentioned but unsuccessful in explaining homework problems or creating lessons that help students learn. Teaching assistants (TAs) are usually graduate students who lead discussion and lab sections that are supplementary to the professor’s lectures — and often, they aren’t given pedagogical training to prepare them for their classrooms. 

TAs lead foundational experiences for their students, such as in lower division labs, which are many students’ first exposure to inquiry-based science. The first two years of undergraduate education are a crucial time for retention of young scientists, and many of their classes are these TA-led sections; thinking in the big picture, if we lose our students in these formative years, we’ll be hurting the diversity and inclusion in our scientific fields in the long run. Although professors can make a difference with their lectures — integrating inclusive practices, utilizing active learning strategies — TAs spend the most one-on-one time with their students, working in smaller, closer groups than professors have in big lectures. It is abundantly clear that TAs have a direct influence on their undergraduate students.

Although many graduate students are skilled speakers and lecturers, and are no doubt experts in their field, TAs without training rely on cultural influences, past experience, or untested beliefs about teaching. This can lead to implicit bias in the classroom, and simply poor teaching, causing harm when they have the potential for so much good. Past research has shown that simple interventions – the way in which questions are asked of students, longer wait times after asking questions, establishing the relevance of the material – can affect student learning, class discussions, student confidence, and student engagement. 

As today’s paper claims, “an understanding of GTA [graduate student TA] teaching behaviors is necessary for improvement of undergraduate instruction through GTA training and professional development.” This new study tackles the big question – how do teaching assistant behaviors/methods affect student achievement in a research-based undergraduate science laboratory course?

The authors studied a group of GTAs and their undergraduate students in a lower division, inquiry-based biology lab course. The GTAs had limited preparation through a two-day teaching workshop, a one-day lab orientation, and weekly check-in meetings with the lead lab TA; this sort of training, although minimal, is fairly standard for science courses. Their teaching methods were assessed using a teaching behavior rubric, looking for their questioning strategies, wait time after asking questions, homework discussion practices, pacing, relatable concepts, and checks for student understanding. The TAs also wrote quizzes for their courses, which were then ranked based on Bloom’s taxonomy, a framework for categorizing levels of knowledge and learning. These measures of TA methods were then correlated with student performance, as measured by their final cumulative grades.

Overall, GTA teaching methods “had a small but significant effect on student scores in this undergraduate science laboratory course.” Specifically, surveying for understanding during class led to better homework scores, and longer wait times and homework discussions led to better research project scores. The latter seems logical, given that research requires deeper thinking, and these classroom techniques help develop those critical skills. These observations have other support in education literature as well, lending more support to the claim that they are useful strategies for TAs to implement in their courses.  The authors recommend that TAs “increase wait times and feedback discussions along with incorporating relatable concepts in their classrooms to encourage higher-level student thinking. These alterations in behavior may be simple for GTAs to incorporate in their teaching practices when provided with proper training opportunities.” Measuring questioning strategies was more complicated than the other methods, too; based on their results, the authors still suggest more pedagogical training for TAs, especially on how to use open- and closed-questions in their classrooms to facilitate discussion.

TA behaviors and their effects on student homework scores. (Figure 1 in the paper)
TA behaviors and their effects on student project scores. (Figure 2 in the paper)

However, contrary to expectations, there wasn’t a strong correlation between teaching behavior and amount of experience. Given that we’ve been claiming TAs need better pedagogy training, what’s going on? The authors theorize that there are other behaviors associated with experience that were not measured, including the GTAs strictness in grading and possibly burnout. More detailed information on TA experiences would be needed to disentangle these factors. Information on what students perceive about their TAs, and how TAs perceive their own effectiveness and teaching methods, would also be useful.

Despite the mixed results, the authors still suggest more standard and thorough pedagogy training for TAs, given their crucial role in the classroom and demonstrated effect on student learning. Their recommendation? “Future GTA training opportunities should include a discussion on effective teaching behaviors and practices to encourage achievement across a spectrum of learning styles. Trainings should also highlight the implicit biases and beliefs held by GTAs to encourage recognition of the effects of their instructional methods on student learning and achievement.” 

Personally, I’d say the takeaway here is that grad students (myself included) matter in the classroom. We can have a positive impact on our students, encouraging them to pursue their interests and empowering them to do so. Or, we can lose them to boredom (or worse, scare them away from our scientific field entirely). A bit of extra training to gain the skills needed to be an effective teacher seems well worth the time it requires, especially as a graduate student TA.

What you can do:

  • Wait longer after asking questions of your students. Research shows that the ideal wait time is 7 seconds.
  • Survey for understanding. Some good options for this are clicker questions or simply asking a question of the class. In a physics class, it could be as simple as checking in and asking “does anyone have any questions about Newton’s 3rd law?” before moving on.
  • Increase discussions about homework and practice problems. For example, in a discussion section, more time could be devoted to working through practice problems with students, as opposed to lecturing at them.
  • Incorporate relatable examples. Establishing relevance is key to getting students engaged. Let’s say you’re in a physics for pre-meds course — you could make thermodynamics and pressure relevant by discussing how this relates to taking a patient’s blood pressure.
  • Learn more. The takeaway here is that there’s lots of pedagogical techniques to learn…you could find resources at your home institution, workshops to attend, and keep reading this series!

About Briley Lewis

Briley Lewis is a second-year graduate student and NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. Her research interests are primarily in planetary systems – both exoplanets and objects in our own solar system, how they form, and how we can create instruments to learn more about them. She has previously pursued her research at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and also at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD. Outside of research, she is passionate about teaching and public outreach, and spends her free time bringing together her love of science with her loves of crafting and writing.

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