Enhancing Undergraduate Engineering Education Quality through Teaching Assistants (Tutors/demonstrators)

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

There has been an increase in the number of students entering tertiary education institutions in the past decades, and this increase has had an influence on the staffing situation. Like other discipline areas that have experienced a rapid growth in student uptake, engineering education now relies on a large pool of sessional (non-tenured, part-time or casual) staff to teach in undergraduate programs. This paper outlines a teaching development program (TDP) for tutors/demonstrators/teaching assistants (TAs) that was initiated in the Faculty of Engineering at an Australian university. The ultimate aim of the project was to improve the quality of undergraduate engineering education provided by the university. The main impetus for the project was the feedback from undergraduate students regarding the quality of the learning environment in the laboratories and in other classes that support lectures. The student feedback showed that most TAs were not actively facilitating the learning process. The TAs referred to in the project reported here are mainly graduate or postgraduate students in engineering; a few of them (less than 30%) had completed a higher degree outside of Australia.

2 BACKGROUND: SESSIONAL TEACHING DILEMMA

Sessional teachers (academic staff members or TAs) are typically employed on short-term contracts (non-tenure track) or on a casual basis. Some discipline areas in universities employ specialist or industry experts as sessional teachers. Employment of sessional teachers in universities has been reported as a growing trend in many parts of the world (Barrington, 1999; Charfauros & Tierney, 1999; Haeger, 1998; Lueddeke, 1997; Park, 2004; Puplampu, 2004), and this trend has been identified in Australia (Jacobs, 1998). Like institutions elsewhere, the increasing student intake into the Faculty of Engineering at a large university in Australia (where the study discussed in this paper was undertaken) necessitated an increase in the employment of sessional teachers, that is industry experts on non-tenure track, as well as graduate and postgraduate students as TAs.

While sessional staff can be expected to have sufficient discipline specific knowledge for their roles in the universities, they are generally inexperienced teachers. TAs in particular rarely would have had the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills relevant to teaching. The issue of preparing graduate or postgraduate students as researchers, as well as teachers, has been discussed for a long time. For example, Nyquist et al (1989) cited various discussions that have been held regarding this issue since 1930, and state that many questions remained unanswered. An early investigation of programs that were designed to prepare university TAs in the United States of America (USA) identified that new teachers need help in both teaching content and teaching method (Weimer et al, 1989). Recognition of this need led to the development of the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program which is a collaborative initiative with input from about 300 institutions in the USA. However not every discipline is well represented in the PFF program. Wankat (1999) lamented the poor participation of engineering colleges in the PFF program, and argued that ideally education in pedagogy should be part of a PhD program in graduate schools, and that "students should first take a TA training course and be a TA, then take an educational methods course, and finally do supervised teaching under the guidance of a faculty mentor" (Wankat, 1999, p. 473). More recently, the need for supporting teaching development among TAs is substantiated by studies that explored the possible impact of their teaching on student learning, in particular the effect on student retention (O'Neal et al, 2007; Smith & Coombe, 2006).

The situation in Australia mirrors that of the USA to some extent. In a discussion of the Australian higher education sector, the issues that the sector has to address included the following: "a very significant proportion of graduating students are unhappy with their experience at university" and "much of our teaching and its support is being undertaken by a large under-class of academics and support staff for whom our systems have traditionally not catered" (Coaldrake, 1999). …