Research Methodologies in Science Education: Training Graduate Teaching Assistants to Teach

Article excerpt

Jason, a junior faculty member in a geoscience department, has been asked by his chair to take over the training of graduate teaching assistants in the department. He was chosen mainly because he has attended a few teaching workshops and has been trying some new teaching approaches in his introductory geology course. Jason is not sure how one should structure a program to build graduate students' teaching skills. He begins with a literature search in the science education literature to find what other science departments are doing to prepare graduate students for their teaching roles. What are the key items that should be in a professional development program for graduate student instructors? He quickly finds that although many science departments have published articles describing their approach to developing graduate students' teaching skills, very few of these programs have ever been evaluated. So Jason starts a more general search through the literature focusing on teaching approaches that have some research base. His plan is to build a professional development program for graduate student instructors around research-based approaches. In this column, we chronicle Jason's progress, summarize the research in this area and highlight the areas where more research is needed.

Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) play a prominent role in undergraduate education at higher education institutions. They are frequently utilized to instruct courses in a cost efficient manner, with the rationale that the experience will prepare them for careers in academia. In fact, GTAs instruct the majority of undergraduate laboratories and discussion sections at research universities (Travers, 1989). As instructors, GTAs frequently make instructional, curricular, and assessment decisions throughout their courses. They decide how information should be presented, what concepts should be emphasized, and how to evaluate student work. Unfortunately, GTAs often make these decisions with little guidance from faculty. By involving GTAs in college science education reform now, we can advance reform efforts, both in the short term, by increasing the quality of instruction in undergraduate science laboratories and discussion sections, and in the long term, when these graduates move on to permanent faculty positions and develop and teach both undergraduate and/or graduate courses.

Regrettably, GTAs are often subjected to training programs that offer limited instructional support regarding the teaching of science (Carroll, 1980; Rushin et al., 1997; Golde and Dore, 2001) and they often experience limited support for developing their teaching skills from their departments or advisors (Jones, 1993; Golde and Dore, 2001). In a recent study that surveyed over 4000 doctoral students across disciplines from 27 universities in the U.S., 83% of doctoral students responding to the survey cited enjoyment of teaching as their main reason for pursuing a faculty career (as opposed to 72% who cited enjoyment of research as the primary reason), yet most students lamented the lack of training they received to develop their teaching skills (Golde and Dore, 2001; full text of the report is available online at http://www.phd-survey.org). This comment is representative of many doctoral students in the sciences:

"I have always considered teaching my main reason for pursuing an academic degree. I am amazed at how little preparation I am receiving in how to teach. I am still planning on pursuing a teaching position but am filling in the gaps in education and preparation on my own time with little encouragement from my academic program - quote from a molecular biology doctoral student. (Golde and Dore, 2001)

Literature on GTA Training Programs in the Sciences

It is estimated that by 2014, 500,000 new professors will be teaching at American colleges and universities (Jones, 1993). Improving undergraduate education for current and future students will depend upon thoughtful and careful attention to the training of these future faculty members, especially in light of the fact that the reason many undergraduate students cite for abandoning science majors is poor teaching (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). …