Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Development of Undergraduate Teaching Assistants as Effective Instructors in STEM Courses

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Development of Undergraduate Teaching Assistants as Effective Instructors in STEM Courses

Article excerpt

Like many postsecondary institutions, our university has a mandate to improve the retention of students majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. We are addressing this challenge by implementing, evaluating, and refining a student-centered instructional program (Kober, 2015; Labov, Singer, George, Schweingruber, & Hilton, 2009). This study is contextualized in a STEM retention improvement initiative that integrates key leverage points highlighted in the literature: It is focused on engaging interventions in introductory STEM courses (Kober, 2015; Perez, Cromley, & Kaplan, 2014); it aims to directly impact actions in the classroom including research-based support for student learning and informal career guidance (Abdul-alim, 2011; Chapin, Wiggins, & Martin-Morris, 2014; Sheppard et al., 2010); and, most important, it is embedded in a university-wide effort to identify and institutionalize successful STEM retention strategies (Henderson, Beach, & Finkelstein, 2011).

The main objective of this initiative was to design a program that could prepare cohorts of undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) to serve as the linchpins for elevating instructional practices in STEM introductory courses at a research-intensive university. What distinguishes this UTA program is that it seeks to meet the learning needs of thousands of introductory-level STEM students across nine STEM disciplinary departments. Reproducibility and sustainability necessitated the development of a joint UTA training and support program that is nonetheless tailored to prepare each UTA with a common skill set as they assume roles and responsibilities unique to the teaching needs of the nine participating departments (described next). The UTAs are trained and mentored by a multidisciplinary team of science education faculty and STEM disciplinary faculty from each participating STEM department. We postulated that the active involvement of STEM faculty would validate the program for the UTAs as an important professional development experience, and the participation of science education faculty would ensure that research-based student-centered instructional strategies were integrated into the training. The envisioned collaboration of faculty across three colleges was ambitious, but it demonstrated the interdisciplinary support for improved STEM learning and student retention by our university.

The purpose of this study was to examine the initial experiences of the UTAs involved in such a broad-based program. We describe the training and support program, as well as an analysis of both survey responses and open-ended reflections by the UTAs. Subsequent studies will report on the comparison of student outcomes for students who have trained and supported UTAs and those who have traditional, untrained graduate teaching assistants (GTAs).

UTA programs

At our university, busy GTAs rarely opt for formal training in learning theory or discipline-specific pedagogy. In contrast, undergraduate STEM students are not under pressure to publish a dissertation, so their motivation to participate in a teaching opportunity comes from wanting professional development and to help their peers. One UTA stated, "I just wanted my students to have a better learning experience than I had in general chemistry."

UTAs have been used to engage students in learning and to act as intermediaries between a course professor and students in that course. UTAs can serve as an effective social comparison for their less-experienced peers because they have been recently successful in the same introductory STEM courses (Wheeler, Martin, & Suls, 1997). Our UTA program integrates features from previously successful UTA and peer mentoring programs using engaging learning activities (e.g., Amaral & Vala, 2009; Chapin et al., 2014; Gafney & Varma-Nelson, 2007; Gosser et al, 1996; Otero, Finkelstein, McCray, & Pollock, 2006; Otero, Pollock, & Finkelstein, 2010; Popejoy & Asala, 2013; Romm, Gordon-Messer, & Kosinski-Collins, 2010; Schalk, McGinnis, Harring, Hendrickson, & Smith, 2009; Tien, Roth, & Kampmeier, 2002; Weidert, Wendorf, Gurung, & Filz, 2012). …

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