Teaching Assistant Development through a Fresh Lens: A Self-Determination Framework

Article excerpt

Self-determination Theory (SDT) presents critical constructs and processes for understanding and improving human learning and development. Though actively utilized as a theoretical framework for K-12 and adult training research, it has been virtually ignored in TA professional development design and research. Self-determination and the process of internalization present tremendous potential not only for informing individual TA learning and skill development, but also for addressing the contextual and organizational issues that present historic challenges to effective TA development programs. It presents this potential because it frames an integrative model for understanding both internal and external factors to explain human action, which informs a systemic perspective on TA development and practice. While we can draw principles for the value of SDT for TA development from other contexts, direct and intentional research is needed on a host of issues related to SDT in TA professional development. This chapter examines the research done in SDT on which TA development can draw productively, and generates questions and directions for explicit research on TAs that can further build knowledge development for scholars and practitioners.

Why Self-determination Theory for TA Professional Development?

Self-determination theory (SDT) presents critical frameworks for understanding and improving human learning and development (Deci, 1995). However, it has been sadly underused in TA professional development design and research. There is much that we can import from the body of research in SDT, but there is also much more room for research that would demonstrate its direct and appropriate application in TA professional development. This chapter will synthesize findings in SDT from other contexts, and the small amount that exists with TAs, to inform research in the field and frame some directions for TA research using SDT.

Over the past decade, there has been a long overdue shift to treating TA roles as an essential component of graduate students' professional development, rather than merely an aside that earns money for the real education in the major discipline (Edmond, 2010). While some doctoral students may not imagine teaching as a key component of their long-term professional agenda, many do end up teaching more than they planned (Sandi-Urena, Cooper & Gatlin, 2011). Particularly with limited and shrinking TA funds, many graduate students end up teaching in other institutions, such as community colleges, while they pursue graduate degrees (Eddy, 2005; Gibson-Harman, Rodriguez & Haworth, 2002). They need to be adequately prepared for the demands of the job, and many currently are not well-prepared (McGoldrick, Hoyt & Colander, 2010). These realities have fostered a body of work that includes supporting teacher identity development as integral to the career trajectory (Hardré & Chen, 2006; Sandi-Urena et al, 2011). To the extent that TAs fill instructional roles in undergraduate courses, their teaching expertise has direct and indirect effects on the quality of foundational undergraduate instruction (Fox & Hackerman, 2003). Socializing them to take that role seriously will have a critical impact on the quality of undergraduate education (Gaff & Lambert, 1996).

Historically, much of TA professional development has focused primarily on either content delivery or classroom management (Seymour, 2005), to the exclusion of factors such as grounding in learning theory and metacognitive reflection. Assuming that they are teaching basic courses in their majors or closely related disciplines (which is most often true), TAs already possess advanced content knowledge. What they lack is learning theory and principles, which explain why and how people learn, as well as instructional design as a framework to put that knowledge into practice (Hardré, 2005). Even for those who do not pursue careers in acadème, this combination of strategic knowledge, which includes communication, complex problem-solving, and evaluation, can enhance professional performance in nearly any context (McGoldrick et al, 2010). …