Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

Comparing Student Perceptions of the Classroom Climate Created by U.S. American and International Teaching Assistants

Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

Comparing Student Perceptions of the Classroom Climate Created by U.S. American and International Teaching Assistants

Article excerpt

Introduction

Many universities and colleges across the United States rely on Teaching Assistants (TAs) to instruct undergraduate courses (Buerkel-Rothfuss & Gray, 1990; Kendall & Schussler, 2012), and the number of International Teaching Assistants (ITAs) has increased (Christian & Rybarkzyk, 2013; Gorsuch, 2003). This growing reliance on ITAs has been accompanied by student complaints, as American undergraduates have rated ITAs less favorably than American Teaching Assistants (ATAs) on teaching evaluations at both beginning and end of the semester (Jiang, 2014, Smith, Strom, & Muthuswamy, 2005; Trice, 2003). In response, there have been calls to strengthen English proficiency requirements and establish rigorous orientation training programs for ITAs (Fox & Gay, 1994; Gorsuch, 2003, 2011; Gorsuch, Meyers, Pickering, & Griffee, 2010; Hoekje & Williams, 1992; Nicklow, Marikunte, & Chevalier, 2007; Smith, Boyd, Nelson, Barrett, & Constantinides, 1992), but such efforts do little to remedy student perceptions based upon ethnocentric preconceptions of ITAs' accent or country of origin - regardless of their level of English proficiency (Kang, 2012; Yook, 1999). Yet, from the scant literature on the subject, it is evident researchers have neglected to examine if student perceptions of the classroom climate created by ITAs differs from ATAs. If perceptions of classroom climate differ, then it would be reasonable to conclude that negative student evaluations of ITAs are based on some discernable differences in approaches to instructions. If, however, perceptions of classroom climate do not differ, then it stands to reason that negative student evaluations of ITAs are triggered by other issues. Thus, the purpose of the present study is to examine possible differences in student perceptions of the classroom climate created by ITAs as compared to ATAs.

Literature Review

Classroom climate can be defined as learning environment established by instructors in the classroom (Hirschy & Wilson, 2002). Climate is perception-based and reflects how welcome, supported, and comfortable students feel in a given instructor's classroom. Sidelinger, Bolen, Frisby, and McMullen (2012) observed that "a positive climate and sense of belonging influence students' perceptions of a supportive community in the college classroom" (p. 293-294). A supportive climate can also motivate students to communicate with their instructors (Myers & Claus, 2012). Given that previous climate studies have focused solely on instructor behaviors, the next logical question is whether instructor demographics (ATAs vs. ITAs) might also influence perceptions of climate. Investigating classroom climate could determine if differences in student evaluations of ATAs and ITAs are based on classroom experiences and approaches to teaching or some other issue.

Although there is limited data comparing how undergraduate students rate ITAs versus ATAs, research suggests American undergraduates generally rate ITAs lower than ATAs on teaching evaluations (Smith et al., 2005), complain about ITAs, and report confusion and misunderstanding in classes instructed by ITAs (Clayton, 2000; Fitch & Morgan, 2003; Smith et al., 1992; Tyler, 1992). It was also found that lower Test of English-as-a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) verbal scores are related to more negative student evaluations of ITAs (Yule & Hoffman, 1990). However, the level of English proficiency alone cannot account for students' low receptivity of ITAs (Bresnahan & Kim, 1993a). Paige (1990) found that ITAs whom students perceive as vastly different from American culture are evaluated more negatively. Nelson (1990) concluded that ITA pronunciation was not a major cause of, or solution to, ITA-student misunderstandings. Yook (1999) attributed student complaints to cultural insensitivity, intolerance, and ethnocentrism. Bresnahan and Kim (1993b) found that the majority of American undergraduates were reluctant to be in a less powerful position in relationships with foreigners, which could indicate that students' existing attitude toward foreigners is a reason for their resistance to ITAs. …

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