Knowledge or Feelings: First-Year Students' Perceptions of Graduate Teaching Assistants in Engineering

By Cox, Monica F.; Zhu, Jiabin et al. | The Journal of Faculty Development, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Knowledge or Feelings: First-Year Students' Perceptions of Graduate Teaching Assistants in Engineering


Cox, Monica F., Zhu, Jiabin, Cekic, Osman, Chavela, Rocio, London, Jeremi, The Journal of Faculty Development


In a first-year engineering course with an enrollment of approximately 1900 students per year, seventy-eight undergraduate engineering students' perceptions of their graduate teaching assistants were obtained using a modified Adjective Generation Technique. Based upon student feedback, researchers identified three themes of highest concern to the students: graduate teaching assistants' knowledge levels, their overall effectiveness, and their approachability. Examining the sequence of reflective words and informed by current literature, researchers found that most undergraduate students initially emphasized the knowledge level and the overall effectiveness (i.e., academic traits) of their graduate teaching assistants and then referred to the approachability of teaching assistants (i.e., personal traits).

Internationally, graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are major players in the higher education experiences of undergraduate students and are being employed in increasingly greater numbers at institutions in the United States and Europe. While faculty at European universities have relatively limited experiences in the use of GTAs in undergraduate classes (Park, 2004), GTAs play an important role in the U.S. higher education system and hold recognized and accepted legitimate instructional positions. The core tasks expected of GTAs may vary greatly. Sample GTA roles include leading classroom discussions; supervising laboratory sections; holding office hours; grading exams, assignments or papers; supervising students in laboratories as they complete class projects and reports; overseeing the use of laboratory equipment; and modifying laboratory projects (Occupational Information Network, 2009). GTAs may also help to teach undergraduate courses at many higher education institutions alongside faculty (Allen & Rueter, 1990; Nyquist, Abbott, Wulff, & Sprague, 1991).

Especially in science and engineering fields, GTAs provide additional instructional support to students, particularly within laboratories. Based on an estimate from I232O graduate departments at 586 institutions in the U.S. and its territories, the percentage of graduate teaching assistantships granted in science and engineering increased by 13.2 % between 1999 and 2006 (NSF, 2008). The escalating utilization of GTAs demonstrates the need for empirical studies that explore the roles of GTAs during their graduate school careers and undergraduate students' perceptions of GTAs in these roles (Forster «Sc Thompson, 1997).

In response to this need and because of the critical roles that GTAs play in shaping the early development of students into engineers and team players, the current study was conducted among a sample of seventy-eight undergraduate engineering students representing five sections of a course taught by five GTAs with varied levels of experience. Using a modified Adjective Generation Technique (AGT) (Potkay & Allen, 1988) in which undergraduate students used five self-selected words to describe their GTA, the researchers aim to explore how first-year students perceive their GTAs in an introductory engineering course. The students' responses are classified into two major dimensions - academic traits and personal traits. The findings from this study identify differing perceptions of firstyear students across GTAs who received similar training and among students engaged in identical course content.

Literature Review

There are multiple ways to provide feedback to GTAs. The feedback can come from the coordinator/supervisor of GTAs (Prieto & Meyers, 2001), from self -reflections by the GTAs (Prieto & Meyers, 1999; Bond-Robinson, 2000), or from undergraduate students' evaluations (Black & Kaplan, 1997). Student reflections are used most often to give GTAs feedback about their teaching practices. Student feedback might occur via group discussions, written course evaluations, or surveys (Black & Kaplan, 1997). …

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