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Teaching duties found to vary for teaching assistants

Despite university-wide guidelines on the training and evaluating of teaching assistants, a new survey shows that standards vary greatly across campus.

Psychology Professor Russell Fernald, who chairs the Sub-committee on the Evaluation and Improvement of Teaching, told the Faculty Senate on May 22 that it's easier to pass legislation than to guarantee its oversight.

"There's no way for teaching assistants to be uniformly trained," he said. "This puts them in a real bind."

Fernald presented an interim report that highlights discrepancies in training teaching assistants or T.A.s, a job that involves mostly graduate students. He said that in the nine departments of the sciences, students are expected to teach for at least three quarters, even though only two of the nine departments provide training and materials. In the six departments in social sciences, students are expected to teach for at least four quarters, yet only two departments offer training and materials. In the 12 humanities departments, students are expected to teach for at least five quarters, but only eight departments offer training and six provide materials. And in eight departments in engineering, only two departments provide training, and just one offers materials.

"Because no one has taken responsibility for oversight and implementation of the TA training process, there is little consistency to TA training throughout the university," stated the overview. Fernald's group, under the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement, plans to make recommendations next fall to promote consistency.

"We plan to propose mechanisms for assuring the oversight as the senate mandated, to encourage sound teaching practices which will enhance the classroom experiences of students," the report states.

Physics graduate student Douglas Natelson, who attended the senate meeting, said the review was prompted by a resolution passed in January 1996 by the Associated Students' Committee on Academics Research and Evaluation (CARE).

Natelson, who chaired CARE until recently, said that the last study on training and evaluating teaching assistants took place in 1987-88. Another study started in 1990-91, but it was never completed because people involved changed positions during the university's fiscal crisis.

Natelson said that compliance with existing policies is spotty. "Some departments do a good job and some apparently don't," he said. As a teaching assistant, Natelson said he was satisfied with the training he received through the Physics Department. But campuswide oversight is difficult, he added, because the teaching takes place on a departmental level. Natelson wants the university to establish a regular mechanism for reviewing TAs every few years.

"Without TAs it would be difficult to run a lot of classes, especially larger ones," he said. "If you want to improve teaching, you should make it a priority."

Natelson said graduate TAs are often put in a bind trying to divide their time between research and teaching. "Faculty know it's a good thing to teach but it's not in the faculty's best interest to have students teaching instead of doing research," he said. "Don't tell graduate students to do it but not to spend any time on it."


By Lisa Trei