August 1994



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Susan R. McKay

Many graduate students encounter their first experiences teaching a physics laboratory or class when they become teaching assistants (TAs), often in a new setting where they know no one well enough to feel comfortable discussing this new role. Frequently this transition from student to teacher occurs with very little guidance or instruction. In particular, the new TA may receive some directions about the content of the teaching assignment, but general considerations and expectations for them as teachers are often left unaddressed.

The training program begun last fall in the University of Maine's Physics and Astronomy Department is designed to provide TAs with information on general issues related to teaching, as well as give them the opportunity to meet other teachers in the department and get to know them early in the semester. This training can smooth the transition for new TAs and give them more confidence as they begin their duties. The program also focuses attention on teaching and its importance at a time when new graduate students might otherwise be too busy with moving, registering for courses, and finding their way around campus to give their teaching much thought.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Maine has sixteen TAs, each of whom teaches introductory classes, workshops or laboratories and grades their students' homework and lab reports. For many undergraduates, the TA is their first and most extensive personal contact within the department; thus, the way the TA treats each student can be crucial in establishing that student's view of physics and astronomy at the University. A well-prepared, approachable, professional TA who communicates effectively with students can really enhance their learning, while a bad TA sends students scrambling to transfer to another course or section.

An important aspect of this training program is its timing; reaching TAs before they actually begin their duties enables the department to explain the expectations and standards required of TAs. From the beginning, the TA is aware of how duties should be conducted and who to contact with questions or concerns. The training began with four sessions during the first week of classes and continued with several lunch-time meetings throughout the semester. Before these TAs met their students for the first time, they had heard introductory remarks on the department and its expectations of TAs by the department chair, participated in a panel discussion on teaching strategies for a diverse student body, attended a presentation and discussion on sexual harassment, and met in small groups to discuss course-specific strategies for effective teaching and fair grading. Also included in the first week's program were a pizza dinner and a couple of other refreshment breaks so that TAs had a chance to talk informally with other TAs and faculty.

The department chair's remarks set the tone for the semester, emphasizing the importance of the TAs' duties and the expectation that they would work hard to do their best as teachers. He provided a brief overview of the introductory courses and the students who take them, particularly warning TAs that they may find students with very weak math backgrounds in their classes. He also described the kind of professional conduct that is expected of every TA, stressing such practices as beginning classes and labs on time, being well prepared, holding office hours as scheduled, treating all students with respect, reporting missing or troubled students, watching for and reporting instances of cheating, and establishing a fair and consistent grading system. His remarks probably surprised no one in the room, but they established a common framework for future discussions.

Next, teaching assistants attended a presentation and discussion of sexual harassment run by the campus Office of Equal Opportunity and oriented toward new situations that might arise now that the graduate students are staff members. They were instructed, for example, how to handle a situation in which a student reports a possible instance of sexual harassment by another student to them and told that their dating students in the classes and labs that they teach is not acceptable.

The third meeting, a panel discussion of teaching strategies for a diverse student body, included as panelists some of the best teaching assistants from the department and a couple of faculty from other departments specializing in communication strategies. These faculty participants provided handouts that listed specific suggestions for establishing positive patterns of communication between students and the teacher in a classroom or laboratory. Items from the handouts that were highlighted in the discussions included ways to encourage women and minority students in science both inside and outside the classroom and communication styles that favored participation by a large number of students rather than dominance of classroom discussion by only a few students. Strategies for handling a disruptive or rude student, identifying students' areas of difficulty (Is it math, physics, lack of communication skills, etc.?), getting students to participate and be active learners in class and lab, and intervening to help lab groups with interpersonal difficulties were also discussed. This panel gave new TAs an awareness of some of the issues that can arise in teaching and, perhaps more importantly, provided the opportunity for them to become better acquainted with experienced TAs and faculty who could help them with situations in their own classes and labs.

The fourth session consisted of separate meetings of TAs with faculty members coordinating their particular course and the other teaching assistants within their course. One objective of this session was to establish more uniform grading standards for homework and lab reports, so that students in different sections would be graded comparably. The faculty member also provided guidelines for what should be emphasized in both teaching and grading and the procedures that needed to be followed to keep the course running smoothly and on schedule. This meeting gave the TA information about how classes, workshops, and labs fit into the general structure of the course.

Once the semester was underway, training continued using two types of meetings: informal discussions of how things were going and improvements that could be implemented in the introductory courses, and meetings with outside speakers discussing topics related to research in physics education. These sessions were designed to build a sense of teaching community within the department and retain the focus on teaching which had been established during the first week.

How did all of this work? The consensus among faculty and TAs is that providing some type of training at the beginning of the semester is definitely a good idea. Familiarity with the topics covered in last fall's program is essential for new TAs and can help them start teaching better, minimizing major mid-semester corrections. Also, having teachers get together at the beginning of the semester and become acquainted was valued by both TAs and faculty. This early training stresses the importance of quality teaching within the department. Some TAs felt that more meetings should be held during the semester as a follow-up, to encourage TAs to remain focused on improving their teaching. Others suggested that course credit should be given to TAs attending and participating in this series of training sessions. These ideas and modifications are still being considered for next year's program, but the strategy of providing general training to make the transition from student to teacher a positive one for new TAs has definitely proved worth continuing.

+ This training program was supported by a grant from the Women in the Curriculum Program at the University of Maine.

Susan McKay is Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Maine in Orono. Her research focuses on theoretical study of magnetic systems, including spin glasses.