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Undergraduate TAs Provide Valuable Assistance, Especially During Time of Hybrid Instruction
Maxwell School Professor Bill Coplin has worked with undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) in his courses since 1974. Their assistance has become more valuable, given the shift to online courses in the spring and hybrid instruction this fall.
TAs provide real-time feedback, bring a sophisticated understanding of digital applications and offer the student perspective, says Coplin, chair of policy studies and a Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professors of Teaching Excellence.
“You have to listen to your students,” Coplin says. “And the way to listen is to work with TAs because they went through it, plus they know what faculty want.”
Coplin is one of a few Meredith Professors who Syracuse University News interviewed to discuss their preparation for the semester and how they are addressing the challenges presented by social distancing guidelines in their teaching. Meredith Professors are recognized by their peers, students and the public at large for the outstanding teaching they do at the University. This group of professors are also members of the Meredith Symposium, a forum for discussing teaching and learning.
Coplin shares the benefits of working with TAs for students, faculty members and the TAs and the value they bring to the classroom.
What are the advantages of having undergraduate TAs in your courses?
The main benefit to working with undergraduate TAs is that they provide real-time feedback for my plans. They let me know that a PowerPoint presentation is not clear, or that I have too many slides. Their perspective helps me to simplify more. A big challenge for professors is meeting students at their level of understanding. Educators call it “scaffolding,” where you start students on the first step at the beginning so they can build a foundation to climb the stairs. I feel very strongly that if more faculty worked with undergraduate TAs, their teaching would be more accessible.
Another huge value to me is that TAs are digital natives. For me, Blackboard has a learning curve. But for students, Blackboard feels intuitive. I can ask them to help me put information online. Zoom is another example. I don’t have to learn everything from scratch to put together a quality online course.
And if we’re in a class, undergraduate TAs help me with the online class. I have about 17 students helping in my courses this fall. This allows me to make the class much more personalized. Each of the TAs will work closely with about six or seven students to make sure communications are clear.
Did having undergraduate TAs help your transition to distance learning in the spring?
As soon as we had to go online, I asked the TAs, “What should I do?” They came up with very easy solutions that reduced my effort and made my course work for the Spring 2019 semester because there was such an unexpected time crunch. I am proud of the solutions we came up with. For instance, they suggested that I review PowerPoints and record myself talking about them; I didn’t even know you could do that. I tried that and it worked out pretty well, and now we’ve revamped the course for the fall and working more to get many more complicated things in.
How do the TAs assist in the classroom?
I divide the class into groups of seven, and each group is assigned a TA. And then each group competes. Based on the group work, every member is given extra credit points, and then I add a leader board. This competition encourages most students to play the game. The TAs can see if groups are having trouble and can coach them in team exercises, which are designed to help the students do well on their written assignments.
What are some practical tips for faculty interested in hiring an undergraduate TA?
Ask one student to help them at first. Once a student helps a faculty member in class, I’m willing to bet the faculty will never move away from this model. They’ll see how much value that brings and how much easier it builds and fine-tunes their course. With that experience, the faculty member can figure how many TAs are needed and what they should do. I select TAs based on their grade (they must have at last an A- in the course), and an interview process held by the existing TAs. The existing TAs will be on the lookout for their replacements, as well as recruit the new TAs. Faculty should start small and build the TA help organically.
There are also obvious benefits for the students. Students learn how to work with faculty, not just game them or game the course. Students learn to learn from faculty who are getting better at teaching. Undergraduate TAs develop leadership skills, and students who may not be TAs also learn to observe themselves and notice what they’re good at. They learn to speak up.
I just received an email from somebody who got a job, and she thanked me. She said, “I just went into this interview, and they started asking me what I was good at. And I gave them examples, ‘Well, I did this, I did this and I did this,’ and they hired me.” And she said, “I never would have thought of that except for having been in your course.” The student knew to not talk about how good she was but to give specific experiences that showed how good she was. She did this because when we interviewed her for a TA position, she told me that she was a great leader, and I told her to give me evidence—don’t give me your opinion of yourself. Responsive teaching in the moment is the value of working with undergraduate TAs for the students and the faculty.