Teaching Assistants (TAs) contribute significantly to teaching undergraduate science courses at universities, yet little is documented about TAs’ knowledge of effective teaching and learning, how TA professional development programs contribute to their beliefs, and how these opportunities correlate with instructional practice. Anecdotal evidence about TA professional development suggests that they are learning how to implement teacher-centered instruction, rather than inquiry-based, active learning strategies focused on the learner. Furthermore, less is understood about the effect of TAs’ knowledge of biology on their instructional design and practice. Since scientific teaching requires understanding of both science content and effective pedagogy, TAs should receive preparation in both. We predict that if TAs gain understanding of scientific teaching from TA professional development programs, then we will see more effective design and implementation of scientific teaching in their laboratory sections.
The population of TAs in this study taught introductory biology laboratories for science majors. Variables in the professional development model we tested included surveys on the nature of science and teaching and learning, teaching philosophies, assessments, objectives, and videotapes of teaching and weekly preparation meetings. Survey data and philosophies were coded and analyzed with rubrics. Assessments and objectives were analyzed for alignment and Bloom’s level. Videotapes of teaching were analyzed using the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol to describe instructional design and implementation, knowledge, communication and student/teacher relationships. Analysis of TA meetings described the alignment of their preparation with classroom practice. Descriptive statistics, correlations, and individual learning gains were determined.
TAs reported that they modeled their instructional practice on their experiences as a student, not on the preparation meetings. However, evidence from observational data indicated TAs’ instruction mimics the weekly preparation meetings. This suggests that while TAs say they are modeling their teaching based on prior experiences, the preparation meetings actually provide an opportunity to influence TA instructional design and classroom practice. Preparation meetings currently devote a majority of the time to lecturing to TAs about biology content rather than engaging TAs with the content in the context of developing learning outcomes and strategies to help students achieve them. Initial data suggest that TA-designed assessments of student learning are all at knowledge and comprehension levels, few address higher-level thinking. As a whole, these data support our design for reforming TA preparation programs.