Wednesday, August 4, 2010 - 4:40 PM

COS 65-10: Renovating a plant systematics course: A peer-to-peer network approach to training new graduate teaching assistants

Daniel J. Johnson, F. Collin Hobbs, and Katherine D. Kearns. Indiana University

Background/Question/Methods Graduate students contribute significantly to undergraduate instruction at many research universities.  However, the teaching preparation for many graduate students consists solely of brief introductions to course content; aspects of pedagogical training and in-depth understanding of course material are neglected. This leaves inexperienced graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) struggling to master course material, unable to present it in a process-oriented manner, and without the foundation necessary to assess student learning of skills and content appropriately. 
At Indiana University, B300: Vascular Plants is an upper-level plant systematics course which has four GTAs who are responsible for managing and teaching the laboratory sessions.  As GTAs are drawn from plant ecology backgrounds, they begin teaching with little experience in a core concept of the course, phylogenetic analysis.  In addition, GTA meetings have historically focused on conveying procedural knowledge.  In this study we ask the question: Will building collaborative peer-to-peer networks between experienced and first time GTAs result in more rapid adoption of more scholarly teaching practices among new GTAs?

Results/Conclusions To better prepare new GTAs for their teaching responsibilities and to promote more scholarly teaching approaches, we have implemented practices such as feedback and classroom observation that engage first time GTAs in collaborative, peer-to-peer networks with more experienced GTAs. In addition, we have incorporated a series of assignments into our weekly GTA meetings which center on acquisition of conceptual knowledge and improving pedagogical skills. These efforts were concentrated in the first few weeks of the semester in an effort to maximize of the likelihood that first time GTAs would adopt more experienced approaches to teaching, in particular with teaching methods of phylogenetic analysis.
We will describe the restructured GTA training program and present quantitative and qualitative results about the influence of this program on graduate students’ adoption of scholarly teaching approaches and attitudes. Results from end of semester student assessments will be compared between sections and across years to provide a reference for teaching effectiveness. In addition, GTA reflections on their teaching development experiences in this network will be presented and suggestions for future improvement of the process will be discussed. Recommendations for implementation of peer-to-peer networks for GTA training will be made.