We used backward design to enhance an underutilized peer mentoring program for teaching assistants (TAs) in the Biology Program at a large Midwestern research university. Social constructivist theory suggests that learning progresses further when it takes place in a social context, and within the peer mentoring program, TAs are the learners. Peer mentoring provides a structure for a novice TA to learn alongside a more experienced TA. Over time, the novice TA becomes more fully participatory in a teaching community of practice, with both novice and experienced TAs progressing toward expertise. Because the Biology Program prioritizes student-centered instruction and ongoing TA professional development, participation in the teaching community of practice reinforces institutional priorities.
Objectives for the peer mentoring program enhancement were to increase the quantity (participation) and quality of interactions between experienced TA peer mentors and novice TAs. Following a needs assessment of current and recent TAs, we developed a workshop to help prepare experienced TAs for mentoring. We also revised the guidelines for mentoring pairs to encourage use of backward design to identify objectives, plan activities, and assess progress. The workshop and revised guidelines were implemented at the start of Spring semester 2014.
The number of TAs participating in the peer mentoring program increased in the two years following program enhancement. Additionally, the pool of available mentors has grown as we have continued offering the mentoring workshop every semester. Some workshop participants have gone on to mentor novice TAs in multiple terms, and some mentored novices have later become mentors themselves. TAs have informally mentioned that they feel better prepared to assume the role of a mentor following the workshop. Ongoing program assessment allows us to assess whether the peer mentoring program remains effective. Workshop participants complete a survey about the utility of the workshop. In group meetings held every 1-2 semesters, mentors provide additional feedback on the program and the functionality of mentoring pairs.
In an ongoing research study, we are assessing the impacts of peer mentoring on the teaching anxiety, attitudes, and behaviors of novice TAs. Our Biology Program requires that TAs engage in ongoing professional development each term they teach. In this way, the Program provides a structure that encourages sustained participation in peer mentoring. Departments that do not have similar requirements may benefit from conducting their own needs assessment to find ways to incorporate peer mentoring into existing structures.