Getting it Right: What’s Working in TA Training?

Getting it Right: What’s Working in TA Training?

On Friday, May 17, thirteen faculty and twenty-six graduate teaching assistants from across the university gathered together for CTL’s 19th annual conference on teaching assistant training. As CTL Director Michele Marincovich pointed out in her opening remarks, the pace of change in today’s higher education is breathtaking. While technological innovations have played an important role in these changes, the evolving nature of the academic job market has also made a huge impact. More and more, graduate students are seeking quality training in leadership skills as well as in teaching and research.

The conference took a ‘best practices’ approach for reflecting on the state of TA training at Stanford.  Teams from several different disciplines presented about how they implement TA pedagogy courses and mentoring programs.  Conference participants then formed small teams based on department and brainstormed potential steps for the future. Among all the diverse approaches, community building turned out to be the cornerstone of success. 

TA Pedagogy Courses

Steve Weitzman, Director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, took the floor to share his motivations for redesigning TA training for graduate students in Religious Studies (RELIGST 391). Citing a “profound dissatisfaction” with the way he was trained, Weitzman sought to create a course for TAs that would go beyond just teaching them how to be good researchers. He wanted to address some of the more profound questions related to teaching. “Why teach?” he asked. “What are we trying to accomplish through teaching, and what are the challenges specific to my field in terms of teaching?”

With the help of a CTL TA training grant, Weitzman redesigned the TA training program to help TAs negotiate between their own goals (as instructors) and their students’ goals, which often are not the same. He also integrated graduate students into the design of the course from the very beginning. As a team, they then market-tested the course with other graduate students before implementation. During the course, Weitzman approached students as co-collaborators. Here are three takeaways from their success.

  1. Organize the course around questions instead of topics. For example, the syllabus for week three addresses the following question: “Whatever my goals, do students want to learn what I have to teach? If not, why not, and what should I do about it?”
  2. Emphasize that teaching is not just what happens in the classroom. The course includes discussion on curriculum design, collaboration with colleagues, and mentoring.
  3. Provide professional development. For example, how do you become a professional academic? How do you deal with a dysfunctional department?

“Teaching isn’t an isolated experience that you have on your own,” said Alex Woloch, Associate Professor of English. He and Long Le-Khac, Ph.D. candidate in English, along with a pedagogical committee set up for the English Department, designed a pedagogy workshop with the help of graduate students to focus on fostering collaboration and community. A few objectives from their workshop include:

  •  framing teaching as a continual process, not a one-time event
  • encouraging self-reflection on teaching practices early on in the graduate career
  • prioritizing mentoring to help students understand that it’s not just about the preparation you do before stepping into the classroom but also what you do during the classroom that counts

According to Woloch, their course has been very successful. Like Weitzman’s course, because it was designed and implemented by graduate students, those participating in it show "no ceiling of interest."  These courses serve as a model for other departments looking to spark the interest of graduate TAs.

TA Mentoring Programs

As Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann noted during the conference, graduate TAs often need greater support once they begin teaching than they do beforehand. That’s where mentoring comes in. But there’s a challenge. “Mentors aren’t getting training on how to be a mentor,” she said. That’s why CTL launched Mentors in Teaching (MinT), a professional development opportunity for TAs to help others develop as teachers while also reflecting on their own teaching.

In an annual fall workshop, experienced TAs train to become mentors by working on goal setting, organizing observations, and delivering constructive feedback, among other targeted skills. MinT also sponsors round-table discussions throughout the year with people from all over the university to allow for a cross-pollination of ideas.

What’s working for mentoring at Stanford? To answer the question, Nancy Kollmann, Professor of History, and Annelise Heinz, Ph.D. candidate in History, spoke about the History Department’s excellent mentoring program (HIST 305). The key goals of that program are to:

  • emphasize teaching as inherently collaborative
  • maintain an online archive of course materials available to all currently enrolled grad students
  • provide a structure (bi-quarterly lunch) so that TAs’ desire to meet and discuss pedagogy is actually fulfilled

Another, more formal approach to mentoring, shared by Ryan Moniz, Ph.D. candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering, is a self-development seminar required of all TAs in his program (CEE 200). The seminar is designed to get TAs to set clear goals for their own teaching, to make a plan outlining steps to achieve those goals, and to adopt a method for evaluating their progress. Students are required to meet with their advising faculty member to collaborate in goal setting as well as interpreting mid- and end-of-quarter evaluations. This helps sustain a healthy dialogue between TA and faculty.

In a department where most TAs are terminal Master's students not headed into academic teaching jobs, this kind of seminar is designed to be self-directed to maximize TAs’ interest in the course. The seminar is geared toward developing teaching skills that are transferable to other environments. These skills include public speaking and understanding diverse learning styles to better communicate with people in any environment.

Mariatte Denman, CTL’s Associate Director for Humanities, said that while distinct, the mentoring programs of the Departments of History and Civil and Environmental Engineering have one shared goal: community building.  In addition, she added, if you asked representatives from other departments to speak about their mentoring program, they would likely share yet another approach, one best suited for their disciplinary needs. CTL is excited to be able to embrace that specificity and to help develop programs best suited to each department. What's important to all of the mentoring programs at Stanford, Denman said, is that they create a real “infrastructure” for learning to be better TAs.

Group Discussion

Building the right kind of infrastructure means depending on those with the expertise to design it. At this point in the conference, faculty and TAs formed teams based on department and put their heads together to reflect on the current state of their department’s pedagogy and mentoring programs. A glance around the room revealed inspired smiles, lots of nodding, and a collective rapt attention - signs of the great conversation going on. This kind of engagement between faculty and TAs helped each department to reflect on achieved success and to engage the potential for improvements.

CTL Resources

CTL has a number of exciting ways to help build that infrastructure. Robyn Dunbar, CTL’s Senior Associate Director for Science and Engineering, highlighted just a few during her closing remarks:

  • Stanford Teaching Commons – An online forum to build a teaching community across topics and across disciplines.
  • Learning Matters - A series of workshops and programs providing a conversational space for those who normally don’t talk about challenges of teaching and learning to do so. Picture an undergrad, a teaching assistant, and a professor talking about what makes for effective instruction.
  • TA Training Grants – Funding for departments that wish to establish a new teaching assistant training program or to enhance an existing program.

With ‘community’ being the word of the day, it seemed fitting that the lively discussion begun during the workshop afterwards flowed into the lobby and drifted back into the halls of our respective departments where faculty and TAs will, hopefully, continue to engage each other in such good company.

Please join our conversation by sharing your own ideas about TA training and mentoring below.

Anna Koester Marshall is a doctoral candidate in Iberian and Latin American Studies.

This post was slightly edited on 5/25/13.  Correction 6/2/13:  the History online resource is available to all currently enrolled grad students, not only TAs as previously reported.  The text has been updated.