TAs produce a lot of materials. Whether it’s in-class worksheets, take-home vocabulary sheets, pre-lab exercises, or exam study guides, most TAs spend much of their teaching preparation time making materials. Yet many TAs spend their time producing redundant materials -- materials that have already been produced by past TAs of the course -- and fail to improve upon what past TAs have done. But what can departments do to help TAs produce the most effective materials for their students?
There is a lot of evidence that well-made materials help students learn. Handouts and take-home guides acknowledge that not all students are audio learners. They also offer an additional point of contact with students after they've left the classroom. Worksheets and quizzes can help get students actively engaged in their learning -- one of the most important findings to come out of recent education research. Finally, syllabi, assignment descriptions and rubrics can help establish learning goals and set clear expectations for student performance so that students know what they’re trying to learn and how they’ll be evaluated.
If evidence suggests that TAs should invest time in producing materials, what could be improved about the process? First, TAs should spend their time wisely. Why produce a study guide for an exam if a past TA has already produced that material? That’s hardly a good use of teaching preparation time. But if TAs don’t know who produced that material, or if the class hasn’t been recently taught, it may not be easy to track down materials from the past.
Second, we want TAs to spend their time working from what worked well for past TAs. Instead of reinventing the proverbial wheel, we want them making improvements and refinements to build on what other TAs have produced. This institutional learning -- the idea of building on the best practices of the past to produce even better practices for the future -- is essential for courses, departments and the university as a whole. For the sake of teaching effectiveness and teacher prep time, we need a way of facilitating this institutional learning.
The first step towards getting TAs to spend time making materials in a different way is knowing what we've made in the past. With the help of a VPTL TA Training grant, the Political Science department took the first step last year to implementing a plan to assemble TA teaching materials. We initiated a new online TA Materials Repository hosted on Stanford Box to allow TAs to upload materials that they've used in the past. This centralized repository allows past materials to be collected in one easy-to-access place.
This repository also begins to improve institutional learning by allowing new TAs to download materials, edit them, and use them in their own classes. Crucially, we asked and emphasized that TAs upload materials that they thought worked well when they used them -- materials that were successful -- and asked TAs to upload materials in editable formats so that the next users could make changes and, ideally, improvements.
Although the Political Science department’s TA Materials Repository has barely one academic quarter of use, anecdotal evidence already suggests that TAs are using the materials and find them helpful. We look forward to gathering more evidence in the future about how TAs are using materials, which they find useful, and what about the overall repository could be improved.