Posted December 2, 2005 Atlanta
Communications and Marketing
Contact David Terraso
The Mathematics Teaching Assistant Development Seminar at the Georgia Institute of Technology is the recipient of the 2005 Regents' Teaching Excellence Award in the Department/Program Division. The program originated in 1995 as a way to address communication difficulties between math students and international teaching assistants. Since then, it has expanded to provide training for all new teaching assistants (TAs) in the School of Mathematics, resulting in better ratings from students in their course/instructor opinion surveys.
"I spent a semester observing TAs in their classes, talking with professors and students to see what we might do to improve the situation," said Cathy Jacobson, English as a Second Language consultant/instructor in the School of Mathematics.
The situation was that some math students had difficulty understand and communicating with the TAs whose native language wasn't English. With the variety of native languages spoken by international TAs, including Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, to name a few, language differences had the potential to be a big problem.
"There were also cultural conflicts as to what was expected in the classroom, how much interaction there should be and how to successfully implement question and answer sessions," recalled Jacobson.
From her observations, Jacobson devised a curriculum that is now a two-semester-long- course made up of a combination of classroom instruction, small group and one-on-one tutorials, with feedback from videotaped lessons, audiotaped assignments and students.
It wasn't just international TAs who stood to benefit from an organized training program, said Klara Grodzinsky, who teaches the fall semester of the program as an instructor in the School of Mathematics. Since TAs conduct a large amount of the problem solving, teaching and grading for a lecture class, it's essential that they be up to the task.
"I felt like our TAs didn't have a real centralized training program," said Grodzinsky. "We had one for the International TAs, but not for the rest."
So Grodzinsky devised a five-class course that began in the fall of 2000 that has since grown to a full semester. "We expanded it the next fall, because we didn't have enough time to cover all the topics we wanted to discuss," she said.
It's that kind of flexibility to alter the course based on the needs of the students that has helped make the program a success, said Rena Brakebill, assistant undergraduate coordinator in the School of Mathematics and instructor of the spring TA program. "We change the class each term based on the feedback from the TAs and the results of the student surveys."
In addition to classroom and video lessons, the program has begun incorporating microteaching, in which TAs prepare a 10-minute lesson and get feedback from their peers.
One of the biggest lessons new TAs learn is how to discourage and prevent cheating.
"The TAs we get are students who have some of the highest grade point averages. It never occurred to them to cheat and so many of them aren't aware of how to discourage it," said Brakebill.
The course also provides a way for new TAs to network and learn from each other's experiences.
"We have a few sections where we have case studies," said Brakebill. "What the TAs have found surprising is that many of them find different solutions based on their background. They learn to make judgments based on what the rules are."
What once was a short course devoted to helping international TAs has grown to become a model for TA instruction across campus. The program's success has prompted the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning to use it as a template for a new course for all undergraduate TAs at Georgia Tech.