Graduate Teaching Assistants
This past July, the WMU Graduate College and the Office of Faculty Development offered an exciting new opportunity for new and returning graduate teaching assistants — the “Graduate Student Teaching Institute,” a week-long, intensive training course designed to improve and expand students’ pedagogical skills. Over the course of the week, graduate teaching assistants from various disciplines and programs participated in group workshops on topics such as how to motivate students to learn, how to master active learning strategies, metacognition for student engagement, improving communication for diverse learners, and techniques for using technology in the classroom.
Professor Suzan Ayers (HPHE), one of the co-directors and facilitators of the Institute, argues that this kind of training is invaluable to our TAs. “We expect graduate students to magically be able to teach, and give them classes with hundreds of undergrads. Our graduate students have specialized knowledge about their fields, but they might not know much about how to teach when they first arrive here,” she says.
Another challenge faced by graduate student instructors is the isolation they may feel within their own programs, and a need to speak to other teachers from diverse backgrounds. As participant and co-facilitator MaryKate Bodnar points out, “as a graduate student, it is easy to get stuck in our own departments, feeling isolated from the rest of WMU. I really enjoyed learning from these instructors and meeting other GTAs from around the university. There is power in diversity of experience, and GSTI offered us a venue to exchange ideas and experiences.”
Several other graduate students who participated in the GSTI remarked on the diversity of participants and backgrounds, noting this as one of the most valuable aspects of the institute. Shelby May, a new MA student in HPHE, found an immediate support group with her fellow grad students: “because I’m so new here, being with other students who’ve been in my shoes before, hearing people share their experiences… that was all very valuable. The students were very encouraging even though everyone came from different majors, backgrounds, and cultures. Despite all this, we were all were interested in the same things about teaching, and we made each other think and challenged each other.” Cody Williams, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Mallinson Institute’s program for science education, agrees, saying that one of the most memorable parts of the GSTI was “the diversity of people I met…. Coming from different disciplines, they have such different ideas and approaches, some coming to teaching from a purely practical standpoint, and others from a more creative or theoretical perspective. It was also great to meet different grad students from all over the world, and hear about different international approaches to teaching.” Despite the variety of experiences and backgrounds, Shelby observed that all participants (both faculty and grads) were regarded as being on an equal footing — “we were all colleagues, and everyone was in the same boat (including the facilitators!).” And it appears that the relationships forged during the GSTI will be long-lasting ones; as MaryKate reflects, “we built relationships with each other. It is wonderful to have contacts around the university that I can collaborate with to improve my teaching.”
Beyond having a chance to bond with students and faculty that they might not have otherwise met on campus, participants found the institute’s practical advice and open, honest discussions of teaching to be invaluable. Both Cody and Shelby praised the “nuts and bolts, realistic discussions of teaching,” while Emma Powell, a Ph.D. student in Public Administration, found inspiration in “the facilitators’ passion, energy, experience, and ‘war stories.’” Emma also noted that “the technology sessions and e-learning training were so applicable and the breakout and small-group sessions were most beneficial to process big concepts into usable nuggets of action and take-aways.” Shelby adds, “your brain was exhausted at the end of the week, but you really had the chance to ask real questions, and find out what you’re getting yourself into as a teacher.”
Both Shelby and Cody had high praise for two particular presentations: a workshop on metacognition and student engagement, offered by Andrea Beach (Director, Office of Faculty Development) and a presentation on the historical impact of Paul Robeson, by Paul Solomon (Professor, Frostic School of Art). Dr. Beach’s discussion made instructors think about how we coach and instruct our own students to study, to learn, and to apply — skills that instructors often take for granted. Mr. Solomon’s presentation focused attention on the importance of timing, structure, and order when you are planning to present information, as this can make the difference between a dry lecture and a moving narrative. Participants also had high praise for workshops on constructing handouts and syllabi, including a discussion of “first day of class practices,” in which facilitators suggested that instructors involve students in creating the syllabus, asking for class input in deciding the ground rules of the class. They also enjoyed Dr. Julie Apker’s (School of Communication and Graduate College Fellow) presentation, “Beyond the Classroom: Applying Teaching Skills to Broader Professional Goals,” a session particularly applicable for participants looking at the job market. All told, these kinds of workshops and small group discussions encouraged everyone to speak up and have an active, dynamic role in the Institute.
Creating a learning environment of this kind required collaboration among a number of experts on campus. Dr. Ayers, Dr. Beach, Mr. Solomon, Sarah Cox (OFD Doctoral Associate), Dr. Emily Walter (Post-doctoral Researcher in the CEHD), and Graduate College Dean Dr. Susan Stapleton worked together to conceptualize and build the schedule for the Institute. Says Dr. Ayers, “this institute was Sarah Cox’s brainchild — Sarah developed the curriculum for the institute, basing a lot on a one-year ‘learning community’ she had with several GTAs last year. Sarah developed the curriculum and she, Paul Solomon, and I all brainstormed about how to create this kind of learning opportunity.”
While the Institute seems to have been a rousing success all around, Dr. Ayers adds that this is a kind of “beta test year” for the event. The Graduate College and OFD plan to make the GSTI an annual opportunity for graduate students across the university, with participants receiving a certificate of completion. Beyond this, the GSTI is only the first component in a new Graduate Student Teaching Credential program (co-facilitated by Drs. Ayers, Walter, and Paul Solomon). Plans for this credentialing opportunity include requiring completion of the five day Teaching Institute, consistent participation in a learning community across the academic year 2014-2015, and production of a professional portfolio synthesizing their experiences, not to mention a significantly broadened “toolkit” of pedagogical knowledge, experience, and a support network that they will take with them into future roles as teachers and faculty members.
All participants we spoke to heartily recommended this experience for their fellow teachers. As MaryKate sums up, “It’s the workshop we all crave when we start teaching. It’s the best balance of theory, practical tips, and team building with other educators.”
— Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar, WMU Graduate College
**The Office of Faculty Development continues to offer workshops, advising, and “Cool Tools” sessions intended to help graduate teaching assistants (and faculty) improve their teaching skills. Have a look at their website to see what’s coming up!