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Editorial: Assisting assistants

It is unfortunate that only two of 200 undergraduate TAs attended the first installment of a four-part workshop series recently organized by the Office of the Dean of the College in conjunction with the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. The Herald reported Thursday that the optional workshops were established in response to a handful of complaints about undergraduate TAs' teaching and communication skills.

The second workshop — "Leading Group Discussion" — was cancelled after only four students expressed interest in attending. The third and fourth workshops — "Giving Effective Feedback" and "Reaching Students" — will be held as planned. 

Given the number of undergraduate students currently serving as TAs, and the necessity of relying on undergraduate TAs because of certain Graduate School policies, we appreciate these efforts to better prepare undergraduates for TA responsibilities. However, we also believe that such efforts could be more closely tailored to TAs' needs. 

One reason the workshops failed to attract a large crowd might be their redundancy with training that undergraduate TAs already receive from the professors and departments with whom they will be working. Undergraduate TAs in the computer science department come to school over a week early to review course material and learn how to give students clear, appropriately detailed explanations. 

Furthermore, many undergraduates work as TAs in departments like biology, chemistry, computer science, and economics, where leading a discussion is less important than explaining complicated concepts or checking over students' assignments. The workshop on leading effective discussions might be irrelevant to a substantial number of undergraduate TAs.

At the same time, TAs from all departments could benefit from workshops on giving feedback and communicating effectively with students. These are skills that all TAs should be expected to develop.

We encourage the Dean of the College's office to look more closely at the training undergraduate TAs already receive, and to take into account the skills that are relevant to TAs in different departments. Once these factors are incorporated into a workshop curriculum for undergraduate TAs, the Dean of the College could consider making workshops mandatory. A carefully constructed series of required workshops would be the best way to improve the quality of undergraduate TAs.

Departments that are found to already offer adequate training to TAs could be exempt from a requirement, while departments that have struggled to provide support to TAs would probably find the workshops highly beneficial.

In addition to the workshops, one other change in school policy could contribute substantially to holding undergraduate TAs accountable. Currently, the Guidelines for Undergraduate Teaching Assistants developed by the College Curriculum Council only obligate departments to provide feedback to undergraduate TAs at the end of the semester.

This lax requirement on evaluation and feedback is problematic. Undergraduate TA turnover is high, and many undergraduates only work as TAs for one semester, so at least some are unlikely to care a great deal about a review at the end of the term. Moreover, by only requiring one evaluation at the end of the semester, the current guidelines make it less likely that professors will find out about problems during the semester and nip those problems in the bud. The CCC should rewrite the guidelines to encourage at least one mid-semester evaluation of undergraduate TAs.

On the whole, we think undergraduate TAs have contributed positively to the learning experience at Brown. These changes will help to ensure that the continued use of undergraduate TAs is productive.


Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials (at) browndailyherald.com.




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