Ongoing, Developmentally-Appropriate TA (future faculty) PD

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Title of Abstract: Ongoing, Developmentally-Appropriate TA (future faculty) PD

Name of Author: Judy Ridgway
Author Company or Institution: The Ohio State University
Author Title: Assistant Director
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Faculty Development
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: TA Development Preparing Future Faculty

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Isaac Ligocki, Ohio State University Jonathan Horn, Ohio State University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Vision and Change Report recommends the support of undergraduate student-centered education and the training of future faculty as important strategies for the advancement of undergraduate biology education. At The Ohio State University (OSU) Center for Life Sciences Education (CLSE), we have developed a model with a professional development (PD) course that provides pedagogical training of graduate students (future faculty) and, in the process, supports student-centered biology education for our undergraduates. Frequently, if biology graduate students have any teaching training, what they experience are short term programs to initially prepare them to teach. These experiences do not give them extended opportunities to prepare for their current positions or their future as teaching faculty. Experts emphasize the importance of a system with incentives for graduate students to participate in teaching PD that supports current trends in science education. CLSE TAs have extensive responsibilities in laboratory and recitation sections or as independent course instructors. Because many of the introductory biology courses have large lectures (350-700 students), undergraduate students have far more interactions with their TA than with the faculty instructor, and, as a result, TAs can have a significant impact on student learning. Yet, for many of these TAs, the CLSE teaching assignment is their first and only significant teaching experience. Furthermore, at any time, our TAs vary in teaching experience from novices (1-2 terms experience) to veterans (5+ terms experience) and come from a variety of graduate programs. Our goals have been to develop a PD system that (1) prepares TAs to use the innovative pedagogies employed in our courses to support undergraduate student learning, (2) prepares TAs to be future faculty, (3) addresses the diversity of experience and interests within our TA populations, and (4) provides incentives for TAs to engage in the PD activities.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: In 2008 we launched a 1-credit PD course that supplements the multi-day training at the start of the academic year and is required for each teaching assistant each term they teach for CLSE. This requirement provides the TAs the incentive to participate in the activities and the structure to engage in coherent PD throughout their graduate careers. To meet the needs of the diverse population, the course is structured to allow TAs to individually select activities. Each activity is assigned a point value, and each TA must accumulate a defined number of points to pass the course. Some activities help TAs improve their teaching skills (e.g. prepare an improvement plan based on a classroom observation), and others enable TAs to carry out their duties in a more time-efficient manner (e.g. attend a one-hour workshop on grading student writing). Other course activities include developing lesson plans, participating in journal clubs and preparing a teaching portfolio. We encourage novice TAs to select activities that help them develop a vision of student-centered teaching and improve their basic teaching skills to extend the innovative strategies introduced by the course instructors. We guide veteran TAs to select activities that help them synthesize what they have learned into documents that will help them in their job search or curriculum development efforts.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: In addition to our ongoing revisions in response to TA feedback, we have extensively assessed the PD course by studying TA and faculty concerns and perceptions of the course’s value, the relationship between the TA course activities and undergraduate student achievement, and the relationship between class participation and indicators of career success. We administered faculty and TA surveys, which included items that assessed TA and faculty perceptions of how well the CLSE PD achieves the National Science Education Professional Development Standards (National Research Council, 1996). In addition, we conducted TA focus groups. We tracked the rigor of TA activities, the number of times a TA took the course, the student evaluation of instruction, and undergraduate student grades.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: TAs indicated that they feel better prepared to teach following their course activities. When asked about opportunities for them to experience PD described by the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) they (n=63) agreed that CLSE provides:”regular, frequent opportunities for individual and collegial examination and reflection on classroom and institutional practice;” “opportunities for teachers to receive feedback about their teaching and to understand, analyze, and apply that feedback to improve their practice;” and “opportunities for teachers to learn and use various tools and techniques for self-reflection and collegial reflection, such as peer coaching, portfolios, and journals.” During the focus groups, TAs said they needed at least three terms in the PD course for it to make a difference; the TAs were not aware of their needs or their growth over the course of fewer terms. They felt the course helped them become aware of student-centered teaching techniques and that they were better job applicants because of it. Repeatedly, TAs mentioned that faculty would benefit from the course and that the TAs would benefit from interacting with faculty in the course. Unfortunately, 66% (n=24) of the faculty respondents indicated that they did not want to become more actively involved in the CLSE TA PD efforts, which include the PD course. Although 72% of faculty respondents (n=25) said they were aware of the CLSE PD program, and 88% indicated that they thought ongoing PD was necessary, 71% (n=24) stated that they worry about the amount of time the PD takes. Interestingly, 64% (n=25) indicated that they would have benefited from a similar program when they were a graduate student. We did not find a significant relationship between TA participation in the PD course and their students’ achievement or student responses on evaluation of instruction. We will conduct a longitudinal study to capture these data more rigorously to better understand the situation.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Our biggest challenge has been faculty buy-in for our PD course. The emphasis on TA PD represents a cultural change at Ohio State. Teaching is not always the priority of faculty, and consequently graduate students. We have found that TAs would not participate voluntarily in the PD activities if not for the job requirement. Furthermore, many faculty feel that TAs should have to take the course once, at most, even though the TAs indicate that they need multiple exposures to get the full effect. We feel that most of these faculty concerns come from lack of information regarding the course, especially regarding the small amount of time it takes over the course of a semester and the high quality experiences that the TAs have. Backing from campus academic leaders was critical for initial implementation of the TA training program. Early financial support from Ohio State’s teaching center helped start up the course, and a subsequent TA training award provided institutional recognition for the program. We plan to use our assessment to provide faculty and other university stakeholders with a better picture of what the course is and how their students benefit. Our ultimate goal is for this course to become institutionalized in CLSE at the very least, or more broadly in multiple STEM departments.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We have found that invited speakers from other universities often help spread our message. A recent speaker, who is a national leader in science education, drove home the idea that biology faculty positions are becoming scarce and that graduate students need to distinguish themselves in order to meet their career goals. She particularly highlighted the fact that future faculty need to have a demonstrated understanding of student learning and the ability to improve biology student learning. We plan to present the findings of our assessment at biology departmental meetings and seminars with the hope that, with increased information, faculty concerns will be allayed. We hope to publish the findings of our study so that others can use our model to improve TA and future faculty preparation.

Acknowledgements: The Ohio State University Center for the Advancement of Teaching Caroline Breitenberger, Matthew Misicka, Amy Kulesza, Adam Andrews, and Steve W. Chordas, III, The Ohio State University Center for Life Sciences Education