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Clarkson trains teaching assistants on their new jobs

Clarkson trains teaching assistants on their new jobs

It wouldn’t seem like a radical idea: Teach incoming graduate students, who as teaching assistants c
Clarkson trains teaching assistants on their new jobs
Housemates left to right, Eric Takyi, Sudam Surasinghe, Kyle Connelly, Michael Regan and Antonio Rockwell take a moment to work together in the living room at 10 Morris Ave in Schenectady
Photographer: Marc Schultz

It wouldn’t seem like a radical idea: Teach incoming graduate students, who as teaching assistants carry a heavy load in managing small labs and discussions in entry-level college classes, how to teach.

But as Clarkson University, with the help of its new Schenectady-based education department, sets out to do just that, the school appears to be breaking new ground.

“It seems like it should be a no-brainer that if you are going to be in a teaching role, you should understand the modern science of learning,” said Tom Shiland, director of the Clarkson teaching assistant training program in its pilot year this summer.

A half-dozen incoming Clarkson science and mathematics doctoral students were dispatched to Schenectady this summer for an intensive five-week boot camp in the fundamentals, theory and practice of education.

They live in a shared house on Morris Avenue and take classes five days a week. In the mornings, they work through a four-hour long seminar on the best strategies for teaching complicated math and science concepts. In afternoon labs, they make simulated classroom presentations to fellow teaching assistants as well as students in Clarkson’s master of teaching program, based at its Schenectady campus.

“If the TAs can practice teaching chemistry to the MATs [education graduate students], it’s a measure of how effective they are,” said Catherine Synder, head of the Clarkson education department.

During a July seminar, instructor Becky Remis tasked the students with analyzing and explaining the strengths and shortcomings of a model representation of a concept in their subject area. They flipped through the biology, chemistry and calculus textbooks they would soon be helping freshman and sophomore students work with and looked for examples — models of cellular change, evolutionary speciation and the energy levels of electrons.

One of the biggest challenges for teaching assistants, researchers and administrators at Clarkson said, is relating to students who may not grasp concepts as well and intuitively as the TAs do. Almost by definition, they said, the doctoral students are “not your normal student.”

So with each new lesson, the TAs need to reduce their deep understanding of the subject to its most basic elements. They need to think like their entry-level students will, Remis told them as she held up a large model of a DNA helix.

“Why the different colors? Is DNA really that colorful? That’s awesome,” Remis said, playing dumb as she pushed the students to provide better and more concise explanations.

The class laughed.

“You laugh, but your students will really think that,” she said. “You all know that because you are used to it, but your students may not know unless you go through it with them.

As soon as Remis started a timer and the TAs dove into their presentations, the students turned into teachers, probing their colleagues and moving back and forth between whiteboard and the classroom’s desks. After each presentation, the students shared “warm and cool” feedback.

“It’s hard to balance: Once you are with one student, you want to make sure they understand the concept, but you also have to involve everyone else,” said Mike Regan, a chemistry student.

“Welcome to one of the many complexities of teaching,” Remis said.

One of the first fruits of Clarkson’s “adoption” of the former Union Graduate College, the TA Boot Camp was conceived as mirroring the summer training of the education graduate students but was also tailored to the needs of the small cohort of math and science teaching assistants. The education students come in with degrees in content areas but little to no teaching experience. Over the summer, they are given a crash course in fundamental pedagogy — the theory and method of teaching.

Snyder and Peter Turner, dean of the Clarkson School of Arts and Science, worked with science, math and education faculty and current TAs to develop the summer program. They plan to ramp it up in the coming years — eventually training around 20 new Clarkson TAs each year.

Turner said old norms in academia have underemphasized the importance of training TAs, often prioritizing their research duties well above their teaching duties. He said the program will force some faculty to adapt to a new way of thinking about the role that TAs play in their classroom, allowing them more chances to practice creative ways of engaging students.

As the program matures, Clarkson officials said they may look to open it up to other colleges and universities. Pitching their expertise, they would charge other schools to send their new TAs through the training program.

“I can say with a strong amount of confidence there is nothing like this happening,” Snyder said.

Seema Rivera, an assistant professor in Clarkson’s education department, is formally studying the program as it progresses. She conducted surveys of the incoming TAs as well as of current TAs who didn’t receive the summer training, and she will follow them as they advance through their courses, evaluating how well they do and whether the training is making them more confident and efficient teachers.

“There’s a lot of fear of not being able to answer a question,” Rivera said. “The more comfortable they become and the more they show students it’s OK to do this or do that, they will be more comfortable and the students will more likely learn.”

Half of the TAs are international students, from Ghana and Sri Lanka. They have the added challenge of teaching courses in a language that is not their own native language.

“It’s basically about active learning, figuring out what kind of students you have and figuring out what strategies to use to making your teaching effective,” said mathematics student Eric Takyi, of Ghana.

As a group, the TAs largely said they are excited about teaching, even as they stare down roughly five years of study and research of their own, and they feel the summer program has given them strategies and confidence they didn’t have before.

“When you can get someone to truly learn something they were struggling with, it’s one of the best feelings in the world,” said Kyle Connelly, who studies mathematics.

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.

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