This semester, I had a chance to teach a graduate course for my department’s first year students in Austin: Supervised Teaching in Marine Science (398T). It was, simply put, a course to train our graduate students to become better teachers (well, immediately, better TAs).
Not surprisingly, most of them had little experience of teaching, especially in a large class setting, or leading effective discussions with a professional topic. While taking their first graduate courses including this one, they were supposed to conduct the TA duty in undergraduate courses during their first semester in graduate school. Half of them did TAs for the oceanography class and the rest did it for other biology courses at different departments.
How to transform them into confident, skillful, caring and effective teachers within few months? It was a tall order. To be successful, I had to make it clear with the students upfront that we should collaborate to accomplish our goals.
I believe that effective teaching is achieved not by a mere transfer of knowledge but by a support for the students to grapple the major concepts so they can ultimately apply them to a new level of circumstances. I needed to help them to apply it their own teaching. I would need to provide them with ample opportunity to practice what they have learned in safe and friendly environment, before they try it in their own teaching. I thought it was the key for their success as TAs.
I designed the course in a way that I give some overview lectures of various learning theory topics but the students would prepare their own teaching practices and have extensive assessment and feedback by themselves and by peers. Of course I provided them my instructor feedback for each activity. So a series of practice, self-assessment, feedback by peers, and repeat of the practice was performed throughout the semester.
Examples of their practice activities included, leading discussions, micro-lectures, and observation of other professor’s class. We timed and video recorded their discussion leading, micro-lecture teaching, and actual TA sessions, and then everyone pitched in their feedback for improvement (and for encouragement). Naturally, they hated the idea of recording their own teaching for review and evaluation at first. Who would ever enjoy doing it? But, as we repeated these activities, they soon realized the effectiveness of this process and how much they are indeed improving. Their reserved and anxious attitude has become enthusiasm and excitement.
I conducted multiple low-stakes assessments for individual activities and provided feedback and evaluations throughout the semester, instead of giving them few high-stakes evaluations. Formal grading was given only for the final tryouts after multiple iterations with ample feedback. In other words, they were graded for their best. Again, it was a learning practice for their own teaching at the same time.
Initially sheepish, intimidated and nervous teacher apprentices now have transformed to confident and effective expert teachers who radiate proper authority and care for their classes by the end of the semester! We can now laugh at our own video recordings from the early period of the semester when they looked tense, awkward and miserable… with gratitude.
I am so proud of them. Good job, everyone. I trust you would become good teachers in any circumstance from now on.