CORVALLIS, Ore. - Oregon State University graduate students teaching introductory biology labs are being mentored on how to be more effective teachers, engage their students in critical thinking, and even craft their own curriculum.
The students are part of a Graduate Teacher Training Program supported by a portion of a four-year Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant the university has received. The training program is operated by members of the Biology Program and the College of Education.
When professor Bob Mason was a graduate student, he remembers being assigned to teach a course with no preparation.
"They said, 'Here's your section, knock 'em dead,'" he recalled. "That's not really an exaggeration."
Now chair of the Biology Program in OSU's College of Science, he recognized a strong need to better prepare graduate students who are teaching a class or leading a lab section for the first time.
"Not just anybody can get up in front of a class and teach effectively," he said. And better preparing graduate students to be teaching assistants doesn't just benefit the graduates. It also benefits the undergraduate students, many of whom are not science majors but are taking introductory courses because they're part of the baccalaureate core requirements.
Mason said that across the country, interest in pursuing science as a career is lagging. He suggested that students who are taught by innovative, enthusiastic TAs might encourage more of them to become interested in science.
At American universities, training for TAs varies from thorough to not-at-all. Other recipients of HHMI grants are also looking at new ways to offer TAs the support they need to be successful instructors, and at OSU, the Graduate Teacher Training Program could serve as a model for other departments and colleges.
For the last five years, College of Education assistant professor Jessica White has been looking at the graduate student experience, and more specifically, what keeps some students in their graduate programs while others leave.
"There's a much lower persistence to degree completion rate among graduate students than there is among undergraduates," White said.
Part of White's research involved interviewing graduate students at OSU and MIT about their assistantship experience. She worked with John Nonnamaker of MIT on the project. White said it appeared that being a TA both helps and hinders graduate student retention. It helps, in some cases, because students reinforce their own learning through teaching - but, she added, it can also add a lot of stress and strain to their lives.
"I had students in my office crying and telling me how woefully unprepared they felt," she pointed out. "They felt they weren't delivering the student experience they wanted to."
So when Mason approached her about helping craft a training program for graduate students, she was excited to participate. A year ago, they launched a pilot training program during which some 30 graduate TAs who taught introductory biology labs also attended a weekly Monday night seminar. The graduate students came from the departments of zoology, botany and plant pathology, microbiology, molecular and cellular biology, biochemistry and biophysics and environmental science.
This year, a number of undergraduate biology teaching interns also take the seminar. The undergraduates either want to become teachers, or plan on going to graduate school and recognize they could benefit from the program.
White teaches the one-hour seminar, with assistance from two experienced mentor TAs. Topics may include creating a good syllabus, working with students who have disabilities, and dealing with academic dishonesty - as well as dozens of other issues. The students also learn pedagogy, including how to probe critical thinking and engage students in collaborative learning.
"They're very practical and they very much want to see an application they can implement that week," White said.
Graduate student Sarah Eddy participated in the program as a mentor TA, having had three experiences teaching in the introductory biology series. When Eddy first began teaching, she admitted that her nerves often got the better of her.
"I was self-deprecating and obviously nervous while presenting to the students," Eddy said. "I would defer to the other TA in the room, even though I was supposed to be the lead TA, and didn't know how to write effective quizzes or grade student papers efficiently. I definitely did not think about important components of teaching such as setting the tone in the classroom, developing a syllabus, being explicit in my expectations, etc."
Although she had years of experience by the time she took the seminar, Eddy said she has benefited in a number of ways from the training program.
"I've learned that students generally do not learn best by passively listening to lectures," she pointed out. "Instead they need opportunities to engage with and test their knowledge of the concepts pertinent to theirs labs. With this knowledge, I have begun designing activities to incorporate into my introductions that allow students to apply the concepts I've introduced before they even begin the hands-on portion of the lab."
Eddy's experience with the program has already provided her with tangible benefits. She won the 2009 OSU Frolander Outstanding GTA award, and directly credits the program for her win.
For White, one of the most satisfying parts of the program is watching the students take hold of new ideas and learn how to apply them to their teaching experience.
"They really want to be good teachers," she said. "They're incredibly engaged in this experience. The classes are a whirlwind of participation and ideas."
Former OSU graduate student Anthony Graziani, now a faculty member at Santa Rosa Junior College, said the time he spent in the training program at OSU has helped him in his new position. Learning how to write syllabi, developing a good rapport with students and accurately assessing student learning was a daunting task, he said, but the program helped him become more confident in his own teaching, as well as helped him become aware of areas where he needed improvement.
"I find myself continually referring back to the notebook I kept for ideas about learning activities, writing exams, and "shrinking" large classrooms just to name a few," he said.
The Hughes grant runs out this academic year, Mason said, but the university has applied for a renewal with new innovations in mind for the future - including more curriculum design.
"It's one of the best projects I've been involved with in my life," Mason said.