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Is a few hours training enough to teach university students?

When it comes to face-to-face time in the classroom, the vast majority of undergraduates have much more interaction with their teaching assistants (TAs) than they do with their professors. The role of the TA varies for each course: While some TAs only mark essays and tests, many TAs take active roles in leading tutorials or laboratory sessions. And although the amount of face-to-face time with instructors is important, undergraduate students also highly value the relationships they build with their teaching assistants (as mentor, helper, and role model).

What should be concerning to students is the amount of classroom preparation that TAs receive from professors and university support centres before entering the classroom. More often than not, TA training is quite variable – often dependent on the professor, department, or institution as a whole. What's even more concerning is the overall low amount of resources dedicated to TA training across Ontario universities.

I was curious to see what students thought about the quality of TA teaching in labs and tutorials, so I ran a survey at McMaster in the spring of 2013. Several hundred students rates a number of TA qualities based on importance and by how often they are personified by their TAs. The results indicated major discrepancies between student ideals and reality. Characteristics such as using effective teaching pedagogy, setting a supportive atmosphere in the classroom, and building a mentor relationship with students are all rated highly in importance, but happen much less frequently than students would like. And only 30 per cent of students believed that their TAs were generally invested in their success.

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Out of curiosity, I recently attended McMaster's graduate student training, which is organized and run annually by the University's Centre for Leadership in Learning. The optional half-day training session provides new and returning graduate-level students with the opportunity to brush up on their in-class teaching skills and techniques. The half-day is divided into three sessions, each lead by upper-year graduate students, university staff, and faculty, each lasting about an hour. Of the 36 possible sessions to choose from, many focused on teaching, including sessions like "How to Fall in Love with Teaching" and "Being an Effective Lab TA". There were also non-teaching related sessions, mainly focused on professional development and keeping research on track as a grad student.

Putting myself in the shoes of a new graduate student, I found all three of my three sessions helpful. But I couldn't help but wonder: is this it? A few months ago, teachers' colleges in Ontario doubled the length of their programs to two years. It's difficult to rationalize a K-12 teacher requiring two years of intensive training while an optional half-day of training is enough for TAs at the postsecondary level.

Let's face facts: For many graduate students, TA-ing isn't a choice – either graduate students are mandated to, or must TA out of financial necessity. So right off the bat, you have some grad students who are there for the right reasons and those who aren't. Would mandatory training really benefit those individuals who just don't have the heart for teaching? Probably not. Further, TA-ing is often no easy task – grad students have to deal with the awkward balance of being both student and teacher concurrently.

Graduate students are different – they're more mature, they've been through the motions, they get it. But that means universities should be offering our new graduate students something that works for them. We could build more teaching training into graduate student orientation and make it more hands-on. A graduate student orientation would cover all of the teaching basics – from how to actually stand in front of the class and lead the tutorial, how to encourage participation, and how to establish a supportive and inclusive classroom environment, to name a few.

So this is a call-out to students, universities, and the government: If students are becoming increasingly reliant on TAs, we must better equip our graduate students to teach in the classroom. And this is no easy task – it goes deeper than forcing TA training on graduate students who simply don't have the heart for it. Instead, campuses must be more welcoming to new graduate students right off the bat. That's how we get TAs excited about their important new teaching roles: We have to show them why they're so important to us.

Spencer Graham is the vice-president of Education for the McMaster Student Union.

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