Using TAs As Key Component Of Active Learning Transformation at UC Davis

Last week I described how UC Davis is making efforts to personalize one of the most impersonal of learning experiences – large lecture introductory science courses. It is telling that the first changes that they made were not to the lecture itself but to the associated discussion sections led by teaching assistants (TAs). It is well known that much of the instruction in lower division classes at large universities is led not by faculty but by TAs. This situation is often seen as a weakness of the business model of a research university, but it can also be leveraged as an opportunity to lead educational change. Consider this interview with staff from the iAMSTEM group at UC Davis from our e-Literate TV series on personalized learning:


Phil Hill: In biology, the UC Davis team applied the same learning principles but also included personalized learning software in the mix. The Open Learning Initiative or OLI is a grant funded group at Carnegie Mellon University that started in 2001. UC Davis is using the OLI platform within in the discussion sections of the redesigned biology course.

Erin Becker: In biology, we started at the level of the teaching assistants who are the ones that the students spend the majority of their face time with. They’re also the ones that we had the most control over because we had kind of more say over what the teaching assistants do than what the instructors do.

We went into the introductory biology course here and did a rigorous practice-based training program where we trained the TAs on various techniques that have evidence of effectiveness and increasing student leaning. From that, we then have expanded into working with the instructors in that same biology course.

Phil Hill: If you had to summarize the learning-based changes that have been made, how would you describe them?

Erin Becker: I guess if I had to sum it up, I’d say keeping the students accountable in class. We trained the TAs to (it sounds very simple) call on the students; make the students know that they are responsible for having the knowledge in class time in real time.

Chris Pagilarulo: Come prepared.

The interview then went on to discuss the role of the OLI software in this teaching transformation for TAs. I found it interesting that the TA (Amanda) positioned the software as a feedback mechanism – automatic feedback freeing up TA grading time and immediate feedback for learning.

Amanda Fox: Where now, we have Open Learning Initiative (OLI) as a pre-lab, and this is a set of somewhere between 15 to maybe 25 questions that they do online on their own. It doesn’t take the time from the TAs to grade that, so that there’s more questions that they can be asked, and be doing on their on their own time.

Phil Hill: Do you also get feedback from the system?

Amanda Fox: The OLI System?

Phil Hill: Yeah, from OLI?

Amanda Fox: We have a head TA who’s is charge of going over OLI, but I myself don’t do the grading for it, but I do get a readout of what questions they’re having the most difficult time with and what questions they felt comfortable with. Then I look at that. From each week we have a set of pre-discussions due, and I look at the results from that, and then I see the questions that most of my class had a difficulty with, and then I cover that in the next discussion.

I address maybe the top three questions out of fifteen or so that they had problems with, and I go over, “Do you understand why this is the correct answer, and why what you said is not correct?” One thing that’s awesome is that they get immediate response to whether I push a button, and it tells me right there: Did I push the correct button for the correct answer or not?

That immediate feedback, I think, is very helpful because otherwise these students were answering these questions maybe a week before they would turn it in to me. I would go over the answers in discussion, but that lapse in time between when they first thought about the question, and when they get the answer to it—I think it’s really good to have that immediate response between the two.

Software as feedback is only component of the redesign, however, as a different TA (Guy) described the iAMSTEM training into effective teaching styles.

Guy Shani: One of the biggest concepts that have been emphasized towards us—we have TA meetings for two hours every week before our discussions.And part of that is to go over the material for the week and especially with some of the TAs that are not in the exact field that that week’s discussion is on—we need a little bit of review on that.

But the other part is sort of understanding how we should be approaching teaching because a lot of the time (a lot of discussions), especially early on in lower-division classes, the approach has frequently been just lecture.Basically, having the students standing up with our backs to the class writing up on the board, and that’s not the most effective way to communicate an idea to the students.

So, we go over techniques like cold calling where we actively involve the students. I will say most of a sentence and call on a student at random to complete it, or I will ask a question and involve the students. This gives me both a good way to gauge whether they understand, and it keeps them all on their toes.

This theme of leveraging TAs for change by combining pedagogical training as well as focused software usage for immediate feedback to students is not unique to UC Davis. We saw a similar approach at Arizona State University.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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