Both Sides of the Coin: A Teaching Assistant’s Reflection
Being a teaching assistant, by its very nature, is a very Janusian experience. Throughout this semester, there were two distinct modes of operating, a mode for the instruction of others and one for self-enrichment. The following reflection is aimed to present my thoughts on my bi-directional duties as a teaching assistant, my performance self-evaluation, an evaluation of the Developmental Psychology class progression and course content, as well as a summary of my experience as a teaching assistant this semester.
Some duties serve to develop the prospective teaching assistant and vicariously enrich the learning experience for students. Attending organizational meetings with Dr. Chenneville and her lead teaching assistants, both in-person and through group e-mail, allowed for efficient communication over the course of the semester. Communication is crucial when being a liaison between a professor and her students. Beyond meetings and email with the class facilitators, teaching assistant training was a necessary part of the course. This training informs prospective teaching assistants on the nuances of the instructor/junior instructional designer side of the Canvas online course system. Aside from the technical aspects, the training was focused on the protection of students’ privacy through the Federal Education Records Protection Act. As well, an emphasis was placed on meeting students’ needs, whether this was in crafting more helpful feedback or providing students accommodations requested through Student Disability Services. There were also assigned pedagogical readings throughout the semester. Some readings focused on teaching practices, while others concentrated on the development of a personal teaching philosophy.
The remaining duties focus on the facilitation of student learning through grading and feedback. Students completed one activity and one discussion assignment or live-chat per module. My duties to students begin with grading and providing helpful feedback. For every point taken off a student’s assignment, it was important to offer constructive criticism in a positive way. Every point earned by a student was also a place to consider giving encouragement and praise for signs of good critical thinking or an insightful or thoughtful answer. Attending the live chats moderated by the professor was a duty, insomuch as records of attendance must be kept, but more importantly, it gave me the opportunity to watch the students interact with each other in the context of the course material.
On the topic of self-evaluation, I found that there were many places where I could improve. I found the process of crafting useful feedback for online students most challenging. When you have no in-person interaction, it can be challenging to determine why a student is not following instructions or seems not to understand your feedback. Learning to put students’ needs first means that grading an assignment is more than pointing out incorrect responses. Timing is one area where I improved over the span of the course; stopping to pause when grading assignments. Fatigue can result in uneven grading, coloring your perception of student responses the further you get into the submissions. Realizing that, I learned to take a break when I felt taxed so that my energy level or exasperation at one submission did not become reflected in another student’s grade. Further, because of the chunking of time spent grading, I found it helpful to write down my responses to common errors found in student submissions and re-use them, albeit slightly tailored to each student, when grading assignments. I also learned to ask my fellow teaching assistants for help, putting students’ needs first when I either needed clarity on a topic or had personal issues to handle that were impeding my ability to be present while grading.
I think that awareness through self-monitoring reminded me that there is always room for personal improvement and that helped in the improvement of my teaching skills. By the end of the semester, I found that I was struggling not to become punitive when feedback went largely ignored by some students. I sometimes had to grade, step back, and grade again to offer the best feedback possible, without hand-holding at one end of the spectrum or being overly punitive on the other. Overall, I think that seeing my own imperfections at learning something new made me more understanding when attempting to facilitate the learning of others.
With regard to the progression of the course, successful students needed little guidance, were able consistently to go above and beyond the rubric requirements, and were effectively able to demonstrate their understanding of the material. Mastering of the material was most evident in their responses to other classmates during discussion assignments. They could evaluate their peers’ arguments on a given topic and respond with clarity why they agreed or disagreed with them, many times offering a unique perspective on the material or insight that their peer had not considered. Other students seemed to spend much less time thinking about their answers or even reading the assignment rubric. For some, this may have been the result of having only limited exposure to psychology coursework. Many of these students improved over the course of the semester by following the guidance offered in their feedback. Overall, more confidence and understanding seemed to be reflected in their later assignments. It is difficult in an online setting to say whether an active interest in psychology, simply hard work and good academic practices, or other mediating variables separated student performance outcomes.
If I were teaching the class in the future, I would most likely implement a couple of small changes. First, I would try to ensure that students without prior research methods experience were given a 1st-week assignment to familiarize themselves with how to find, use, and cite research with an emphasis on using APA style. I would require at least two types of source material be utilized in each assignment. It is important to have them refer to the lecture and textbook, but I would also require at least one source be from an academic journal and that the article chose not be one referenced in the lectures. I would also like to see the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra default course room promoted as a group study session space before exams. I would also suggest that a TA is made available during part of that scheduled time to moderate the room, as online office hours. I feel that this would go further in fostering a sense of intellectual community and a sense by the students that their peers and we are there to support them. Other than that, I would do everything the same. I love how the activities and discussions enrich and offer practical application of the course material, bolster critical thinking, and build the students skills at consuming and evaluating research.
In summary, students’ success must always be the priority of a teaching assistant. Providing for this success requires, among other things, excellent time management skills, self-monitoring skills, and sensitivity to the individual needs of each student. I honestly believe that I got more out of this experience than the students I was supporting. To support students effectively, teaching assistants must be a partner in the learning process, an effective linkage to tools, resources, and techniques of the discipline. This made a big difference in the progress of students who may have lacked effective study habits or a proper foundation in the study of psychology. I would like to believe that I have become a more tolerant, fair, and understanding human being through this experience. I am excited by the prospect of continuing to improve my pedagogical skill set and help those who come after me to go further than myself in psychology, a field dedicated to human understanding.