Teaching assistants aid in a variety of ways, departments

by Amy Semet | 11/23/94 6:00am

A wide range of classes in a variety of departments rely on students as teaching assistants but their role differs greatly from the role played by their counterparts at many other top-ranked schools.

Whereas many colleges rely on undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants to play an active role in the classroom, TAs at Dartmouth are utilized more in the background.

Teaching assistants are used most heavily and regularly in the sciences to help with lab sections, but they are also employed in humanities and social science courses.

In Education 20, Educational Issues in Contemporary Society, TAs are used to grade papers, lead discussion sessions and do reading checks under the guidance of the professor, Professor Andrew Garrod said.

"If there were no TAs, we would need to dramatically revamp Education 20," Garrod said. "There are 75 students in the course, and there is no way to do multiple revisions and offer lots of feedback on writing without TAs."

Garrod said TAs are chosen from students who have previously taken Education 20.

TAs are concurrently enrolled in Education 82, Advanced Issues in Contemporary Education, an upper-level seminar which discusses the process and content of Education 20.

"It's probably one of the most responsible jobs that a Dartmouth student will ever receive," Garrod said. "Teaching is a maturing experience and it allows TAs to rethink their priorities." Garrod noted that five of the ten TAs have decided to pursue education as a career.

Chair of the Women's Studies Department Ivy Schweitzer said Women's Studies majors are the pool from which TAs are drawn for her class Women's Studies 10, Sex, Gender, and Society.

She said they lead discussion groups in pairs and read weekly assignments.

The teaching assistants in Women's Studies 10 are also regular students enrolled in the course at the same time they are TAs.

"All of the TAs chosen have taken a lot of women's studies classes and they might have an advantage just because they have a lot more experience with women's studies classes," Schweitzer said.

The mathematics department uses students in a greater capacity.

"In math, we hire undergraduate paper graders, who we sometimes call 'Readers,' for all of our large classes," Kenneth Bogart, chair of the mathematics department said.

"Often in a large course, test papers are graded in a group session with all of the professors and tutors working in a room together so that the professors deal with any question in which the answer is not straightforward," he said.

The psychology department uses TAs in laboratory courses as well as some large lecture classes.

"Among the activities we consider appropriate for TAs are leading lab sections and discussion groups, assisting in test construction, grading, guest lecturing and holding office hours," Catherine Cramer, coordinator of the teaching assistant program in the psychology department said.

"It turns out that in schools where this is not done, homework is not graded at all or only a small sample is graded in large classes, because there is not enough time in a day for a professor to do it," Bogart said.

Chemistry Department Chair John Winn said his department primarily uses TAs to lead laboratory sections.

"Teaching assistants in chemistry have teaching in the laboratory portion of our courses as their primary responsibility," Winn said.

"In many courses, graduate students also assist with lab lectures, either before a large group of students, as is common with organic chemistry, or before a smaller group of two or three students, as is common in upper division course labs" Winn said.

All of the language departments use undergraduate drill instructors, or "apprentice teachers," to lead drill sections.

"Apprentice teachers are used to reinforce oral aspect of the language learning," French and Italian Professor John Rassias, coordinator of the drill sections said. "They do not grade or teach new information, but reinforce material presented by the Master Teacher."

Rassias also said ATs are "energetic, concerned with the progress of their changes and are good role models" for beginning students.

"The fact that drills are conducted by students just a bit older than they has the benefit of showing the beginning students that it is indeed possible to become proficient in the language," Richard Sheldon, chair of the Russian department said.

Rassias said ATs are also sent to language study abroad programs and using TAs helps graduate students prepare for a teaching career.

"One very important reason is that they are 'in training' to become professors, and TA-ing is one of the mechanisms for teaching them how to teach," Cramer said.

"In many cases, the assistance allows professors to include components in a course that would otherwise be difficult for a single person to manage," Cramer said.