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GTA workshop gets high marks

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 03 - September 7, 1995

Graduate Teaching Assistants from 47 departments attended the fifth annual GTA Training Fall Workshop in August--bringing to more than 1,000 the number of graduate students who have completed the program out of the 1,200 GTA's and GA's who have attended.

This summer, 278 GTA's attended the program and 235 completed the workshop by attending at least five of the six half-day sessions. They received credit for GRAD 5004, GTA Training Workshop.

The 21 plenary and 17 concurrent sessions covered the range of issues that GTA's deal with in their various roles, such as teaching, grading, testing, ethics, dealing with students, and time management, said Don McKeon, director of ESL/GTA Training. Overviews of the various support services and a microteaching component complemented the offerings.

"All of the presenters volunteered their time and expertise to make the program effective," says McKeon. Workshop leaders from 21 departments consisted of Virginia Tech faculty members (including members of the Academy of Teaching Excellence), directors of support services, and experienced GTA's.

The graduate students provided the following evaluation of the workshop based on a 4.0 scale: program was well-organized: 3.70; scope of coverage was adequate: 3.55; depth of coverage was adequate: 3.46; overall, program was useful: 3.48; confidence level increased: 3.16.

Students offered the following comments on the evaluation: "The respectful camaraderie expressed by these extremely experienced professors toward us made me feel welcome and more confident. In terms of content, lots was very valuable." "... enthusiastic seminars were very beneficial. I now realize how important GTA's are to the professors, students, and university." "Faculty involvement was impressive. It made the whole concept of this workshop more credible." "The lectures were wonderful and well informed, yet still diverse (very important)." The following were frequent comments: "The handout material helped to reinforce what the speakers were saying and can be used for future reference"; "I found the VT program an excellent start and far ahead of most colleges."; "I am extremely impressed with the teaching ability of professors at Tech."

Several said the program reduced their anxiety. "The emphasis on GTA `ground rules' concerning the syllabus, honor code, etc. was very helpful."

"We've encompassed the GTA training program into the larger mission of training the future professor," says Gene Brown of mechanical engineering. "I have made the GTA training program part of our learning-to-teach focus in the department.

"All of our GTA's go through the program in preparation for teaching one of two junior-senior lab courses." The courses are taught under the direction of Harry Robertshaw and Alfred Wicks, Brown said.

"Many of our Ph.D. students would like to enter academia. The program is one way to learn what the teaching profession is about," he said.

The mathematics department, which uses many GTA's to provide courses to students university-wide, also incorporates the Graduate School program into its GTA certification process.

"Since our first-year graduate students don't teach, some of the material seems far away to them," said Bob Olin, mathematics department head.

All would-be math GTA's must pass a two-step certification process. (See article in this issue on international teaching assistant training.) If they pass, they become a GTA. If they fail, they are mentored further by senior GTA's. Math is the only department to use the senior GTA position.

"Last year, the graduate school shared the cost to get it started," Olin said. "The senior GTA's wrote a manual for GTA's about how the department runs. They also mentor GTA's. Although a faculty member does the official evaluation of a GTA, the senior GTA also observes a class, later video tapes a class, and then meets with the GTA to offer suggestions," Olin said.

Graduate students who are not certified to teach by the end of their third year lose their assistantships, Olin said. "The GTA program has two functions within the department. It permits undergraduates to receive more individual instruction. Virtually every student at Virginia Tech takes introductory math classes. If it were not for GTA's teaching classes, there would be more than 100 students in a class--probably many more--instead of fewer than 35 students in a section."

Second, Olin says, "almost all graduates of the Ph.D. program end up teaching. GTA activities are part of training them for this career. In fact, the faculty is discussing requiring that all Ph.D. students in math be required to teach." Psychology students also find the Graduate School's training program very useful, said Jack Finney of psychology. Students in psychology also receive supervision from faculty members and advanced GTA's, but the Graduate School program "helps with the basics, such as how to organize a syllabus, and how to gauge your expectations of what your students should be able to do."

Incoming psychology students teach only discussion sections of introductory psychology. Ph.D. students who have completed requirements except the dissertation teach independent courses. "They go back to the workshop as a refresher, even though it is not required," says Finney. "There are things taught there they can't get other places."

Provost Peggy Meszaros, who welcomed the new GTA's during the August program, said later, "The GTA training program is important to the university's mission to train the future professorate and has the additional advantage of allowing more individual instruction of undergraduates in basic subjects. The Graduate School's program is doing good things for the students and the university."

For more information about GTA training, contact McKeon at 1-9568 or dmckeon@vt.edu). Workshop presenters' notes are available on the World Wide Web: http://don.grads.vt.edu/.