Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Teaching undergraduate science classes at research universities

Inside Higher Ed reports a story that shouldn't surprise anyone: TA’s as the Key to Science Teaching. You see, according to Elaine Seymour, recently retired director of ethnography and evaluation research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a lot of college students who start out as science majors leave the sciences, largely due to poor teaching in their science classes. And, one of the sources of poor teaching in science classes is graduate teaching assistants with little to no guidance about how to teach.
... she [Seymour] said the sad fact is that most science TA’s don’t receive much help in doing their jobs well. Many get absolutely no preparation and those who do tend to receive a brief session with no ongoing mechanism to learn about their teaching.

“Training,” Seymour says, is “a very unfortunate word,” and she prefers to talk about “educational professional development” for TA’s. One of the major problems, she found, is that when teaching assistants want to become better teachers, they often feel the need to keep quiet about it. “They consistently told us that if they want to teach and they are interested in that, they keep that to themselves. They are afraid that they will be taken as less serious students” by the professors supervising their work, Seymour says.


Is is rare, especially in the sciences, that the faculty supervising graduate students pay any attention to the need for "professional development" in the area of teaching. Nearly all the focus is put on learning to be a competent researcher. A charitable interpretation of this is that the faculty regard research as a relatively unknown activity to new graduate students, one that can only be learned by full immersion, while they regard good teaching as something that will come naturally to any intelligent graduate student who gives it a try.

A less charitable interpretation is that the faculty don't actually care about undergraduate teaching. Does undergraduate teaching bring in multimillion dollar grants? Not the way a kick-ass research program does. Does undergraduate teaching lead to high prestige publications or Nobel Prizes? Not so much. Will well-to-do parents keep ponying up $40K and more a year so junior gets the name of the Big Prestigious University on the diploma, setting him up to earn the big bucks, even if junior never gets within 20 feet of an actual professor in a science class? It would seem so.

Of course, even if faculty at such universities had some kind of commitment to undergraduate education (perhaps of the majors in their department, if not the swarms of pre-meds), it wouldn't necessarily mean that these faculty would also be committed to helping their graduate students learn how to teach. Most of these grad students are TAs in the pre-med courses, anyway. And indeed, large numbers of pre-meds who need science courses (and from whom faculty most want to distance themselves) are the reason that the large research universities take in as many science graduate students as they do. Given the reality that there are more science Ph.D.s being produced than there are Ph.D.-level jobs for them, it's pretty clear that a large number of graduate students are used primarily to assume the necessary but unpleasant teaching tasks with which the faculty would otherwise be bothered and to generate scads of data for their advisors' research programs.

Any time a graduate student spends developing pedagogy is time taken away from running experiments. For the graduate students who won't find jobs with their Ph.D.s (because there are too damn many of them), learning to be a good teacher is wasted effort, and it doesn't maximize the department's return on its investment (by moving the pre-meds through and getting more data at the bench). And, for those lucky graduate students who will find jobs with their Ph.D.s -- well of course, they'll want jobs at big research universities like the ones they trained at, and evryone knows that what really matters there is research, not teaching.

One wonders what will happen if the research money dries up, and if tuition payers start demanding quality teaching for their tuition dollar. It might be time to think about alternate strategies for training graduate students.

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At 11:16 AM, Blogger beajerry said...

I can remember groaning when I would find out that a TA was teaching one of my college courses.
I don't remember any of them being particularly effective except for one or two.
Then there were all the foreign ones...


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