“Helping You Helps Me”–
Targeting APA’s Diversity and Communication Goals through Undergraduate Teaching Assistantships
Kristel M. Gallagher, Ph.D.
Thiel College IQuick – give me the first three things that come to mind when you hear someone say "teaching assistant". By and large, the first response is almost always something related to "grad school", conjuring up images of sleepless nights and frightening thesis committees for some. The next two responses aren't as easy to predict. Depending on one’s personal experience, the next two responses seem to bounce between "scary"/"painful" and "eye-opening"/"life-changing". I suspect, and am hopeful, that many of us reading this essay fall closer to the latter than former (at least, that's how we like to remember the experience).
As graduate teaching assistants (TA's), our primary duty was to help our department by either teaching entire sections of courses or providing clerical and in-class support to faculty teaching large sections of courses. In my case, I was the primary instructor of my courses during my time as a graduate TA. Either way, the end result was that we lessened the teaching load of full-time faculty members and allowed our departments to offer a breadth of courses to undergraduate students. The beneficiary of our services was sometimes us, as is the case with those of us who discovered our ‘callings’ to teach as graduate TA's, but mostly an outside entity.
In considering whether undergraduate students can (or should) be given the opportunity to be TA's, we need to reevaluate (I think) who the primary beneficiary of the services they perform will be. Undergraduate TA’s will not lessen the teaching load of full-time faculty members, nor will they allow our departments to offer a greater breadth of courses. So, why allow undergraduate students to be TA’s? Can any good possibly come from allowing undergraduate students to work alongside faculty in the classroom? In my experience, the answer is without a doubt yes. When undergraduate students are given the opportunity to TA a course in which they have appropriate expertise and experience, they can benefit in unexpected ways.
In fact, some preliminary research of mine suggests that the undergraduate TA position can be used to help students effectively master two important goals for the undergraduate psychology major recently redefined by the American Psychological Association (APA, 2013). Specifically, I examined whether a single semester experience as an undergraduate TA could have an effect on skills related to diversity awareness (APA goal 3) and communication (APA goal 4). As I will describe, the results of this preliminary research is both promising and exciting.
The Known Benefits
Peer-to-peer instruction, or cooperative learning, is not a new phenomenon. There are obvious benefits to both the peer ‘providers’ and peer ‘receivers’ of this type of teaching. Indeed, across the United States most higher education institutions offer some sort of standardized peer tutoring program to their students. The benefits of these programs are well-documented in the educational literature (some recent evidence includes Colver & Fry, 2016 and Rees, Quinn, Davies, & Fotheringham, 2015), further characterizing the popularity and effectiveness of this approach. In contrast, programs and opportunities that allow undergraduate students to be TA’s are somewhat more rare and thus, less studied.
Though the roles may overlap in some contexts, the major difference between a peer tutor and an undergraduate TA is the location of services and magnitude of responsibilities. While peer tutors typically work one-on-one or in small groups with students outside the classroom, undergraduate TA’s work alongside faculty in the classroom. The type of course, wants or needs of the particular faculty member, and regulations of the institution all dictate the specific roles and responsibilities assigned to undergraduate TA’s. While some may only provide basic clerical support to the faculty member and be available in the classroom to answer questions from students, others may have the opportunity to lead discussion groups, monitor lab activities, hold office hours, provide initial feedback on student assignments, tutor, and contribute to the development and presentation of course materials.
A handful of studies have explored how undergraduate TA’s benefit from their experiences with promising findings. Among others, undergraduate TA’s report gains in self-confidence (Weidert, Wendorf, Gurung, & Fliz, 2012), public speaking (Herman & Waterhouse, 2009), the development of leadership skills (Mendenhall & Burr, 1983), and an appreciation of faculty roles and responsibilities (Hogan, Norcross, Cannon, & Karpriak, 2007). Undergraduate TA’s also demonstrate a marked level of personal growth through the experience (Komarraju, 2008), including a personal understanding of learning strategies (Fingerson & Culley, 2001). Other research has suggested that the learning outcomes achieved by an undergraduate TA are analogous to those achieved by undergraduate research assistants (Schalk, McGinnis, Harring, Hendrickson, & Smith, 2009), providing them with the chance to experience authentic active learning of the course material (McKeegan, 1998).
Changes in Diversity Awareness and Communication
Many institutions are searching for ways to effectively address the APA goals for the undergraduate psychology major (APA, 2013). In working with undergraduate TA’s, my hunch was always that some of the gains I observed could easily translate to the goal paradigm outlined by the APA. With that in mind, I decided to focus my preliminary research on APA goal 3 (Ethical and Social Responsibility in a Diverse World) and APA goal 4 (Communication). I operationalized the goals of interest using the diversity (8-item) and communication (26-item) subscales of the Academic Skills Inventory – Revised (Perry, Foust, & Elicker, 2013). Students rated their level of agreement using a 7-point Likert scale on items such as “I understand that individuals’ experiences may lead them to perspectives different than my own” (diversity) and “I feel confident giving speeches/presentations” (communication).
I collected data over the course of a full academic year, utilizing 4 data collection periods. Undergraduate TA’s in the Fall semester completed an assessment during the first and last weeks of the 15 week semester, while Spring semester TA’s did the same during the first and last weeks of the Spring semester. The data was collected from 13 female undergraduate psychology majors at a small, private liberal arts institution. Eight students were TA’s from a variety of psychology courses (mean GPA 3.5; range 3.0 – 3.8), while 5 non-TA/non-tutor students completed the assessments as a comparison group (mean GPA 3.3; range 3.0 – 3.7).
I analyzed changes in the diversity and communication subscales from the beginning to the end of the semester both within groups (looking at the TA and comparison group individually), as well as between groups (pinning the TA group against the comparison group). When looking at changes from the beginning to the end of the semester, I found that diversity and communication skills significantly increased for the TA group (p’s < .01), but not the comparison group (p’s > .11). I then looked to see if the change from the beginning to end of the semester was significantly different between the TA and comparison group. In regards to diversity, the TA group did increase significantly more than the comparison group (p < .05). I was surprised to see that the diversity score for the comparison group actually decreased during this time period. When I did the same comparison for the communication subscale, I didn’t find an overall difference between the two groups. I did, however, find that when looking specifically at the items related to ‘oral communication’, the TA group students gained significantly more than the comparison group students (p < .05), who did not report any changes.
So, why allow undergraduate students to be TA’s? And can any good possibly come from allowing undergraduate students to work alongside faculty in the classroom as TA’s? My research presented here, albeit preliminary and small in scope, together with the handful of research already available, suggests that there are many benefits to be had by affording undergraduate students the opportunity to work as TA’s. I believe our next steps should be continuing to investigate how to most effectively utilize the TA at the undergraduate level to provide the most benefit to the TA’s, as Hogan and colleagues (2007), Komarraju (2008), and McKeegan (1998) have started to do for us. My goal here was not to argue whether undergraduates CAN perform TA duties, but rather provide support for the idea that undergraduate students may benefit in unexpected ways from the experience of being a TA.
Targeting APA’s diversity and communication goals through undergraduate teaching assistantships may certainly be an unexpected benefit, but not an undesirable one. If taken seriously, the TA role at the undergraduate level has the potential to garner improvements in several key domains of the psychology major curriculum. Anecdotally, I see the undergraduate TA role acting as an invaluable preparation experience for students interested in graduate school. The experience gives them a competitive edge in the graduate school application process, and perhaps even allows them to find their ‘calling’ long before many of us ever did. And this is exactly the point. The undergraduate TA’s, should be major beneficiary of their own services. We as faculty mentors need to understand this principle before taking on an undergraduate TA. Otherwise, we end up dangerously close to passing on the “scary” and “painful” reaction to the TA experience, rather than harnessing the benefits that we know exist.
Author note: Special thanks to the members of the Psychology Department at Keystone College for their assistance in the collection of this data during the 2014-2015 academic year.
American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/undergrad/index.aspx
Colver, M. & Fry, T. (2016). Evidence to support peer tutoring programs at the undergraduate level. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 46(1), 16-41.
Fingerson L. & Culley, A.B. (2001). Collaborators in teaching and learning: Undergraduate teaching assistants in the classroom. Teaching Sociology, 29(3), 299-315.
Herman, J., & Waterhouse, J. (2009). Benefits of using undergraduate teaching assistants throughout a baccalaureate nursing curriculum. Journal of Nursing Education, 49, 72-77.
Hogan, T., Norcross, J., Cannon, T., & Karpiak, C. (2007). Working with and training undergraduates as teaching assistants. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 187–190.
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Mendenhall, M. & Burr, W.R. (1983). Enlarging the role of the undergraduate teaching assistant. Teaching of Psychology, 10(3), 184-185.
Perry, J. L, Foust, M., & Elicker, J. D. (2013). Measuring the varied skills of psychology majors: A revision and update of the Academic Skills Inventory. Retrieved from Society for the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/otrp/resources/perry13.pdf
Rees, E.L., Quinn, P.J., Davies, D., & Fotheringham, V. (2015). How does peer teaching compare to faculty teaching? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medical Teacher. doi:10.3109/0142159X.2015.1112888.
Schalk, K.A., McGinnis, R., Harring, J.R., Hendrickson, A., & Smith, A.C. (2009). The undergraduate teaching assistant experience offers opportunities similar to the undergraduate research experience. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 10, 32-42.
Weidert, J., Wendorf, A., Gurung, R. A. R., & Filz, T. (2012). A survey of graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants. College Teaching, 60, 95–103.