After serving as a teaching assistant for Calculus I and III, Akshay Shah, SEAS ’14, said he found something in his experience missing.
“I had very minimum interaction with the professor,” Shah, a University senator, said. “I met the professor at the beginning of the semester—and I never met him again during the semester.”
Now, Shah is spearheading a proposal to improve undergraduate TA training and standardize working procedures for professors.
Shah presented the proposal to the University Senate’s Education Committee last week and has also received approval from the deans of both Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He said he hopes to conduct further survey and data collection this semester and implement the proposal in the fall of 2013.
“Since we are talking about change across so many departments and across so many schools, obviously the timeline for something like this is more than a semester and more than a year,” he said. “It’s definitely something for the long term.”
Bora Kim, SEAS ’13, who is working with Shah on the initiative, said that “being a teaching assistant is a job, not just an extracurricular activity, and the quality of a TA’s work can affect a student’s performance in a class for both right and wrong reasons.”
“In chemistry, our quizzes are written by each TA, so if you’re unlucky and have a bad TA and have super hard quizzes and that affect your grades, opposed to someone who just got lucky and got a good TA ... it’s good to make everything more standard,” Cindy Saenz, CC ’16, said.
The students looking to standardize TA policies are still hammering out the specific changes they’d like to make.
“The biggest challenge is the implementation of department-wide or even cross-departmental TA training sessions that are tailored to TA responsibilities,” said Lisa Zhou, CC ’14, who is also working on the policy.
The natural sciences and social sciences departments that hire undergraduate TAs assign very different responsibilities to them, so the frequency of TA-professor communication or the steps of the training process can vary greatly.
“I don’t see undergraduate TAs playing a huge role [in the math department] anyway, so I don’t think it is a critical matter that it has to be improved today,” said Rohit Prasanna, SEAS ’14 and a TA for Ordinary Differential Equations. “It’s not a burning problem that has to be addressed today. But it could use some improvements, I agree.”
Astronomy professor James Applegate, a member of the University Senate’s Committee on Education, said that while most TAs are graduate students, their rights and responsibilities should be the same, regardless of the department in which they teach.
“A lot of different units and different schools and departments use teaching assistants and they use them in a lot of different ways,” he said.
In contrast with the mathematics department, the economics and biology departments are two of the leaders in department-level training sessions and standardization of TA policy. Still, Susan Elmes, the director of the undergraduate economics program, said she would welcome University-wide training reforms.
“Undergraduate TAs are now hired in a number of departments and it might be helpful if they could interact with one another and share some of their experiences with each other,” Elmes said. “It would also be helpful to people like myself to learn what TAs are doing in other departments.”
Shah agreed. “You have TAs who only grade papers, you have TAs who lead office hours, you have TAs who lead recitation sessions, and you have TAs who are leading labs—and they require different kinds of training,” he said. “How do we take all of these difficulties that are there, and design a program that’s best for the students and that actually improve the academics at Columbia?”