It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on how things are going in the class I’m TA-ing.
The students have gotten used to the pattern of leaving the computer lab, sitting in a circle, introducing themselves, etc. They seem to be developing a learning community just as I had hoped. I’m seeing the friendships in the group expand to include almost all of the students. I still have a few isolated members of the class, and I’m not sure how to reach them.
The class has its first exam next week. I’ve decided to hold extra study sessions for my section. I really believe that they are all capable of doing well on this test if they just prepare. Luckily, the professor has posted the exams from previous years, along with answers. The tests are rather tricky and require very close reading. I wasn’t sure what the interest level would be in these extra study sessions, but everyone seems super interested in them. I had 6 students (of 22) show up last night for a 2-hour session. I have 10 or more signed up for a session on Saturday and another on Sunday. I really hope that they do all try the practice exams before the test, because it will give them an idea of the mindset they need to be in for the exam next week.
Practice exams are posted here, and the ones which apply the most are those from Professor Dillon, because she is lecturing my section.
None of the other TA’s are holding these extra study hours specifically for exam review. I’m intrigued to see if the extra meetings help improve my students scores at all.
While I’m thinking about the exam in CSE 231, I’m confronted with the knowledge that the professors don’t usually have the exams written even now (less than a week before the exam takes place). I know that’s pretty typical for professors, but it’s the opposite of what I’m learning in my engineering education class, which insists that exams (assessments) should be developed before the teaching delivery methods themselves are, so that teachers have a target for students and for themselves. I’m not sure if I disagree with the way the professors are conducting their course in that they are writing the exams last, but I do see the benefits of backward design. I especially think that when we are working at a large university like MSU and have huge classes (lectures in the hundreds), the TA’s need to have a clearly defined idea of what will be on exams so they can target the necessary material in their smaller sections (approximately 20 students). Since we are not really involved in the test writing process, it’s a bit of guesswork on our part regarding how to help our students study.
That also leads me to think that TA’s should have educational theory classes. I know that there are a few days of intensive training for TA’s at MSU, but they are definitely not mandatory. MSU also requires language testing for international students to guarantee that their English is sufficient. But, there is really no discipline-specific testing or training, and no education training or standards.
Really, the success of a TA depends on their commitment to the course, to education, to their students, and also on how well a professor does when providing TA’s with course materials and resources. Most graduate students at MSU are teaching. We are responsible for these students’ education, and there is very little accountability. It worries and scares me. But, graduate students already have so much on their plates, and getting them to have some ed theory background just isn’t really a possibility I think.
As I’m doing some MSU reconnaissance, I can see that there are actually a number of support programs for TA’s at MSU. Different workshops throughout the semester are listed here, but I haven’t heard of most of them before. Maybe the problem then isn’t so much about not providing the programs, but not getting the word out to the TA’s about the training opportunities. Also, by not requiring any of these training sessions, the graduate department places these workshop low on priority lists for otherwise really busy students. I also wonder if it’s possible for TA’s to attend faculty professional development workshops.