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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Up close and personal in the classroom

Teaching assistants pick up where professors leave off - and they are gaining in importance in the undergraduate system, writes Caroline Alphonso

By Caroline Alphonso
The Globe and Mail

From having them grade exams to answering student queries, universities are depending more and more on teaching assistants as enrolment continues to increase.

In lectures with hundreds of young people, students catch only a glimpse of their professors. Under the instruction of graduate students in smaller tutorials, especially in larger universities, undergrads tend to feel less like a number.

Although school officials insist that teaching assistants do not replace professors, Mikael Swayze, a spokesman for the University of Toronto's teaching assistants, says these graduate and sometimes even undergraduate assistants are usually the ones who get to know students best.

“As you get larger classes, more material has to be delivered in smaller settings,” Mr. Swayze said. “A lot of the real learning happens in the labs and the tutorials.”

Students echo these sentiments, pushing Brock University to the head of the pack for the quality of its teaching assistants in the University Report Card survey. Sherbrooke and Laval followed closely behind.

“Brock is known for their seminars and good quality TAs. They are always there to answer questions, and are available most of the time outside their hours,” one student wrote in the survey. “These seminars are a good way to interacting, and making sure you understand the material learned in lecture.”

Another student said the teaching assistants at the university “improved my experience 100 per cent with their help and enthusiasm about the subjects. I'm definitely appreciative of the teaching assistants.”

In the University Report Card, students placed Carleton University last in the quality of its teaching assistants, with a few complaining that some of their teaching assistants don't speak English well.

“The main obstacle preventing Carleton from providing a great overall academic experience is the quality of teaching assistants,” one student said. “TAs, instead of acting as supplements to lectures, end up confusing us even more.”

Another respondent wrote: “I had one fantastic TA who went out of her way to be knowledgeable, assertive and courteous…on the other hand, a different TA was very abrupt, uninviting and rude at times.”

At Brock, Jill Grose, associate director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Educational Technologies, said the university’s teaching assistants are a diverse group, ranging from students to alumni to professionals in the community. In fact, one of the recent winners of Brock’s teaching assistant award is a retired police officer who assisted in political science.

“The TAs act as a liaison between the student and faculty,” Ms. Grose said. Like most other universities across the country, Brock has large seminars containing hundreds of students. Students then meet with a teaching assistant in smaller tutorial groups, where class sizes are capped at around 20 students.

“The [tutorial] system appeals to a lot of undergraduate students. That’s why TAs do so well,” said Ms. Grose, who is also a teaching assistant in the English department.

Jill Macdonald, 27, still remembers how nervous she was when she first walked to the front of a classroom two years ago. She was an undergraduate student at Brock, helping around 20 students in the women's studies program understand the material.

She signed up for the job because she wanted to work with professors and those who shared an interest in the program. Most teaching assistants say the job gives them a flavour of teaching life, as well as a salary to help pay their tuition.

“It's a huge amount of responsibility - just being on the other side and being responsible every week for making it interesting,” she said.

Teaching assistants at Brock earn around $15 an hour, but the salary can go as high as roughly $30 in some of the country's bigger universities.

Mr. Swayze said the high salary is well deserved because there is more pressure being put on teaching assistants. Besides grading more essays and marking exams, teaching assistants have seen tutorial groups get larger as enrolment increases.

Although some universities have added more tutorial sections instead of increasing the size of tutorial groups, Mr. Swayze said that some departments at the University of Toronto, in particular, have moved to 30-person tutorial groups.

He fears that undergraduate students are not receiving the quality education they pay for with larger tutorial groups. “Once you start moving into 30-person tutorials, the amount of learning that is being done is limited,” he said. ROBTv Workopolis