Skills Imparted at a seminary prove useful in preparing graduate
teaching assistants at Oregon State.
You might think graduate students make better teaching assistants
than undergrads, just by virtue of their maturity and greater knowledge.
Not so at Oregon State University’s School of Electrical Engineering
and Computer Science—at least, not before last year. “Our
undergraduates would take command of the classroom, execute ideas,
and understand their responsibility to the students,” says
Donald Heer, the school’s educational research and development
coordinator. “Our graduate TAs didn’t have that same
Why the difference? Undergraduate TAs learn and teach in a comprehensive laboratory program called TekBots, which gives students a four-year, hands-on view of different electrical engineering technologies through robotic design. Just one year ahead of their charges and close to them in experience, the TAs understand what students need. And because they are readily familiar with the lab requirements, they have confidence in their own leadership and in their ability to execute ideas.
It’s a useful framework: Students get strong mentors, and the TAs hone the soft skills necessary to be leaders, both in the classroom and, later, in the professional world. TekBots, however, is specifically for undergraduates. The majority of graduate TAs—who come from other universities or even other countries—hadn’t encountered an undergraduate program like TekBots that emphasizes leadership skills. “We needed to give them the leg up that our undergraduate students had,” says Heer.
Thus began a new, 10-week graduate course called Leadership Training for Teaching Assistants. The course provides a rare, if not unique, level of training for the generally young instructors who are relied upon to share the teaching load at America’s colleges and universities.
Lessons from a Seminary
While based in part on TekBots, the course also draws on concepts learned an intellectual world away. Its creator, Marjorie Plisch, veered off the usual engineering trajectory between college and graduate school to attend Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland. She found that the kind of training in teaching, communication and mentoring offered there could be applied effectively in engineering classrooms and labs.
Plisch, who now works on ultra-high-speed data converters for National Semiconductor, developed the course while doing research for her MS in electrical engineering at Oregon State. She taught the first class in the fall of 2006. The TA training serves both undergraduates and graduate students, Plisch says: Not only are well-equipped TAs able to teach, but they can also provide more time for one-on-one contact than most professors. As a result, TAs may help schools correct the poor retention rates that have plagued engineering programs and worried industry. For graduate students, the experience of being a TA gives them a chance to acquire the leadership experience that will serve them well in their future careers.
“While graduate students are expected to [become] leaders in industry and academia, their training is often restricted to the technical arena,” says Plisch. “This doesn’t prepare them for the variety of leadership challenges that they will face. Being a TA is an excellent opportunity to apply the lessons of leadership without adding another item to the already busy schedule of a graduate student.”
In her course, TAs are taught that they must embrace both the privileges and responsibilities of leadership. It’s a privilege, says Plisch, to be able to change the way a class is run or to facilitate relationships between students, such as with an ice-breaker exercise at the beginning of lab. But there are also responsibilities. TAs must learn how to resolve conflicts, initiate projects, and provide guidance. For these tasks, they need communication skills. To help TAs acquire these skills, the course organizes participants into groups of three, or triads. Each student takes a turn as the observer, counselor (TA) or counselee (student) when addressing a conflict or discussing an idea. The triad provides students with more “airtime” than in the traditional lecture setting. In addition, listening skills, such as paraphrasing what the student says before addressing a comment or question, are practiced.
Intensive leadership training for TAs is unusual in graduate schools, especially in the form of a semester- or quarter-long course, says Heer, who supervised Plisch in developing the course. He surveyed the top 20 graduate schools in electrical engineering and found that half offered no training, five had an orientation seminar, and the remainder offered only multiday courses.
Leadership takes Practice
Terri Fiez, director of the school of electrical engineering and computer science and Plisch’s graduate adviser, believes students thrive on leadership training. “I’m a really strong believer in leadership development,” says Fiez. “Unless you practice it, you don’t learn it. But if you give students basic skills and they get a chance to practice and use them, they’ll just continue to build on them. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
For graduate students from outside the United States, the course opens a window on behavior in the American workplace. “How we [in the United States] operate in terms of business and academia might be very different for some students,” says Fiez. “A significant amount of time in the course covers how we work together, how we teach things. Students learn culturally how to be a certain kind of mentor.”
One quality the course seeks to instill in students—and one that may require an adjustment on the part of students from abroad—is personal initiative. Graduate students are taught to view their professors, and even their students, as customers—and to keep the customer satisfied. “They need to learn to be proactive about helping that customer rather than waiting for someone to tell them what to do,” she says.
The very definition of leadership may vary among students from different national or cultural backgrounds, notes Matt Shuman, a graduate student in electrical engineering who is teaching the Leadership Training for Teaching Assistants course this year. In some countries, leadership is very hierarchical and initiative comes from the top, while in the United States, initiative is expected at a variety of levels, both in industry and academia. He says the course acquaints students with how leadership is defined in the United States and what is expected of them as leaders in the classroom.
Case studies Explored
Hannes Hapke, a graduate student from Germany, says that in his country, the whole notion of leadership still carries a negative association with the Third Reich. “There are no real translations of the word ‘leadership’ in German. When we talk about it, we use the English word.” He adds, “Germans are more structured and more hierarchical, but on the other hand, people are afraid of being a strict leader. American people have a broader view and a better idea how to lead people. It’s not a problem to be a leader here.”
In addition to taking leadership training, Hapke is enrolled in an organizational behavior course, which also focuses on leadership and how to handle conflict but in a very theoretical manner. In comparison, Hapke says, “the leadership class offers a hands-on, practical approach.” Students not only discuss case studies but apply them to their own situations as TAs. They also practice introducing themselves and interacting with students on the first day of lab. Hapke followed some of the suggestions from the class but didn’t have his students introduce themselves. “I didn’t do what Matt told me, but I realized later it would have been better if I had done it,” he says. “The students feel more comfortable when I talk to them in person using their name. For me, it’s a process, as well. Every time I do the lab, I try to improve.”
Classroom collaboration is emphasized, says Shuman. “I teach them that the classroom is interactive and it’s important to create a collaborative environment. It’s not just professor to students.” He also incorporates basic teaching tips. These include moving about the classroom, especially when new ideas are introduced. “If you’re just standing up in front of an audience, they’ll fall asleep,” says Shuman.
While it is still too early to make a concrete assessment of the course, Heer says he has worked with a few of the graduate students who have taken leadership training, and he’s noticed a change in their ability to become motivated. “One of the hardest things for a faculty researcher is when you have a graduate student who doesn’t aggressively pursue information from you. Some of the students who had not been pursuing information now have more initiative,” he says.
The course also provides a safe zone for graduate students who have never taught a lab to express themselves and to ask for advice, encouragement, or even collaboration on an idea. “If you’re more comfortable about what you’re doing, you’ll do it better, as a leader,” says Shuman.
Alice Daniel is an instructor of journalism at Cal State-Fresno and a freelance writer.