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Content of Department TA Training

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
347

Graduate students who become teaching assistants must learn not only the scholarly structure of their discipline but also how to convey that structure to their students.

Folks:

The excerpt below looks at an three important elements: academic content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and knowledge about how students learn, that are key to the preparation of effective teaching assistants and faculty. It is taken from Chapter 3 THE DISCIPLINARY/DEPARTMENTAL CONTEXT OF TA TRAINING by Shirley A. Ronkowski in: THE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF GRADUATE TEACHING ASSISTANTS, Michele Marincovich, Jack Prostko, and Frederic Stout, editors. Copyright ?1998 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 176 Ballville Road, P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249. All rights reserved. http://www.ankerpub.com/ Reprinted with permission

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Two Way Talk

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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CONTENT OF DEPARTMENT TA TRAINING

Shirley A. Ronkowski

 

Scholarship, as it has been broadly defined, includes four aspects: discovery, integration, application, and teaching (Rice, 1991; Boyer, 1990). Scholarly teaching has three main elements: academic content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and knowledge about how students learn. Each of these elements is appropriate and necessary for inclusion in TA training programs.

Academic content knowledge requires the teacher-scholar to draw together various areas of an academic discipline, explain how they relate, and place concepts in the larger context of the discipline.

Pedagogical content knowledge refers to the interaction between learning processes and academic content, that is, expertise in designing examples, analogies metaphors, and simulations that help students integrate new knowledge into their existing schema.

Knowledge about how students learn refers to such topics as learning principles, modes of information processing, and stages of student cognitive development.

This third aspect of scholarly teaching, that of how students learn, is one of the areas in which campus-wide programs provide extensive TA training. Academic content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge must necessarily be based in a specific discipline.

ACADEMIC CONTENT KNOWLEDGE

It is easy to see that the first of these three elements of scholarly teaching-content knowledge-is within the domain of the academic discipline. It is also easy for departmental TA training programs to overlook this most basic aspect of TA training because departmental training involves TAs who will be teaching a variety of different courses. Dealing with content is therefore left to the individual faculty for whom the TA assists. But what is at issue here is not just the facts and concepts of course subject matter. Departmental TA training needs to also focus on the relationships among the major concepts of the various areas within the discipline in general. It can concentrate on how those areas relate historically, conceptually, and analytically. Understanding these relationships can give TAs a better handle on the discipline and allow them more intellectual mobility. When a student asks a question in section, TAs who might not be able to give a detailed answer could instead give an answer based on their overall knowledge of conceptual relationships. This ability could help free those new TAs who are overly concerned about knowing every detail of every fact covered in the course.

PEDAGOGICAL CONTENT KNOWLEDGE

Pedagogical content knowledge refers to knowing why particular content is taught, the teaching strategies specific to that subject matter, issues related to student understanding of that field, and the reasoning behind curricular structures (Grossman, 1990). Theses understandings can only come from within academic disciplines because of the uniqueness: 1) the extent to which the discipline is composed of an agreed upon and well-defined body of knowledge and skills, 2) how rapidly knowledge in the subject area is changing, and 3) the extent to which those within the discipline think knowledge in the subject is ordered with respect to the presentation of topics. These variations contribute to the structure of knowledge and have been found to affect how the discipline is taught (Stodolsky & Grossman, 1995).

The structure of knowledge within each discipline is also unique. Even though all disciplines may agree upon important elements of judging what is knowledge, each discipline places differing emphasis on the importance of each element. For example, while consistency is a criterion used by most disciplines to judge truth, disciplines also relay to varying degrees on precision and coherence as criteria and on process such as empirical evidence, reproducibility, conflicting evidence, and peer review. Other factors that vary among disciplines include conceptual framework, model design, comprehensiveness, techniques, and innovations. The unique combination of these aspects of knowledge contributes to the structure of the discipline and underlies what is taught and how it is taught (Donald, 1995). Graduate students who become teaching assistants must learn not only the scholarly structure of their discipline but also how to convey that structure to their students.

Differences among disciplines have also been found to exist with regard to teaching behaviors. In a study conducted by Murray and Renaud (1995), trained observers visited classrooms of 401 faculty in various disciplines. One hundred teaching behaviors were grouped into ten categories, six of which were found to vary by disciplinary cluster. For example, arts and humanities faculty were found to use more behaviors in the categories of interaction (e.g., addressing students by name) and rapport (e.g., showing concern for student progress) than faculty in the social and physical sciences. Social and natural sciences faculty were observed using more behaviors favoring organization (e.g., putting a lecture outline on the board) and pacing (e.g., sticking to the point in answering questions). For those working in TA training and development, these findings suggest that there are specific teaching behaviors that may tend to be neglected by TAs, and these behaviors can be predicted by discipline. There is evidence to suggest that faculty within particular sets of disciplines favor specific teaching styles (Grasha, 1996). TA training programs can encourage TAs to explore the less favored as well as the commonly used styles within their discipline. Having a choice of teaching style and faculty with a variety of teaching techniques allows the TA greater flexibility in teaching a variety of students with varying instructional needs.

Knowing which effective behaviors tend to be associated with a particular discipline gives a road map for improving teaching in that discipline. Departmental training programs can use this type of comparative research to encourage TAs to reflect on their teaching, the teaching the teaching they have experienced as students, and on the strengths and weakness to which they and their disciplines are prone.

HOW STUDENTS LEARN

The research on college student learning (see Chapter 5) offers a vast array of knowledge that can be applied to teaching. Familiarity with the stages of student cognitive development (Baxter-Magolda, 1992; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Perry, 1970) is particularly useful when teaching the humanities and social sciences. Understanding the stages helps in creating assignments that facilitate students' ability non-dualistic ways, entertain a variety of perspectives, and learn ways of evaluating and choosing from among those perspectives. Models of student perceived efficacy (Perry, 1997a) and student motivation (Covington, 1997; McMillan & Forsyth, 1991; Lucas, 1990) point to ways of designing instruction to improve student achievement (Perry, 1997b).

Sheila Tobias (1990) qualitative study of how students learn science provides a great deal of insight for TAs in the physical sciences, particularly for TAs teaching non-science majors. Tobias (1992a) offers specific approaches to teaching physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and problem solving in general. She also addresses problems with how science is currently taught, discusses a multidisciplinary approach, and suggests specific reform (Tobias, 1992b).

Model of students learning styles can help instructors understand a variety of student needs and preferences (Sims & Sims, 1995; Johnson, 1992; Claxton & Smith, 1984; Kolb, 1984; Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983; Keirey & Bates, 1978). TAs and faculty can design instruction that takes into account the strengths and weaknesses of various (Anderson & Adams, 1992; Svinicki & Dixon, 1987; Kolb, 1985). Also of interest to departmental programs for the first-time TAs is information on teaching styles (Grasha, 1996; Reinsmith, 1994; Elbe, 1980) and models that integrate teaching and learning styles (Grasha, 1996; Andrews, 1981).

Communication technology is making continual changes in the ways students are able to access information and the courses they take. TAs, as future faculty, must be prepared to deal with the diversity among students and for the continual changes in how courses are taught and how education, in general, is delivered. In future years, TAs and faculty will be called upon to re-conceptualize teaching and learning in their disciplines to meet the demands of different kinds of students in a very different kind of university. To do this, they will need to be expert teacher-scholars. They will need to rethink how they want their students to learn, given the vast possibilities that instructional and communication technologies continually make possible. This, too, is a subject for TA training and one that presents challenges for both TAs and faculty (see Chapter 11).

REFERENCES

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Andrews, J.A., (1981). Teaching format and student style: Their interactive efforts on learning. Research in Higher Education, 14 (2), 161-178.

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SHIRLEY A. RONKOWSKI is an instructional specialist in the Office of Instructional Consultation and the academic coordinator for the campus-wide TA Development Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her published articles, book chapters, and conference papers focus on instructional design, the scholarship of teaching, cooperative learning, and instructional technology for both current and future faculty.