Active Learning and the Modern TA

students in classroom working in a group

Undergraduate teaching assistants are changing the classroom thanks to Cornell Engineering’s outstanding training programs

The role of teaching assistants is no longer limited to basic classroom and lab administration such as answering questions and grading assignments. Today’s TAs are responsible for the ambitious task of creating a positive sense of community where students feel comfortable and ready to learn.

Cornell Engineering recognizes the importance of this and invests heavily in substantive training programs through its office of Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI). The office applies the latest research on pedagogical practices to its TA training, expanding beyond the traditional model of relatively static knowledge transmission from teacher to learner. The goal is to excite and engage students by giving TAs a sophisticated understanding of how human learning occurs – along with administrative management and interpersonal skills – to create an educational environment that works for all students.

Emphasizing peer education, student-centered learning, and a shared understanding of diversity and inclusion have placed Cornell Engineering at the forefront of modern classroom practices.

Investment in training

Hundreds of students work as TAs at Cornell Engineering each year, and these days, many of those TAs are undergraduates. The expanding number of undergraduate TAs is not unique to Cornell but represents a growing recognition of the value of peer-facilitated learning nationally, particularly at large universities.

One indicator of the value teaching assistants provide is the considerable resources Cornell Engineering devotes to their training and compensation. In some departments, budget allocation for TA positions can reach over a million dollars each academic year.

Students gathered around a table with sticky notes
Low tech solutions like having students work on organizing and connecting concepts through ‘concept mapping’ are powerful ways to create collective thinking, help students generate questions and teach each other. (Pre-pandemic photo)

“TAs are an absolutely critical part of our education model,” said Jed Dove, director of administration for the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). “Particularly for large enrollment courses, if we didn't have TAs it would just be impossible for our professors to teach.”

Recognizing the need for a focused training experience for undergraduate TAs, in 2013 ELI collaborated with engineering departments to create a half-day program, drawing upon the educational content developed for Ph.D. TAs, but tailored to the work undergrad TAs do.

The ELI training gives TAs practical strategies for getting students talking to one another, answering each other’s questions, and building a sense of community through active learning, a core guiding philosophy of the TA development program.

ELI’s TA development programs are but one angle from which Cornell Engineering, and university, focus on teaching. The James McCormick Family Teaching Excellence Institute works with engineering faculty to develop dynamic teaching methods and improve course design, and the Center for Teaching Innovation provides a wealth of teaching resources for both faculty and TAs across the university, including the Teaching Assistant Online Orientation, developed last year.

A classroom for everyone

One of the very first considerations of the modern TA is ensuring that the learning environment is engaging and inclusive, according to Lisa Schneider-Bentley, director of ELI.

“And when I say inclusive, I'm talking about awareness of the diversity of learners along all kinds of social identity dimensions and backgrounds, as well as understanding how to use an array of teaching strategies to reach students who come in with a broad variety of learning strengths and challenges,” said Schneider-Bentley.

“People have different ways they process material,” said Celia Evans, ELI’s associate director. “They have different ways they express themselves and different ways they engage mentally and emotionally with material. We have a really diverse student body and it's very important that everybody feels like they can interact, contribute and ask a question.”

TAs receiving instruction in classroom
AEW facilitators receive paid training twice per month on topics as complex as developing learning objectives, conflict resolution and facilitating small group discussion. (Pre-pandemic photo)

Strategies for creating engagement, belonging and equity are integrated throughout ELI’s training components. For example, the session on fair and effective grading includes guidance and practice in creating consistent rubrics so students know how their work is evaluated, employing anonymous grading to guard against unconscious biases and giving clear and usable feedback so students can learn from their mistakes.

Ultimately the TA training is intended to frame a shared understanding of diversity and inclusion at Cornell, and the best teaching strategies to facilitate effective learning.

“Undergraduate TAs contribute diversity to the teaching team,” said Aaron Wagner, professor and associate director of electrical and computer engineering. “While an introductory ECE class typically will have one instructor and, at most, two Ph.D. TAs, it might have several undergraduate TAs who represent a wider range of identities and lived experiences, better reflecting the composition of the student body.”

Active learning and adapting to COVID-19

Once a welcoming and inclusive environment is developed, then the complex task of engaging students through active learning can begin, providing avenues for students to construct their understanding and ask questions.

Active learning is a teaching approach that is learner-centered as opposed to traditional lecture in which content is unidirectional from teacher to student. Teaching with active learning means designing activities that require interaction. The idea is to get students thinking, talking and writing about what they are doing. It emphasizes the importance of students controlling their own learning process with structured, guided discovery.

“Active learning is teaching the TAs to facilitate and not teach, essentially,” said Evan Austin ’21, a student in materials science and engineering. “It's very collaborative and structured around activities instead of just sitting around and watching a lecture.”

Concepts like active learning are explained, modeled and infused throughout ELI’s TA training programs. Activities such as “Think-Pair-Share” – in which students consider an instructor’s question, meet with a partner to discuss answers, then share their solutions with others who might have reached different conclusions – are modeled in the interactive training sessions. Meanwhile, TAs are encouraged to utilize such techniques in their own teaching.

group discussion in a lecture hall
In a large lecture hall, TAs are incredibly valuable for helping clarify, redirect and support idea development during group work segments. (Pre-pandemic photo)

Some of the most important tasks that TAs in Cornell Engineering perform are in course labs. Like most courses during these pandemic semesters, labs have moved online, but the critical role of the TA has not diminished.

“We had the students remote desktop into the lab computers,” said Hadas Kress-Gazit, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. “But we had one TA in the lab that was moving robots around. We set up cameras in the lab and had a livestream of the field where the robots are moving.”

Other labs were conducted entirely through Zoom video conferencing, with parts kits being shipped to engineering students working at home, which presented new challenges for the TAs.

“The hardest part was if there was a defect, or if a student was running into a software or hardware issue, it was much harder to debug, it was a lot harder to visualize their setup,” said TA Andrew Tsai ’21. “We had to say, please point your camera at this, or take a screenshot and then share it.”

Students and TAs alike adapted to labs over Zoom and soon some positive aspects of the remote learning setup emerged. “One cool thing was being able to see the code on your own screen,” said TA Nicole Lin ‘20. “Usually, you have to bend over a student's computer to see what's happening on their screen, but with screen sharing and being able to control the student’s screen, some of the workflows are easier.”

“The lab environment tends to be a bit stressful for students,” said Hunter Adams, lecturer for the popular ECE 4760 microcontrollers course. “For many of them, it may be the first time that they’ve attempted to build something themselves.”

a TA works with a student through video conferencing
Undergraduate TA Greg Perez was invited to share his experience with new TAs in the Spring 2021 online master's/undergraduate TA training in February.

Students often feel more comfortable with their TAs than with their professors. That’s one of the strengths of the peer education model. “Student-to-student communication is often more casual,” said Lin. “I think some students feel a little bit intimidated about asking professors questions during a lecture. But when it's just students in the room, I feel like they have no problem asking questions.”

“Students can bounce ideas off the TAs; there's a lot of back and forth. As the semester progresses and the students become more competent, the TA role shifts more and more to that of a sounding board,” Adams said. “They're the experienced voice that can suggest a better direction.”

Winning with workshops

Realizing the value of peer education decades ago, Cornell Engineering created a program to supplement the regular course structure which offers a peer-facilitated, collaborative learning experience for first- and second-year students in core engineering courses. These Academic Excellence Workshops (AEWs) are optional 1-credit courses taken in conjunction with core engineering courses in math, computer science, chemistry and statistics. AEWs are led by trained undergraduate engineering students and focus on active, collaborative problem-solving.

Students who enroll in an AEW workshop section benefit from an educational environment where working together on concepts, problems and projects gives them a deeper understanding of the course material. The engineering students who serve as AEW facilitators also report their own knowledge of the coursework is enhanced.

“I fell in love with that course material,” said Austin, an AEW facilitator for Multivariable Calculus. “One of my favorite things about teaching is what you learn from the material. I get a lot of energy out of teaching. Every time I come out of a facilitation session, I feel energized and I have a lot of curiosity about many other things.”

A student and TA talk in a classroom
Whether in person or online, the work of peer educators can be one-on-one, facilitating small groups or orchestrating larger groups in active practices. (Pre-pandemic photo)

Other impacts from the experience of being a TA are even more personal. “As a freshman coming in, I was probably one of the most shy students at Cornell,” said Juan Berrio ’20, who now has several years’ experience as a TA and AEW leader. He says that being a peer educator forced him to break out of the shell he had. “As a result, I never get nervous in interviews. I have so much experience teaching and talking to students that I just don't get nervous public speaking anymore.”

The emphasis on peer education helps to build a sense of community. Lin, who was the electrical team lead for Cornell Racing in addition to being a TA, spoke about this. “A really big part of it is just getting to meet a lot of other students in engineering,” she said. “You're working with them in a context where it's more collaborative, and those interactions help you meet other students in the college and lead you to a stronger understanding. It goes beyond the coursework.”

Students who work as TAs and AEW facilitators enjoy long-lasting benefits. Some see themselves pursuing academic careers, where an understanding of different learning modalities and experience teaching and collaborating with students will serve them well. Some also value the opportunity to teach or facilitate because it cements their own understanding of core content, especially as they move into advanced courses.

“You really understand the material and the bigger picture, how it fits together, after you have started teaching it,” said Evans. “So the gains for TAs are professional development, public speaking and a much better command of that material than they had before.”

“It’s just something I'm passionate about,” said Berrio. “A friend asked me, ‘why are you teaching so much?’ It’s because I enjoy it. That was my first gut reaction. It's just something I really enjoyed doing.”

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