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The Chicken And The Egg: Training GTAs In Time

The Chicken And The Egg: Training GTAs In Time
Graduate teaching assistants face the same challenges as employees in other sectors; is it best to receive needed training before starting work, or just-in-time as learning is needed? A true chicken-and-egg conundrum. Photo by Rachel Carter.

Recent discussions around ensuring the quality of teaching that students at UK universities receive has brought some focus on the issue of training GTAs (Graduate Teaching Assistants). There has been particular comparison to the situation of Graduate Student Teachers in the USA. Both countries have long had students studying a PhD doing some teaching of undergraduate students. This approach particularly helps to relieve the burden on handling the large cohorts which have grown to a great extent in the UK over the past twenty years. In addition, there are key benefits for the GTAs themselves, not only for those who want to remain in universities and become full-time lecturers but those going into other sectors as well.

GTAs can be closer in age to the students and certainly have more recent experience in being the receivers of a university education. Thus, they can often provide a useful link somewhere between being completely students and fully academics. In my experience this link is welcomed by undergraduates who are rather in awe of people with titles like ‘Dr.’ and ‘Professor’ and yet need to ask someone for particular academic support.

Steadily over the past decade universities have felt compelled to train their lecturers or at least ensure they have a threshold ability in terms of teaching. With increased fees and the more consumer-focused approach to UK higher education, students are also looking more critically at the teaching they receive. If established, experienced, confident academics have to work to stand up to such scrutiny, how much harder is it for a GTA?

The importance of the training of GTAs was particularly highlighted to me by the report by the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) in April 2011 giving only ‘limited confidence’ to the management of academic standards at the small (6000 students) York St. John University which had gained university status in 2006. In particular, the QAA insisted that GTAs received regular training before teaching undergraduates. No-one would disagree these days that anyone who is going to teach university students needs at least a basic level of training, typically in line with the HEA’s (Higher Education Academy) Standard Descriptor 1. However, the nature and the timing of the training GTAs receive are decided by each university.

I know UK institutions where training is confined to a single intensive day and others where it is covered in regular sessions stretching over a term or more. All of the courses I am familiar with expect GTAs to produce some form of reflective essay or a journal to demonstrate engagement with self-reflection and higher education pedagogy. Many expect a teaching observation to form part of the process. Fortunately, in contrast to some academics on probationary training programmes, all the GTAs I have met are eager to attend any courses that are provided to train them to be effective academics.

A key challenge is that the undergraduates might expect that a GTA should have done all of this before they start teaching, but, ironically, for some courses they have to be doing a certain amount of teaching each term before they are permitted to begin the training. Surely there is a need to train every GTA, even if they only teach 20 hours per term. Do not the students deserve to have as well trained a GTA who is teaching for only 20 hours as those being taught by someone who does 60 hours per term? There is no doubt they will increasingly vocally insist this is the case. The scope of the GTA’s role can vary considerably, some just demonstrate, others give lectures; some are restricted to only marking formative assessment, others play a full part in marking final assessments. Yet, invariably they all give feedback to students. As we know, effective feedback can be a challenge for some established academic staff, especially given the diverse student body to which they are feeding back.

Is one batch of training for a GTA over a day or a term enough or should universities look at ongoing training? To some degree this will be shaped by whether the institution sees a probationary course for its full-time academics as all that is needed for them or whether it compels them to retrain periodically. Thus, there are many questions to be answered around the nature, duration and frequency of training for GTAs.

Good quality, regular GTA training at appropriate times is a must for universities. Work needs to be put in to ensure that such training is not only seen as appropriate by the university and the various bodies associated with learning and teaching but, increasingly, that it produces GTAs capable of providing teaching of a level that the students receiving it feel is high quality too.

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