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Helping international student teaching assistants succeed

May 6, 2020
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ANN ARBOR—International graduate teaching assistants need additional support to prepare them to evaluate the work of undergraduates in large introductory science, technology, engineering or mathematics courses, new University of Michigan research shows.

The study by Lisa Walsh, doctoral candidate in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and colleagues recommends ways to address training and workload issues that could help the ITA teaching experience, which in the end benefits STEM students at the crucial time when they are figuring out if they want to pursue careers in STEM.

Their article in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education highlights the team’s survey of 1,065 undergraduates and 31 graduate teaching assistants, or GTAs, designed to evaluate if student outcomes differed when graduate student instructors were international or domestic.

“We found the outcomes did not differ overall,” Walsh said, noting previous studies in non-STEM disciplines had found otherwise. “The only difference we found was in how the papers were graded.”

They found that domestic GTAs graded significantly more stringently on writing assignments, potentially paying more attention to grammar, whereas the international teaching assistants, or ITAs, might have focused more on critiquing content. This resulted in significantly higher grades for the students graded by an ITA (scores in the high 80s to low 90s when graded by ITAs compared with the mid-80s from domestic GTAs).

Walsh said this and other observations suggest more time during early course planning meetings should be centered on grading technique and establishing a rubric for all.

Another note from the team was that because ITAs require more time to grade and are limited by their F-1 visas as to how much they can work, consideration should be given to providing additional support for grading.

In fact, in a follow-up survey 70% of graduate teaching assistants said they needed more support when grading, which they said would be most welcome from experienced GTAs (100%), professors (50%) and a training course (25%).

“We need to think more about how and why we grade, and examine the rubric well before the graduate student starts grading,” Walsh said.

For example, she said instead of expecting graduate teaching assistants to grade 60 papers in a week, perhaps scaffolding the writing assignments could help so that students submit the papers in parts or chapters.

“That’s hard for anyone to do,” Walsh said. “I can work more than 20 hours a week on grading but ITAs can’t.”

The team’s other specific recommendations for the professors who oversee courses with GTA teaching teams:
Devote at least one 60-minute course planning meeting to discussing scientific writing
In a group work setting, have the teaching team develop strategies and goals to use while grading papers
Do not weigh grammar heavily
Be more aware of the challenges ITAs face, including the limit on their time
Consider what one biology lab did and use a short-answer approach to measuring understanding of the material rather than larger papers

The research was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Authentic Research Connection Grant.

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