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Helping International TAs Excel in the Classroom
The article is based on a research report by Debra Dawson, Nanda Dimitrov, Ken Meadows and Karyn Olsen (2013). The full study is available online at www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/ITAs_ENG.pdf
International Teaching Assistants (ITAs) play an important role in the education of undergraduate students at Western. Western offers one of the most comprehensive series of ITA programs in Canada, helping graduate students from around the world learn to lead labs and facilitate tutorials effectively. Feedback from participants has always been very positive, but we wanted to examine the impact of the programs in greater detail and find out how they contribute to the teaching effectiveness of ITAs. The great news is, our research demonstrates that participating in TA training makes a big difference. Read on to find out more about the ways in which your ITAs apply what they learn at the Teaching Support Centre to enhance the learning experience of undergraduates in their labs and tutorials.
In a recent study, funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, we compared the impact of two training programs offered here at the TSC on the teaching effectiveness of ITAs (Dawson, Dimitrov, Meadows, Olsen 2013). We wanted to find out whether a TA training program with substantial intercultural content better facilitates the transition of international graduate students to Canadian academia than our traditional/general TA program.
The programs featured in the research represent the two main approaches to ITA preparation in Canada. The first is a general Teaching Assistant Training Program (TATP), in which ITAs participate in 20 hours of preparation for teaching in an interdisciplinary cohort, together with Canadian graduate students. The second program, Teaching in the Canadian Classroom (TCC), is a program designed specifically for ITAs. ITAs participate in 20 hours of preparation for teaching, but only with other ITAs. Both programs include modules on effective teaching techniques, and both programs include video-recorded microteaching sessions, during which TAs receive detailed feedback on a ten-minute lesson that they teach. What makes the Teaching in the Canadian Classroom program unique is that it includes a substantial intercultural communication component. Including intercultural communication modules in ITA training is important because ITAs are preparing to teach in a second language, in an academic environment where norms and expectations for teacher behaviour and communication style may differ significantly from expectations in their home culture (McCalman, 2007). Without cross-cultural training for ITAs, cultural differences in teaching styles and instructor roles are likely to lead to misunderstandings between international instructors and their undergraduate students (Fitch & Morgan, 2003) as well as to inaccurate attributions of student behaviour by instructors (Bauer, 1996; Yook & Albert, 1999). The intercultural components in the Teaching in the Canadian Classroom program address cultural differences in the role of instructors and students, explore expectations for student engagement in Canadian classrooms, and introduce communication strategies that may help ITAs bridge cultural differences in communication styles with their students and their supervisors.
The differences between the impacts of the two programs were assessed using a combination of self-report surveys, observer ratings of effective teaching behaviours, and focus group interviews. Changes in self-ratings of teaching self-efficacy and communication apprehension were measured before and after each program. Teaching self-efficacy is the belief that one can successfully master the teaching behaviours necessary to achieve the required learning or teaching outcomes (Boman, 2008). Teachers with high selfefficacy beliefs are more likely to engage in effective teaching practices than are teachers with low self-efficacy (Gordon & Debus, 2002). In addition to surveys, TAs completed two ten-minute microteaching sessions that were recorded on video. One microteaching teaching session occurred at the beginning of the program, and a second session close to the end, which allowed us to compare coders’ ratings of participants’ teaching behaviours across their two microteaching sessions. Almost 400 microteaching videos were coded by the research team using the Teacher Behaviours Inventory (TBI; Murray, 1985) which measures low inference behaviours, (such as giving concrete examples), that are highly correlated with effective teaching. To our knowledge, this represents the largest set of videorecorded microteaching analyzed in the literature to date. In addition, focus group interviews were conducted with a sub-sample of participants four to eight months after each program to assess the long-term impact of participation in TA training.
Summary of Findings
The impact of the two programs was quite similar. Both programs contributed to greater teaching self-efficacy among ITAs and both programs helped reduce their communication apprehension. However, the group of ITAs who participated in a program enhanced with intercultural components (TCC) made greater gains in their overall teaching effectiveness in a microteaching session, as assessed with the TBI. Focus group interviews with participants also revealed considerable differences between the two programs in terms of long-term impact. ITAs in both TATP and TCC described a shift towards more student-centered approaches to teaching, and demonstrated an increased ability to promote inquiry and facilitate active learning activities in their classrooms.
The Teaching in the Canadian Classroom course influenced the teaching practice of ITAs in several ways. TCC participants were able to provide more nuanced descriptions of teaching situations. They demonstrated a high level of reflection in their interpersonal interaction with undergraduate students and demonstrated a more complex understanding of these interactions. They applied intercultural communication concepts that they learned in the class to their analysis of teaching situations. By reflecting on teaching situations using cultural differences in classroom communication, they demonstrated an increased level of intercultural competence.
For example, ITAs talked about the ways in which they learned to engage students and promote inquiry:
“I have been TAing before coming to Canada, and I always had this background idea that the TA should be a second professor in the class, and you should have a lot of knowledge …and then teach the students what they didn’t know. But when I attended TATP I learned that sometimes you should engage them in conversations and ask them questions, so that in the process of asking them some questions they can answer their own questions… so you should guide them. Before what I used to do before was to be a lecturer, and be like an avatar to the professor.” ITA, Engineering, TATP
They learned to give effective presentations to interdisciplinary audiences:
“For the presentations in TCC - I had to pick a topic that was considered difficult in Engineering and I had to teach it to non- Engineers. So that was very interesting because in that case you have to make sure that you teach the concept but you teach it in a way that they get it, even though they don’t have the background. So this actually helped me to present more complex things in a simple way, and that was very helpful for my Engineering students too.” ITA, Engineering, TCC
The study provides evidence that TA training programs for Canadian and international TAs at Western can be very effective and may make an important contribution to the quality of undergraduate education. The findings also suggest that a program enhanced with intercultural communication components may help ITAs interact effectively, not only in the classroom, but also in other academic settings.
If you are interested in learning more about what ITAs learn in our TA training programs, the full research report is available online at: www.heqco.ca/ SiteCollectionDocuments/ITAs_ENG.pdf The Communication in Canadian Classroom and the Teaching in the Canadian Classroom programs are offered three times a year. To learn more about these and other ITA programs, please visit: www.uwo.ca/tsc/graduate_ student_programs/international_ student_programs/index.html
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Boman, J. (2008). Outcomes of a Graduate Teaching Assistant Training Program (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The University of Western Ontario, Canada.
Dawson, D., Dimitrov, N., Meadows, K. N., & Olsen, K. (2013). Bridging the gap: The impact of the Teaching in the Canadian Classroom program on the teaching effectiveness of international teaching assistants. Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Available online at: www.heqco.ca/ SiteCollectionDocuments/ITAs_ ENG.pdf
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