New Program is Helping Economics Graduate TAs Strengthen Classroom Skills

Tuesday, Dec 16, 2008

by Anna Rzewnicki


Tamah Morant, director of the Graduate Economics Program and teaching assistant professor in economics in the NC State Jenkins Graduate School of Management, has developed the new program in collaboration with Barbi Honeycutt, director of graduate teaching programs at NC State’s Graduate School.

“The majority of our economics graduate students accept collegiate teaching positions,” Morant said. “While students here, most have GTA positions with assignments to conduct breakout sections for students in the large lecture classes or to teach independent sections of economics courses under the supervision of our graduate faculty. Our goal with this program is to strengthen that experience by providing them with the solid foundational skills they will need to be effective in the classroom.”

Heather Freilich is one of those GTAs. A first-year doctoral student in economics, she began in the fall 2008 semester teaching three lab sessions per week for one of the college’s undergraduate economics courses, each with 30 students. “I had never taught prior to this and it has been an extremely rewarding experience,” she said at the end of her first semester. Before stepping into the classroom, though, Freilich had attended the GTA training and said that she “found it to be very helpful.”

The new training program is designed specifically for economics GTAs like Freilich. It includes a two-day workshop held in the summer, attendance at a CORE workshop early in the fall, taught by Barbi Honeycutt in the NC State Graduate School, and classroom observation and feedback conducted by Morant and other faculty in the economics department. The fall CORE workshop covers the ‘core’ components of teaching, building on what was presented in the summer session.

“The program prior to the first day of class was very helpful because, having never taught students before I would probably have had no idea how to approach that first day without it. The strategies we learned were very useful as well, and I tried to incorporate them into my lab sessions as much as possible. Training continued with breakout sessions in the economics department where we gave sample lectures with four or five other graduate students watching. For a new student/TA, this made me a bit nervous but it was certainly useful,” she said, adding that she applied the suggestions received during the training in her lab sessions.

Tracy Collins, a third year doctoral student, has been teaching as a TA for two years now, and she also participated in the training programs. “It has been a great experience,” she said. “All of the workshops have helped me to improve the organization of my classes, develop a positive learning environment, and tailor my teaching style to my students. One of the workshops even helped me to improve my Powerpoint slides so that students can grasp subject matter on slides better. The TA training also taught me how to utilize active learning techniques in the classroom so that students can gain confidence using what they’ve learned.” In this training session, the GTAs worked with other economics graduate students to come up with learning strategies related to economics. This exercise “made the techniques more tangible,” Freilich said.

The Grad Econ TAs will have the option of continuing their training in future semesters to gain program recognition and letters of recommendation for their teaching portfolio, something that both Freilich and Collins said they plan to do.

“The TA training program that Tamah has initiated is great,” Collins said. “It’s just was we needed. I’m glad that she stresses excellence in teaching.”

The economics GTAs may transfer that they’ve learned, particularly the CORE workshop, to fulfill part of the requirements in the NC State Graduate School’s Certificate of Achievement in Teaching (COAT) program, gaining additional training, transcript notation and support from the NC State Graduate School for their teaching portfolios.

The Graduate Economics Program currently has 22 of its GTAs in the program. Of these, 14 conduct lab sections or have instructional contact with students. An additional 14 are independent instructors of record for economics courses in either the College of Management or College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which jointly administer the Grad Econ Programs, and 12 have grading assignments. In the future, the program will be required only for incoming GTAs and those who are moving from grading assignments to lab instruction. The program is taught as a summer workshop in mid-August, prior to the start of the academic year.

“As graduate teaching assistants, many of our students have the unique opportunity to shape the learning experience of undergraduate students as they further their own academic pursuits,” Morant said. “We are proud of the work done by our graduate teaching assistants and the undergraduate students at North Carolina State appreciate their efforts. Oftentimes, the GTAs have more available time than do faculty and provide an important link between hearing information presented in large course sections and having the opportunity during labs to apply what has been learned in a setting that is more conducive to asking questions and interacting with their fellow students.”

Morant added that “North Carolina State University and the Economics Graduate Program are committed to providing the support and resources needed to help our graduate students excel in their positions as GTAs. Many of these students seek academic appointments upon graduation and they need to understand and practice the components of effective teaching before entering the market. While our graduate program provides rigorous training in the theory and application of economics to research, it is extremely important that our students also be able to bring effective and superior teaching talents to the job market and to potential employers. That is why we are implementing this GTA training program.”

Morant and Honeycutt, along with Mariam Ferzli, teaching assistant professor in biology, and Sarah Egan Warren, senior lecturer and assistant director of the Professional Writing Program at NC State, also are developing a Foundations of Teaching program that all departments at NC State can require for their graduate TAs, to give them a solid foundation for stepping into a teaching role in the classroom.

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