By Emma Bjorngard-Basayne and Mitch Green
It has long seemed to both of us that talented and experienced undergraduate students are a large but mostly untapped source of inspiration, energy, and leadership for their peers. After a student does well in a course, our first, quite reasonable instinct is to encourage her to go on to more advanced coursework. However, in so doing we may miss an opportunity to help that student deepen her knowledge of the subject matter of our course, as well as share that knowledge with those of her peers who take the class in later semesters.
What happens if we ask a student who does well in a course in one semester to come back to help students taking it in later semesters?
To answer this question we collaborated in 2017 to pilot a program for Instructional Assistants (IA’s) in Problems of Philosophy (Phil 1101), a large lecture course, which typically enrolls 320 students. Our goal was to ask the strongest students from a previous version of the course to serve as mentors, tutors, and facilitators for students taking it the next time it was offered, and then to evaluate the results. One of the main benefits we found was on the IA’s themselves. In particular, they found both pleasure and fulfillment in facilitating their peers’ development of deeper-level thinking, writing skills, and increased confidence in the classroom.
At the end of fall, 2016, we invited about 40 of the top students from the Phil 1101 course that had just ended to serve as Instructional Assistants in the next installment of the course to be offered in fall, 2017. These invitations were based largely on recommendations from their Teaching Assistants. To our delight, about 25 such students enthusiastically accepted our invitation. By the start of the fall, 2017, semester, 23 of these students were still available to serve in the intended capacity, and Mitch enrolled each of them in a 1-credit Directed Study course in which he was the Instructor of Record.
The 1-credit of Directed Study commitment corresponds to 3 hours of activity per week, and we asked IA’s to use that amount of time in the following ways:
(1) Each IA was assigned to work under a Teaching Assistant and was associated with one of that TA’s discussion sections. They would support the TA by offering suggestions to help with planning of discussion section activities, and attend the associated discussion section both to move discussion forward and provide the TA with a perspective on what concepts or information the students need more or less assistance with. In those cases in which discussion section time was spent on group activities, IA’s would float from one group to another to encourage and, where appropriate, redirect student discussion.
(2) Each IA would hold one office hour per week to help students answer study questions, to read and comment on paper drafts, or to answer other questions raised by the course readings or the contents of the lectures.
(3) Mitch divided the 23 IA’s into two groups and met with each group for 30 minutes on a weekly basis. This enabled the instructor to answer questions about course content. For instance, it was understandable if an IA thought she understood a concept used in the course but when asked for help with it by an enrolled student, found herself struggling to explain it.
We also discussed more general pedagogical questions. For instance, Mitch stressed that when an enrolled student comes to an office hour with a question, the best reply is not always to answer it. Rather, the student is likely to learn more if we can help her in finding answer herself.
“Let’s open the book and see what John Stuart Mill says in response to this objection to his ethical doctrine.” Or, “What do you think the author here should say in defense of their controversial claim?”
At no point did IA’s do any grading. Nonetheless, IA’s took some pressure off the Teaching Assistants by commenting on paper drafts before their final submission as well as helping students with study questions. (Enrolled students were encouraged to have their IA read their paper draft before asking for comments from their TA; however, we did allow students to bypass their IA in order to ask their TA for feedback.)
When asked in what ways the IA’s felt they made the most significant contribution to the education of the students enrolled in Phil 1101, their responses noted the impact they felt they had on facilitating deeper-level thinking, organizing their thoughts, strengthening their writing skills, and boosting confidence.
One IA shared that he at times felt that the students who came to his office hours just wanted answers to the study questions without “really thinking about them,” but he explains, “I was able to guide them through the questions so that they were able to grasp the concepts on their own.” Other students echoed this saying that besides enjoying feeling like they were able to help their peers come away with a better understanding of the concepts, they took pleasure in making sure they did not just “regurgitate concepts” from the textbook in their essays, instead, “actually inputting their thoughts and incorporating their own examples.”
The IA’s also emphasized the importance of being able to assist the students by reading their essay drafts and giving feedback, since it aided them in “thinking out” and organizing their thoughts, “fine-tuning” their ideas, and improving their writing skills. Moreover, many IA’s talked about how they enjoyed helping their peers build confidence both in the classroom and when presenting their ideas on paper. For example, one IA felt that her most significant contribution was “providing the students with the necessary confidence in class.” She describes how the students at first were hesitant about participating in the discussion sections, but as the semester went by and she worked on “encouraging and probing them, the students began to have more faith in their level of intellect.” Another IA emphasized her background as an English major as being helpful in assisting the students, “I was able to give them the advice they needed in order to improve not only their writing, but their confidence in presenting ideas.” Related to the topic of student participation, many IA’s observed that they were able to “get the ball rolling when students were quiet,” and that by speaking up they could stimulate conversation, engagement, and interest by “applying the lesson to real world, relevant, and relatable topics.”
Importantly for us, the IA’s also expressed feeling strong personal satisfaction from working with their peers. Most of them shared that it was fulfilling to engage with the students individually, and that they appreciated connecting with and helping them.
What’s in it for the IA? We doubt that 1 credit of directed study is what entices students to serve as IA’s. Rather, they may have enjoyed the course when they took it last fall, may like the resume-building opportunity, a potential letter of recommendation, or a chance to dip a toe in the activity of teaching to see if they want to jump in more deeply later on. Also, by far the best way to test whether you understand something is to see if you can teach it to someone else. As such, IA’s are likely to deepen their grasp of the course material by helping to teach it to others.
What’s in it for the currently enrolled students? Current students gain from ready access to a large number of near-peers who can recall their experience with the course from last fall, and who can offer advice about pitfalls to avoid, etc. IA comments on study questions and paper drafts have also proven invaluable.
What’s in it for the TA? In addition to taking some work off their shoulders (by reading drafts of study question answers and papers), we are also hopeful that IA’s help discussion section go more smoothly, and serve as sounding boards for TA’s planning discussion sections. In support of this, one TA described that it was helpful to her to have an extra set of eyes on students papers, and that IA’s also provided feedback on what worked well for them as students in the course and what they wished the TA or instructor would have spent more time on. Knowing this the TA was able to adjust her presentation of material accordingly. In addition, the TA also added that the IA’s notice subtler behavioral patterns in the students, which someone at the front of the classroom might not always catch.
What’s in it for us as instructors? If the above three points are largely correct, IA’s are likely to improve the course in which they serve. It would be encouraging if the introduction of IA’s decreased the Drop-Fail-Withdrawal rate. (It will take several more years before this is established, however.) Either way, and more broadly, by making “near-peers” accessible to enrolled students, we are hoping to achieve a “making large lectures feel small” effect, and thereby improve instruction at universities that offer such courses. (However, we see no reason why IA’s cannot be used to good effect in smaller courses as well.) Lastly, we think the IA program improves teaching practice because it provides more frequent feedback and positive validation of the students enrolled in the class. Additionally, with the IA’s themselves having positive emotional experiences around explaining and engaging with the class material yet again, one can confidently assume that their learning was improved as well.