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Hal White, University of Delaware
Morrison used that connection to help bring one student back from the brink. She had stopped coming to his recitation and her grades were dropping, so Morrison tracked her down after lecture one day. Like many MIT freshmen, she was bright and driven, but as they talked she confessed that she was having trouble managing her time. He gave her advice on balancing commitments, and soon she was back in recitation and ended up doing well in the class.
“As long as you get to a student quick enough, when you start seeing them slip a bit, you can get on the problem and show that you care,” Morrison says. “I think they get a boost of confidence and are more likely to do better in the class.”
Robert Mason's first experience with a TA was when he became one. In the 1980s, Mason went from College of the Holy Cross, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts with no graduate students, to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the largest schools in the nation.
He remembers being told he was a TA, and that he'd have to report to the introductory biology classroom on Monday morning. “It was pretty much, ‘Knock 'em dead, kid!’” laughs Mason, who now heads the undergraduate biology program at Oregon State University. “I have a vivid memory of standing up in front of the class thinking, ‘Holy cow, three months ago I was over there, and now I'm over here.’”
Mason thought back to that experience when he began looking for ways to improve Oregon State's introductory biology class, with funding from an HHMI grant. The class includes two immense lecture sessions of 650 students each—which doesn't give the faculty much opportunity to reach out to individual students. But Mason had at least 28 graduate students serving as lab TAs, each meeting with undergraduates weekly in smaller lab sections. When Mason asked around about TA training, colleagues pointed him to Jessica White, an education professor.
White studies the factors that cause graduate students to stay in or drop out of school, and she had heard a lot about the TA experience. Some students were glad for the income from the paid position, since it helped them finance their education. But often, students cried during interviews when talking about teaching. “They felt really unprepared and felt they were being fed to the wolves,” White says. What scared them wasn't the subject matter—it was how to deliver a lecture, how to manage a classroom, how to write a quiz.
Photo: Paul Fetters