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Workshops give TAs a chance to hone their skills

BY LAUREN MILLS | OCTOBER 05, 2009 7:20 AM

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UI Professor Mitch Kelly said he opens each semester by recounting the tale of a poor lost freshman who wandered into his class looking for the “reetoric” department.

After learning he was in the wrong place, the student walked out, looking despondent, only to reenter through the room’s back door seconds later. His hopeful expression immediately deflated when he saw Kelly again.

Stories, Kelly said, are a wonderful way to motivate students and keep them awake.

Kelly, a clinical associate professor of educational psychology, spoke about his teaching strategies at the second in a string of four workshops designed to help teaching assistants hone their skills before becoming responsible for teaching a group of UI students.

The workshops are a result of last spring’s negotiations between the UI and the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students, which worked to provide the training sessions.

“Before, training was a gentle suggestion,” said Bill Peterson, the organization’s president. “Often, [teaching assistants] were just handed a syllabus, and it was assumed that their past education was sufficient to communicate that information.”

With speculation that the UI may begin slashing the number of teaching assistant positions because budget cuts, some graduate students have said they are worried lack of training could lead to the loss of their jobs.

“If a TA is not prepared to teach and he does a bad job, he may not be offered another job,” Peterson said. “You need some preparation or you are setting them up to fail.”

This semester’s workshops can only handle about 30 students each out of a teaching-assistant population of around 1,400. But many said they want to see the now campuswide program expand, eventually becoming specialized to departments.

But such an expansion may not be realistic.



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“If they require all 1,400 teaching assistants to come, the Center for Teaching is just not set up for that,” said Jean Florman, the director of the Center for Teaching, trailing off and shaking her head.

Roughly 30 teaching assistants attended the latest session on Oct. 2, which discussed how best to motivate students once the mid-semester drag sets in. Kelly said he mined much of the content from workshops he gives to incoming faculty members.

“I really don’t think there’s much of a difference if I am teaching new TAs or faculty,” Kelly said. “I want to make sure the same principles take place in either classroom.”

Reasons for attending the lecture varied.

Graduate student Islam Aly said he is interested in being a teaching assistant next semester.

“How to mix humor with the curriculum is very important. I never thought of teaching in this way before,” Aly said while munching on cookies during a break to the two-hour session.

Although the workshops are intended to help graduate students, many foresee undergraduates benefiting, as well.

“Getting strategies to motivate students is important for me as a teacher and also for my students,” said Josh Pederson, a teaching assistant in the rhetoric department. “They are ultimately the ones who will benefit from the training I do.”


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