Are TAs Going to be Teaching Your Classes?

college students sitting in a circle representing TAs teaching classesIf you attend an institution with non-professional graduate students, the answer in most cases is yes. And they don’t have to be large schools. There are 37 schools with less than 5,000 full-time undergraduates that have at least 50 or more graduate teaching assistants. You’ll even have TAs teaching classes at Harvard and Yale.

How can this be?

Go visit the Yale Open Courseware website and watch the introductory lecture for Hist 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877. You’ll hear him mention teaching assistants (TA) assigning reading material for the discussion sections.

In the UC Berkeley Economics 1 in Fall of 2011 class by Kenneth Train of over 700 students, the professor emphasizes the importance of attending the sections since some of the required material will only be covered in the sections.

And who leads discussion sections? Graduate Student Instructors (GSI), graduate students who are working on their own PhDs.

According to College Navigator, both Harvard and Stanford have over 1,000 instructional graduate assistants. Of course, you would expect the quality of graduate assistants to match the school’s general reputation. But you don’t see colleges bragging about the quality of their teaching assistants.

Teaching assistants at Harvard
College Navigator: Harvard Teaching Assistants

Many would argue that’s not the same thing as teaching the class. It’s the professor delivering (most, if not all) the material in the lecture and most, if not all, do an amazing job.

However, the lecture is pretty much a one-way process, the professors talk, the students listen. There isn’t any engagement between the two sides and this engagement is considered a critical part of the education process. Don’t think so? Then why require discussion sections? Unless they’re strictly a make-work proposition for grad students.

Think about it. The very part of the education process, discussing and questioning ideas, that would benefit from the “experts” knowledge and experience, is done without the expert, the professor.

Why are universities such as Yale and the University of California Berkeley willing to make the lectures available free on the internet? Yale even includes the syllabus and assignments. Apparently, they don’t consider the lecture the heart of the education experience of the university.

And they’re right. Being able to discuss ideas with other students (who are paying attention) adds value to the education. Having access to various speakers and resources that a large endowment buys, adds value to the education.

So the question is, where does the primary value of a college education lie, in the lecture or the interaction that occurs in the discussion sections?

Supporters of small Liberal Arts Colleges (LAC) would argue that the interaction between the student and professor is the heart of the education process. Universities obviously think there is some value in this otherwise why would discussion sections exist?

Therefore, since TAs are responsible for some elements of the learning process even at Yale and Harvard, yes, they are teaching at least some of the classes.

Not everyone believes that having graduate students teach is a bad thing. After all, they have to learn to be professors sometime and they are doing it under the supervision of a professor. It also reduces the cost of the course for the college, although not necessarily for the student.

And for many, large survey classes are part of the college experience. It means that the successful student will take responsibility for her own education as oppose to just sitting around and reading the student newspaper. The expectation is that as you move into upper-division courses, your classes will be smaller and you will actually interact with your professors rather than just receive information.

This may or may not happen.

In any case, the students at the LAC have had two or more years to develop relationships with professors than the average student at a University.

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Just in case you’re wondering, a 5 on the AP Economics exams won’t get you out the UC Berkeley economics class.

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  1. Another scary thing is that the Teaching Assistants may not even be Graduate students. I have a friend whose son is a sophomore or beginning junior that is a TA at University of Georgia! With the HOPE scholarship, the Georgia public schools are extremely crowded, which is why, even with free tuition at a the state university, my daughter will attend a private LAC.

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