How to teach Learning Assistants (or TAs) about teaching?

by Stephanie Chasteen on January 4, 2013

Many institutions are struggling on their own to provide good instructional materials to new teachers under their mentorship — namely graduate teaching assistants or undergraduate learning assistants.  These students are typically trying out teaching for the first time, and need opportunities to engage in discussion about the complex decision-making processes that they will face in the classroom.  How do they draw out their students through productive conversation?  How do they find out what ideas their students already have about the material, and how do they help to facilitate group learning situations?

Video is a particularly rich medium for sparking such conversation among such novice teachers (or even among old hands!).  Physics education researcher Rachel Scherr from Seattle Pacific University specializes in video analysis (I’ve written about her work before) realized that the kinds of insights she gets by watching student interaction in video vignettes could easily serve as a rich tool for budding teachers.

Thus was born the Video Resource for LA Development.   As described on the website:

In a video workshop, short, compelling video episodes are accompanied by captions, transcript, excerpts from instructional materials, and targeted discussion questions to help LAs and faculty explore the principles and values that inform instructor and student behavior. The video episodes for this project will showcase a variety of exemplary (yet real-life) LA-relevant instructional formats including Tutorials in Introductory Physics, Modeling Instruction, labs developed at Western Washington University, and Open Source Tutorials.

The materials consist of short (about 5 minute) video clips of students working together in tutorials and other environments, discussing physics ideas with one another and with undergraduate learning assistants.  Each clip is accompanied by a short worksheet designed to promote discussion among workshop participants about what they saw in the video clip.  While this is intended to supplement a learning assistant training course, I could see these as being useful in a wide variety of contexts.

I’m particularly excited about this kind of instruction because video provides such an authentic, engaging, and rich “virtual experience” for teachers to watch and discuss together.  There is so much that can be learned from analysis of a short segment.  I’ve found as I’ve done a little video work that I learn more and more about what happened in each subsequent viewing of a clip.  It seems that I only ever really understand a 5 minute segment after watching it 2-3 times and discussing with fellow researchers.

I know that theBiological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) has piloted a related project for K12 teachers, “videocases for science teaching analysis”.   These are intended for use in teaching methods courses:

Each teacher’s videocase includes videos of science teaching, videos of teacher and student interviews, samples of student work, student pretests-posttests, lesson plans, and supplementary materials used in the lessons.

I’m sure this is an often-used mechanism in K12 teaching preparation, since it seems like the K12-ers always have it figured out ahead of us university instructors.  Do others know of compelling examples of the use of video vignettes or cases to prepare future teachers?


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