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September 1, 2005

Resources for Pitt teaching assistants

In addition to the two-day new teaching assistant (TA) orientation (the second day will be held Sept. 10), the University offers a wide array of TA and teaching fellow (TF) support services, including special services for international graduate students on what to expect in an American classroom.

According to Joanne Nicoll, associate director for instructional design and faculty development, Pitt continually supports its graduate student teachers.

“Our programs and publications are tailored to meet the needs of TAs from the first day of class all the way to the job search process,” Nicoll said.

The Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) offers a “hands-on” workshop series for graduate student instructors during the academic year. These workshops provide practical advice and ideas for graduate students teaching recitations, labs or their own classes as well as the opportunity to share experiences with other teaching assistants and teaching fellows.

CIDDE’s Carol Washburn, senior instructional designer, and a team of TFs teach the University Teaching Practicum (FACDEV 2200), a three-credit graduate seminar designed for TAs and TFs who will be teaching a class independently for the first time.

The practicum, which is required for all Arts and Sciences graduate student instructors teaching their own classes, encourages new instructors to share concerns and experiences through class and electronic discussions. Practicum assignments encourage graduate student instructors to create and improve classroom materials including syllabi, student assignments and lesson plans.

In-class activities include brief lectures, discussion, small-group work, guest speakers and classroom observation. Each student’s teaching is videotaped.

Other TA resources at Pitt include:

• Videotaping and consultation services. Classroom videotaping serves two purposes: to provide feedback to the TA about teaching and to document a TA’s teaching experience for future employers. Consultants are available for critical evaluations of the TA’s teaching.

• Teaching related consultations. CIDDE consultants are available year-round to discuss questions and concerns. Consultants meet with graduate student instructors individually to help design a new syllabus or testing structure or manage challenging students.

• Portfolio consultation. In many fields, graduate students seeking a faculty position are expected to demonstrate teaching excellence. Consultants at CIDDE can help TAs prepare a teaching portfolio and can answer questions about pursuing a career as a teacher. In addition, CIDDE has a collection of books and other resources on preparing portfolios as well as sample portfolios prepared by Pitt graduate students and faculty.

• Books, guides and other resources on graduate student teaching. Resources include “The Teaching Assistant Experience,” a 248-page compendium of practical advice, educational theory and University policies.

• The National Teaching and Learning Forum. This on-line bi-monthly newsletter offers a mixture of learning theory and practical advice on teaching. (The newsletter is available at:

• E-mail teaching resources. “TATALK” (pronounced TA talk) is Pitt’s on-line listserv for teaching assistants. Tips on teaching are delivered to TAs’ e-mail addresses twice a term.

Finally, several individual departments in Arts and Sciences have discipline-specific training for their teaching assistants. In the Department of Chemistry, for example, new TAs undergo four days of training, according to George Bandik, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in chemistry.

“We spend one afternoon talking to the students about good teaching, defining just what is it,” Bandik said. “We then talk about the individual courses that they are going to be involved in, including the responsibilities that they will have such as grading, safety in the classroom, etc.”

First-year graduate students also must take the lab courses they will be teaching in the future. “They get hands-on chemistry experience,” Bandik said. “I can’t imagine letting them teach without actually doing the labs themselves.”

The department also holds lunch-time talks on relevant issues, such as academic integrity, harassment and University policies on withdrawing from courses, among others.

New chem TAs also are required to give oral presentations to a group of faculty and more experienced graduate students. “This allows us to evaluate their ability to speak, use the blackboard, etc., as well as judge their organizational skills,” Bandik said.

Following the presentations, each student meets one on one with senior graduate students for feedback.

“We also work with them on how to write a lecture, how to write a quiz and how to write a syllabus,” Bandik said. “It is a very full four days.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 1

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