While browsing in a book store recently, I happened to notice a slim volume entitled University of North Carolina: Off the Record. It's a student's eye view to life at UNC-Chapel Hill. What particularly caught my attention as I flipped through the book were lists of the ten best and ten worst things about the university.
Making the Ten Worst list were predictable complaints about inconveniences such as the terrible parking situation, the misery of the registration system, and the extraordinary difficulty of getting tickets for the Duke game. Also making the list was a pet peeve of mine, one that has a direct and serious effect on the quality of education students receive – Teaching Assistants.
Teaching assistants (TAs) are graduate students who are employed to assist professors in the work of instructing students and grading their work. Most students encounter TAs in large lecture classes, where they break down a large section into smaller groups of students, numbering around 20. The idea is for them to facilitate discussion of the topics that are taught in the lecture and handle student questions.
That idea may sound good, but it doesn't usually work out very well.
First, not all TAs are created equal. Some are capable at helping the students understand the material, but others are woeful. Many classes have five or more TAs. The lucky students will be assigned a TA who is competent, but the unlucky ones will be assigned one who is incompetent. That is hardly fair, nor is it a good educational practice.
Perhaps the greatest problem relating to competence is the inability of some TAs to speak English. According to the UNC Policy Manual, "Competency to teach includes an effective command of the language of instruction, usually American English, and an appreciation for the culture of the American university classroom." In my experience at UNC-Chapel Hill, I have had several TAs who weren't even close to having an effective command of the English language.
Most are capable of saying what they have prepared to say in English, but problems arise when students start asking questions. In my Introduction to Economics class, for example, my TA was from a foreign country and could read her notes in English very effectively. Students would then ask questions and the educational value went downhill fast. Sometimes she was unable to understand what the student was trying to ask.
Another problem is the fact that TAs grade student essays differently. As with English proficiency, grading standards vary greatly and for students it's the luck of the draw. Many times students have to appeal their grades to the professor because they feel the TAs were not fair in their grading. Also, in some of these large lecture classes part of your final grade is a totally subjective participation grade given by the TA, which means that students can be given good or bad grades based solely on the TAs opinion of them. Students whose views differ from those of the TA can suffer for it.
There is also a motivational problem. TAs are students themselves, often more the concerned with their own scholastic endeavors than that of teaching undergraduate students. In another economics class I took, the TA did little more than show up and quote from the textbook. In a political science course, our recitation section was supposed to last an hour, but usually lasted less than 10 minutes because the TA had no real interest in staying behind to teach the class.
My question is why this situation is tolerated? UNC-Chapel Hill and other universities have been hearing complaints from students for many years about the employment of TAs who are embarrassingly bad at teaching. Sure, they make a show of doing something. They say that they require English proficiency, but are clearly willing to accept a very low definition of "proficiency." UNC has set up a "Center for Teaching and Learning" that's supposed to improve the teaching skills of TAs (as well as inexperienced professors), but it's impossible to detect any improvement in the situation.
TAs at Chapel Hill have a lot to do so that professors can have low teaching loads so they'll have plenty of time for research. In a few areas, that research is important, but in most it isn't.
Maybe the solution to poor TAs is for professors to do more teaching themselves.