A reaccreditation team visiting campus last month stressed the importance of careful selection and training of GW’s almost 400 graduate teaching assistants, employed by GW to run discussion sessions, conduct labs and prepare students for exams.
In its review of undergraduate education at GW, the team of administrators from other universities suggested that “if there is not a process of careful selection and training for teaching assistants, then there should be,” said accreditation team member Ruth Freeman, a retired professor from the University of Rochester.
Only a week after the team released its findings, students expressed frustration with TAs at a Student Association town hall meeting on academic issues Monday.
Students said they face problems with TAs who do not speak English well, or speak with thick accents that make them difficult to understand.
Marni Karlin, the SA’s vice president for academic affairs, echoed the concern of many students that most discussions led by TAs are for introductory courses in disciplines that are unfamiliar to students, often causing greater academic headaches.
Junior Sara Rab said she has found that some TAs teach improperly, do not enjoy interacting with students or do not speak English.
“It is important that the people who teach the lab can communicate,” Rab said.
Junior Lisa Gutman agreed. She said TAs who are unable to understand questions jeopardize students’ understanding of the material.
“I appreciate TAs – they are here for our benefit. But I think the biggest problem is the language barrier,” Gutman said
A faculty member who asked not to be identified said rumors perpetually circulate that TAs who are not native English speakers have problems communicating with students, especially in the math and engineering departments.
Before being hired as TAs, graduate students are tested for English proficiency, according to Iva Beatty, director of graduate student services.
All international students are required to take an oral proficiency exam administered by the English as a foreign language department. The EFL staff member who administers the exam then determines the student’s ability to serve as a TA.
International students with scores of 600 or above on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) are exempted from a general English placement exam, Beatty said.
If a student fails the oral proficiency exam, he or she will not be placed in the classroom setting, and must repeat the oral exam during the following semester, Beatty said.
The University employed 387 TAs last year, 140 of them from foreign nations, according to Geri Rypkema, director of fellowships and graduate student services.
The math department boasts 14 TAs, including seven foreign students, said Hugo Junghenn, chair of the math department.
Junghenn acknowledged that his department employs a high number of international students as TAs, but stressed those TAs lacking sufficient teaching or language skills are assigned to grade exams or tutor students in the math lab.
“We do use a large number of foreigners because they are, quite frankly, stronger in math. They are an important part of our program,” Junghenn said.
Krzysztof Wargan, a first-year TA for Calculus 52, hails from Poland. Wargan said his initial teaching experiences were not successful, but he said he believes practice serves as the best preparation for teaching.
“At the beginning, it was horrible, and now it’s a little bit better,” Wargan said.
Wargan said he has noticed that many TAs at GW should not be teaching. While the oral proficiency exams prevent TAs without English proficiency from teaching in recitations, he has seen some TAs teaching who should not have been permitted into the classroom.
“I would be willing to bet there isn’t a college or university that would not have some complaints about the TA system,” said Craig Linebaugh, associate vice president for academic planning and special projects.
TAs are enrolled in the Graduate Teaching Assistants Program (GTAP) run by the University Teaching Center, which teaches them learning styles, said Linebaugh, who co-chairs the program.
He said TAs prepare 10-minute lessons in their discipline prior to the teaching center’s session. The lessons are videotaped and evaluated by faculty mentors.
“The function they perform as TAs is part of their education. GTAP is the first part of that,” Linebaugh said.
Linebaugh and GW Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman both suggested implementing a program in which TAs would meet with faculty mentors to discuss problems.
Professors said they maintain close contact with their TAs. Some professors observe and evaluate their TAs’ discussions or laboratories. Student evaluations of their teaching assistants help professors identify problems or successes with their TAs.
Professor Michael Sodaro, a professor of political science and international affairs, raved about his TAs.
Sodaro said he requires all TAs working with him for the first time to attend his class. He said he also meets with his TAs regularly to ensure that discussions reflect his lectures and to coordinate the grading of the take-home midterm exam.
-Tammy Imhoff contributed to this report.