A Faculty Perspective on Teaching Assistant Training

Amy Mueller
Baron Penman
Lee I. McCann
Susan H. McFadden

University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

The quality and type of instruction teaching assistants (TAs) receive provide basic preparation for a faculty career. We sampled 249 chairs of psychology departments offering doctoral programs. Questionnaire results show that faculty respondents (a) identify TA responsibilities in a variety of pedagogical areas, (b) describe a diverse set of TA training components, and (c) rate TA supervisors as experienced in both working with TAs and as undergraduate teachers. Faculty respondents describe a pedagogical base from which new faculty with TA experience may continue to develop as teachers.

The preparation teaching assistant (TA) training provides is important. Work as a TA represents the beginning of college teaching for many prospective faculty (Richlin, 1993). Almost half of current faculty in all disciplines were TAs (Schuster, 1993) and among TAs nationally, 75% plan to teach in colleges or universities (Diamond & Gray, 1987). What is the nature of TA training in psychology?

The American Psychological Association (APA) sponsored the 1991 National Conference on Enhancing the Quality of Undergraduate Education in Psychology that recognized the importance of TA training by recommending that "students be prepared for their role as teachers through course work or programs on teaching principles and methods" (McGovern, 1993, p.252). To ascertain whether departments and universities are meeting this goal and to determine what we can expect a typical new faculty member with TA experience to have learned about teaching, this research investigated doctoral faculty’s perceptions and beliefs regarding the importance and effectiveness of TA training with respect to responsibilities, content and structure of teacher training, and socialization into the academic profession.



Participants and Definitions

The focus of this study is TA training in American and Canadian doctoral programs in psychology, broadly defined to include any situation providing the opportunity to learn about teaching (e.g., informal meetings with faculty, one-on-one mentoring, structured and required TA training, and courses for credit). We sampled doctoral programs because their graduates are our future faculty and asked faculty respondents to consider the training of all pre- and postmaster’s TAs. We did not study the contribution of terminal master’s programs to TA development and differences between TA training pre- and postmaster’s in doctoral programs. To clarify that data were provided by faculty, and not TAs, we use the term faculty respondent.


We developed a questionnaire with a completion time of approximately 1 hr based on four bodies of literature: (a) TA research and writings across disciplines (e.g., Diamond & Gray, 1987; Lambert & Tice; 1993; Nyquist, Abbott, Wulff, &Sprague, 1991; Slevin, 1992; Van Note Chism, 1957); (b) writings on faculty preparation, especially the experience of new faculty (e.g., Boice’s 1991,1992 four-part model describing new faculty success; Fink, 1954); (c) literature on teaching and higher education in general (e.g., Fowen & Schuster, 1956; Clark, 1957; Lowman, 1995; McKeichie, 1994; Schuster, Wheeler, & Associates, 1990) with a broad view of faculty career development, including teaching; and (d) writings in psychology on college teacher preparation, TA programs, and ethics (e.g., Benassi & Fernald, 1993; Finger, 1969; Grasha, 1975; Lowman & Mathie, 1993; Lumsden, Grosslight, Loveland, & Williams, 1955; McFadden & Perlman, 1959; Rickard, Prentice-Dunn, Rogers, Scogin, & Lyman, 1991; Tabachnick, Keith-Spiegel, & Pope, 1991; Williams & Richman, 1971). Hence, the domains of TA training assessed by the questionnaire reflect the skills and knowledge that the literature defines as particularly important. All questions were close ended with categories to be checked or scales completed.


The Office of Demographic, Employment, and Educational Research of the APA provided a list of departments in the United States and Canada (n = 249) with doctoral programs training full-time graduate students at institutions with undergraduate students available for TAs to teach. Department chairs received a cover letter, questionnaire, and stamped return envelope and had the option of forwarding the questionnaire to a colleague mote knowledgeable about TA training. Three weeks later, a researcher telephoned non-respondents, briefly described the research, and asked that they complete the questionnaire. If the questionnaire had been (or needed to be) forwarded to someone more knowledgeable, the researcher called this person. The survey measured actual TA training within the institution, not institution policy, and the viewpoint of faculty respondents, not their colleagues or TAs.

The questionnaire was anonymous if faculty respondents did not list their names (optional); institutional affiliation was known. All data were confidential and we report them in aggregate form only.


Results and Discussion

Faculty respondents returned 135 questionnaires (55%). No TAs exist in 25 of these psychology departments, and 2 questionnaires were not usable due to substantial missing data. Thus, we analyzed data from 108 completed questionnaires (43%) for institutions in which TA training exists. Because some faculty respondents left items blank, all totals may not equal 105. All faculty respondents were from psychology departments. Of the 82 identifying their position, 42% (n = 34) were chairs, 26% (n = 21) held the rank of professor, and 33% (n = 27) were other psychology faculty.

TA Training Information

The faculty respondents perceive many opportunities for graduate students to gain TA training. Departments have an average of 97 graduate students (SD = 61, Mdn = 86) with an average of 33 TAs (SD = 25, Mdn = 25) who teach in some capacity for an average of 4.7 semesters (SD = 2.6, Mdn = 4, corrected for quarter systems and trimesters). At 90 institutions (83%), TA training is required. In the sample of 105 institutions, 70 departments offer TA training (required at 52), 14 college-level training programs exist (required at 6), and 58 training programs are offered at the university level (required at 32). In 17 (l6%) cases, both university and department TA training is required. Of the faculty respondents 78% (n = 81) believe that TAs learn the most from department-level training.

TA Responsibilities

The 10 most frequently cited areas (number of programs and percentage, respectively) of TA responsibility are as follows:

1. Hold office hours (105, 97%),

2. Grade exams (103, 95%).

  • 3. Conduct discussion groups or review sessions&endash;faculty member absent (92, 85%).

    4. Supervise labs&endash;faculty member absent (91, 84%).

    5. Prepare exams (86, 80%).

    6. Lead class discussion&endash;faculty member absent (82, 76%).

    7. Periodically present lectures (81, 75%).

    8. Prepare lectures (76, 70%).

    9. Take sole responsibility for class discussion section (72, 67%)

    10. Advise or counsel students-faculty member absent (66, 61%). In 56% of the programs, TAs write their own course syllabi, and in 52% TAs teach a course under faculty supervision.

  • New full-time faculty are expected to meet all of the teaching responsibilities inherent in faculty membership. When we compare the complexities of full-time teaching with TA responsibilities, we conclude that TA training is best viewed as a beginning. Faculty respondents are aware or this fact; 65% agree or strongly agree that new college professors often experience adjustment problems because graduate training has not oriented them properly toward their many job responsibilities and 57% disagree or strongly disagree that the typical graduate of a conventional doctoral program is well prepared to teach. Departments hiring or employing new faculty also need to understand that becoming a good teacher takes time, and the mentoring they offer should be seen as an extension of TA training, supporting new faculty members in their teacher development.

    Training Components of TA Programs

    The 10 most frequently cited training methods (number of programs and percentage, respectively) by faculty respondents are as follows:

    1. TAs observe faculty teaching (88, 81%).

    2. Student evaluations of TAs (85, 79%).

  • 3. Orientation preceding academic year or semester (83, 77%).

    4. TA observed in classroom by supervisors (78, 72%).

    5. Workshop, seminar, conference, and group meeting or informal interchange about teaching (72, 67%).

    6. Faculty as mentors (69, 64%).

    7. Faculty supervision (68, 63%).

    8. Required teaching seminar (49, 45%).

    9. Systematic small-group training (44, 41%).

    10. TAs observe (e.g., videotapes, discussion groups) their classroom teaching (40, 37%). Co-teaching is done in-frequently (23, 21%).

  • Some TA training is more extensive and offers more depth than others. For example, 49 programs require a teaching seminar; 6 (12%) are for 0 credit. 19 (39%) are for 1 credit, 20 (41%) are 2 to 3 credits, and 4 (8%) are for 4 or more credits. Most teaching seminars are 1 semester in length (n = 31, 63%) but 18% (n = 9) are for 2 semesters and one program requires a 4-semester seminar. Faculty respondents (81%) describe TAs’ use of training components and supports as average or good (M = 2.4, SD = 0.8, Mdn = 2), on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (excellent) to 5 (poor).

    Almost all TA programs (n = 104, 96%) offer supervision, most often individually with a supervising faculty (n = 47 programs, 45%) or in groups of 2 to 3 supervisors (n = 41, 39%). Half of the TAs receive 1 hr per week in supervision; the rest receive 2 to 3 hr per week. Faculty respondents report that TAs work with very experienced supervisors, 67% of whom have worked with TAs for 7 or more years. Of the 100 respondent faculty describing the undergraduate teaching experience of TA supervisors, 92 describe them as very experienced. We do not know the nature of this supervision, but 57 faculty respondents report their belief that it provides the most helpful feedback for TAs (40 faculty respondents rate student evaluations and 3 faculty respondents rate other forms of feedback as most useful) and 79 of 102 faculty respondents (77%) report its quality as adequate or very adequate (M = 2.1, SD = 1.0, Mdn = 2.0) an a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (very adequate) to 5 (very inadequate).

    Faculty respondents observe that TAs receive a varied approach to learning about teaching because of the different responsibilities they undertake and because of the differences among programs in supervision and requirements in training structure. Psychology TA training includes a number of structured and non-structured experiences, seminars, and discussions. Some of the TA training programs meet the criteria for the "full apprenticeship" or "apprenticeship/seminar" approach (Lumsden et al., 1955), whereas others reflect "hybrid" models (Benassi, 1993).

    Content of TA Instruction

    Table 1 presents data from the 105 faculty respondents on what they report TAs are taught about teaching. No cutoff for inclusion of items was used. Although no one program educates TAs in all pedagogical areas, faculty respondents observe that many teaching areas are typically covered, One can expect new psychology faculty with TA experience to be at least familiar with a wide variety of teaching issues and processes, although some facets of teaching are absent from the list (e.g., cooperative and collaborative learning, teaching psychology from a cross-cultural perspective, and teaching honors or capstone courses).

    The fact that 72% of the faculty respondents report instruction about the ethical standards of teaching shows attention to this critical area. The availability of the casebook, The Ethics of Teaching (Keith-Spiegel, Wittig, Perkins, Balogh, & Whitley, 1993), published just prior to our data collection, should make an important contribution to TA ethical training.

    Faculty respondents rate the importance of TAs learning about 15 different areas in higher education (e.g., a faculty career in academia, academic freedom) less than important on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (very important) to 5 (very unimportant). The literature (e.g., Slevin, 1992) supports these findings of a limited introduction for TAs to many general characteristics of higher education and to the "ethos of the academic workplace" (Schuster, 1990, p.30). Nonetheless, 70% of the faculty respondents report TAs are adequately or very adequately prepared (M = 2.3, SD = 1.0) on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (very adequately prepared) to 5 (very inadequately prepared), for a faculty career (teaching, scholarship, and other responsibilities).

    Table 1. TA Training Program Content

    TA Instruction


    The process of teaching


    Grading exams and assigning grades


    Lecturing techniques


    Course preparation (design, policies, goals. Objectives)


    Ethical standards in teaching


    Test construction


    Syllabus preparation


    Discussion methods


    Dealing with problem situations


    Developing course content


    Teaching of introductory psychology


    Building rapport and classroom climate


    Holding office hours


    Audiovisual techniques


    Interpersonal relations with students


    Developing a philosophy of teaching


    Motivating students to learn


    Teaching strategies (e.g., games, simulations. case methods)


    Handling difficult questions


    Teaching writing skills


    Fostering critical thinking


    Laboratory teaching


    Principles of human learning


    Evaluating self as a teacher


    Setting course difficulty


    Techniques of course evaluation


    Conducting review sessions


    Knowledge of student services


    Use of computers for teaching


    Text selection


    Teaching large classes


    Library and computer research services


    Advising and counseling students


    Teaching of science


    Role of psychology in liberal arts education


    Time and task management


    Stress management

    Note. TA = teaching assistant.

    Succeeding As New Teaching Faculty 

    In an extensive study of new faculty, Boice (1991,1992) described the skills and attitudes congruent with new faculty teaching success and satisfaction (compared to those new faculty who struggled or failed). His IRSS model includes Involvement (immersion in campus life and faculty activities), Regimen (apportioning one’s time and a regimen of moderation and efficiency), Self-management (learning to solve the right problem and attend to the right task at the right time), and Social networks (socializing on and off campus). We asked faculty respondents to rate the extent to which TA training encouraged TAs to develop these skills and attitudes on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (very great extent) to 5 (very little extent). It is the faculty respondents’ observation that none are strongly encouraged (involvement: M = 3.6, SD = 1.1, Mdn = 4.0; regimen: M = 2.6, SD = 1.0, Mdn = 2.0; self-management: M = 2.7, SD = 1.0, Mdn = 3.0; social networks: M = 3.7, SD = 1.0. Mdn = 4.0). Based on Boice’s findings (1992) we recommend integrating his model into TA training and the mentoring of new faculty to assist them in achieving success as teachers and faculty members early in their careers.

    Future Research

    Our faculty respondents report that TAs in many graduate programs seem to get a great deal of teacher training. A weakness of this study is that the data reflect the viewpoints of only one faculty respondent per department, and not viewpoints of the respondents’ colleagues, psychology TAs, and especially TA supervisors, although many respondents may serve in this capacity. If we were to sample psychology TAs, new faculty, or experienced faculty mentoring new colleagues, the data may indicate a need for more or different teacher preparation. Also, the data do not provide an objective or independent on-site evaluation of TA training. Future research may include on-site observations and comparison of these data with the perceptions of both supervisory faculty and TAs. It would be especially interesting to determine how new teachers learn to care about their students and teaching, and how much and in what ways being a TA contributes to this. Finally, the APA or American Psychological Society may want to consider sponsoring forums with discussion of models and examples of effective TA training in psychology and faculty career preparation in general. Further development, implementation, and evaluation of models of effective teaching preparation for new faculty are needed.



    According to the faculty respondents, many TA training programs expose graduate students to a broad range of topics and teaching experiences. The use in many programs of some type of apprentice or seminar model, the amount of individual or small-group supervision, and the experience level of supervisors all point to a commitment to teaching and to preparing good teachers in psychology. Given the rigors and complexities of becoming a good teacher, it is important that TA training provide this strong pedagogical foundation for the difficult teacher development process that follows. In hiring prospective faculty, it would be helpful to obtain information on candidates’ TA training, thus identifying applicants with experiences most appropriate to the needs of the position to be filled (Perlman &McCann, 1996). Similarly, a determination of the elements of teaching studied and practiced during TA training will help in the mentoring of new colleagues.




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    1. All authors were in the Department of Psychology at the time of the study. Amy Mueller is now at Westville, OH.

    2. We acknowledge financial support for this study from the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh’s Faculty Development Board. This article is based on a poster presented at the 18th Annual Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, St. Petersburg Beach, FL.

    3. Correspondence concerning this article, including requests for the questionnaire, should be sent to Baron Perlman, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI 54901; e-mail: perlrnan@uwosh.edu.

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