Contact: Suzanne Trimel For immediate release

(212) 854-6579 May 17, 1999



Columbia Institutes Training Workshops

For Graduate Teaching Assistants


A new initiative by Columbia University‚s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences this spring expands the opportunities for graduate teaching assistants to enhance their classroom skills and career prospects.

The Graduate School, under the leadership of Dean Eduardo Macagno, held a series of four workshops in March and April led by seasoned faculty members that offered new TA‚s, preceptors and other graduate instructors training in leading classroom discussions and using technology in creative ways to help students learn. Next fall, workshops are planned on grading tests and essays, designing syllabi, preparing lectures, and other topics.

Macagno notes that several national trends, in particular the intense competition for academic jobs and new research into effective teaching techniques, created „a pressing need now to formalize the support given to our graduate student instructors.š

He explained that Columbia‚s individual departments have acted piecemeal in training TA‚s. Graduate students who have not been exposed to new techniques and theories, Macagno said, „will be less prepared to demonstrate excellence in teaching when applying for jobs.š

While the close mentoring relationship between a graduate student and his or her faculty advisor remains key to addressing many practical teaching questions, academic departments and programs at Columbia provide some training to TAs in the form of courses, workshops, and formal and informal meetings.

Rigorous standards exist in employing graduate students who teach Core Curriculum courses at Columbia College and other undergraduate courses. For the Core instructors, weekly meetings are held to discuss course content and practical teaching methods. A Teaching Practicum is offered in the spring for instructors who will teach the undergraduate course in Logic and Rhetoric the following fall, along with a weekly colloquium for instructors as they begin teaching.

Other departments conduct various training sessions. The Physics Department offers required teaching workshops, the Psychology Department offer a Teaching Practicum and the History Department holds orientation workshops. All graduate students who teach language courses attend a three-day orientation program and many take a language pedagogy course.

Graduate students who receive University support for their education -- about half of all graduate students -- typically begin as TA‚s in their second year of study. TAs teach over one-third of the University‚s undergraduate courses in the humanities and assist in teaching about half of courses in the sciences and social sciences.

During the first workshop in the GSAS series, Political Science Professor Andrew Nathan, Biology Professor Deborah Mowshowitz and Jonathan Gill of the Composition Program focused on how to lead a lively classroom discussion, providing invaluable practical tips on how to politely silence individuals who dominate discussion, draw out those who aren‚t inclined to talk at all, and what to do when a class is left speechless by difficult or confusing reading material.

The workshop also focused on more thought-provoking aspects of classroom discussion, such as how to deal constructively with diverse and conflicting viewpoints.

Jordan Friedman, Director of Health Education at Columbia, led a workshop on counseling students that explored strategies for dealing with situations that may take TA‚s by suprise: an angry student who confronts them about a lower-than-expected grade or a student who is experiencing emotional problems.

A workshop on teaching and technology featured a demonstration by Music Professor Ian Bent of his sonic glossary, a multimedia reference tool including animation, graphics, historical context and music recordings that provides expert explanations on Columbia‚s on-line computer network 24 hours a day. Psychology Professor Lois Putnam led a discussion on how the use of computer software like PowerPoint can help students focus and retain material during lectures.

Professor Putnam, who is a mentor to TAs in the Psychology Department, said the workshops were important because they bring students from different disciplines together. „Within one‚s own discipline, there is a culture and you tend to follow it. This is much broader. It offers students more ideas.š

A final workshop on evaluating student writing was led by Professor Sandra Prior, Director of the Composition Program.

Katherine Hoffman, a graduate student in anthopology who attended two of the workshops, said she found them particularly helpful in addressing some of the „quirkier difficulties with studentsš that arise, such as grading, and is eager for future workshops on designing lectures and tests.

Macagno notes that even departments that provide substantive training for TA‚s have expressed support for the new initiative. „Few departments have the equipment, expertise or the time to allocate to training graduate students in the use of technology, for example, or to provide the types of feedback and evaluation needed to systematically improve teaching,š he said.

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