Saturday, August 06, 2005

Using Undergraduates in Instruction – What We Know Now

I started my own experiments teaching online in 1995. Before that I taught for 15 years in what we now call the “traditional approach.” In a few of the undergraduate classes I got to know the students and they got to know me in a way that I would describe as “intellectual affection.” This was in the undergraduate math econ class that I taught regularly for about 5 or 6 years. It was a small class, we did esoteric but intellectually interesting stuff (for most of it we used David Gale’s book on Linear Economic Models) and these kids were thinking about Econ graduate school; a few actually went.

In most of the rest of the undergraduate courses, the bulk of which was teaching intermediate microeconomics, I hardly got to know the students at all. The class size (around 60 students and I was typically assigned a grader for the problem sets) really didn’t promote discussion. Many of the students were extremely mercenary about the course (it was a requirement for the business major but not one they endorsed) and they reacted to it negatively. In the early 1980’s some of them would come to office hours, perhaps because I was only a few years older than them and I was nice guy (still am) and didn’t go out of my way to put distance between myself and them. (In contrast, I had a colleague who came to Illinois the year before I did and who wore Brooks Brothers suits when teaching in part to establish his authority.) But I didn’t learn much about the students thinking this way other than that they were stuck on some parts of the homework or the midterms.

Ten years later after some hiatus, I got back to teaching intermediate microeconomics. I probably taught a better course then, since I was more seasoned as an economist and as an instructor. But the distance with the students had widened. I recall giving out candy cigars to my class soon after my first kid was born. But I don’t think that helped in getting the kids to come to office hours. The vast majority of the students were near anonymous to me. I graded the exams, a combination of problem solving, essays, and multiple choice) but I dreaded that. It was not a way for me to get to know the student’s thinking.

Somewhere around that time, I served as an undergraduate advisor for a semester or two. I recall a lot of forms to go over and that was mostly bureaucratic stuff, checking to see whether the students had completed such and such requirement. There was a bit on which course the students should take to fill a requirement or a cognate, who was the good professor, who was the professor to avoid. I don’t recall any of it that was very meaningful and in no case do I recall having repeat visits from the same student. I must not have been very good at it, because I wasn’t asked to do it the following year.

Also around that time I had a sequence of graduate students where I was the dissertation advisor. In some cases these students had taken an advanced course or two from me. In another case, a Portuguese student had been referred to me by a colleague. We ended up writing a paper together on cost overruns that was the heart of his dissertation and that received some attention at the time it appeared. Indeed, I tried to treat my advising role as one of co-authorship. But I know at the time I felt I was doing too much of the work. The students couldn’t contribute as equals – they didn’t know the literature well enough and were not good enough as math modelers. But part of that was the point – the co-authoring was a way for them to learn what was required of them to write journal quality articles.

Though I’ve had inquiries from undergraduates to serve as a research assistant for me in some capacity, to the extent that I was engaged in theoretical work that centered around understanding a mathematical model, there really was nothing for them to do. I’ve never worked with an undergraduate on my economics research.

I can’t say how typical this experience is. I do now know of some exceptional faculty in anthropology who have engaged ordinary undergraduates in their research project – The Ethnography of the University of Illinois. And I know some science faculty members who keep an undergraduate or two as part of their research lab team. There are some opportunities for undergraduates to have meaningful interaction with faculty members. But I also know I heard from several different students how their professors seem arrogant and aloof. And I know the Boyer Commission report characterized undergraduates as second class citizens on campus; undergraduates operate outside the main set of intellectual activities that are underway.

I want to contrast that view with what I’ve learned since I began to teach with technology and then as someone who has talked with many other instructors about their teaching experiences with technology. Almost from the get go, I used undergraduates as online TAs. The students in the class had online access to live help and they made substantial use of that. (Ironically, they also demanded that the TAs have face to face office hours, but even when those were supplied they were not heavily utilized.) And ultimately I used the TAs in a more controversial role, as graders of the student homework.

In our Calculus and Mathematica offering at Illinois, undergraduate tutors were used in a similar manner. Likewise they were used as TAs in Chemistry. And, as I reported a week or so ago, I got the idea from Burks Oakley, who taught in Electrical and Computer Engineering. All the instructors I know who tried this on my campus thought it was an excellent idea. And in the Calculus and Mathematica case I was able to talk with some of the undergraduate tutors themselves. Their experience seemed similar to the experience my Econ TAs had. They felt hey were really helping the students – doing something valuable. And I know from the evaluations we did that the students taking these courses also felt this was a good idea. They were connected to someone who’d help, someone who was reliable, who was there for them.

A little later I got involved with the Program in Course Redesign led by Carol Twigg. Through some of their meetings I got to know about the similar implementations at other campuses. The Virgina Tech Math Emporium, which received a lot of publicity at the time, used undergraduates as helpers along with the faculty who walked the floor. A particular professor from Colorado who taught a large Astronomy class gushed with the praise of the undergraduates he had recruited for assisting him in instruction. My impression is that anyone who has taught in a large class setting and has used undergraduates aided by online technology to help with the teaching thinks it’s a good idea.

Many who have not tried it, however, think it is a frightening concept, the blind leading the blind. They fear the undergraduates don’t know enough. But those who have done so will make the following counter arguments: They get to use students who have taken the course already so know how it should be done. They get to choose those students who have done well in the course and our good undergraduate may be as able or more able than our graduate students. And the undergraduate TAs want to do it. The grad students often view the teaching as burden they need to bear to get their assistantship. They are often not otherwise engaged in the teaching.

Let me turn back to my own teaching with undergraduate TAs. One of the key things I would observe is that I got closer to them. In many cases they did some online work for me, designing exercises in Mallard or some other programming for me. I coached them in that and critiqued their work. As a group, we would review how the students in the class were doing and discuss a bit how the TAs were providing feedback for the students. I got to know these kids as TAs in a way I would not get to know them as students. I could tell when they were doing well and when they were struggling by my own monitoring and my own feedback from the students in the class. I think they also felt the arrangement was something special, something that would be good to replicate.

Because I taught quite a few students, I was able to negotiate with the Econ department administrator at the time a deal where the department was willing to pick up the tab for these undergrads. Actually, the deal was great for the department. I taught 180 students instead of the normal 60 students and they paid somewhere between $3,000 and $3,500 in wages for the students. There is no way they’d get that type of gain by using adjuncts to teach 3 sections of 60 students per.

But, in general, departments are not prepared to support undergraduate assistants in this way. There is no business model for it. The loose cash is hard to come by. The expectation is that it will be graduate students who support the faculty in instruction and the business structure supports that model. Some instructors have been known to give their undergraduate students course credit via an independent study option. For most of the better students who would be chosen as undergraduate TAs, the cash is more appreciated than the course credit. But for a student near graduation, the course credit can matter a lot. Yet I’ve also heard from some in the administration that this is not a good route to go, unless one can demonstrate the learning that these undergraduate TAs have achieved.

My experience is that the learning is as much in knowing how to communicate and how to mentor as it is in mastery of the economics. That is valuable. But that is not the subject I teach and certify. We in the Econ department do not offer a course on communication and mentoring. So the giving of credit for this type of student work is tricky.

I would characterize the situation this way. There is promise in using undergraduates to help support instruction, but the institution is not poised to move in that direction. At present it is more of a curiosity than a strategy.

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