Friday, February 8, 2013

The Teaching Team, or Adventures in Management

Another significant and (for me, at least) unanticipated challenge of teaching 400 students in a flipped class is managing the team of teaching assistants and graders.  The first challenge was to persuade my college that I needed more than two graduate student teaching assistants.  I spent the better part of two months campaigning myself and getting every administrator I could find to send emails to my dean explaining that two teaching assistants for 400 students was not going to work.  Finally, after several weeks of sweating it out, I was informed that I would have four teaching assistants.  I also persuaded my department chair to pay two advanced undergraduate students a small stipend to work as graders.  This meant that, in the fall, I had a team of 6 to work with: 4 graduate TAs and 2 undergraduate graders (who only graded and otherwise had no interactions with the students).  I depend on my department chair to assign me specific students and I was given two fairly advanced students and two brand new MA students to work with.

I understood early on that, with a team of this size and with a range of jobs needing done, it would make sense to distribute duties.  I decided that one of the two advanced grad students would be in charge of conducting the weekly review sessions (held during classtime on Fridays).  The other would be the grade czar, coordinating all the grading and dealing with students who had questions about exam grading.  The MA students would come to class and help with in class activities; and would grade 1/4 of the exams apiece.  The two graders would grade 1/4 of the exams each.  This system worked fairly well at first, until suddenly my "Friday Review" TA was reassigned to another course.  This meant that I was now in front of the class MWF.  It also meant that I had one fewer TAs to assist with classroom management, and as the semester progressed, it became clear that I really needed to have a second, experienced TA.  Losing this TA meant that I was now spending a lot of time dealing with issues and questions that should have been directed to an experienced TA (this became even more of an issue because of the inexperience of the two MA students).

The other complication that came up was in grading non-exam work.  During the semester, I offered the students the chance to do extra credit twice, in an effort to get them to learn some key concepts.  Unfortunately, this meant that 400 written assignments needed to be graded.  In retrospect, I should have involved several of the other TAs.  Instead, I graded them myself.  I spent the final 5 weeks of the course grading 800 written assignment + a final exam with an extensive written section.  I did have some help with the final exam grading, thank heavens.  But, by the time grades were submitted, I was completely exhausted.  I had also learned some very important lessons about managing a teaching team in such a large class.

This spring, I once again have a team of 6: 4 graduate TAs and 2 undergraduate graders.  In this revised version of the course, however, I have made significant changes also to how I utilize my teaching team.  I have a "head TA", who is in charge of grades (the same TA I had in the fall, which has been a huge boon).  I have another very experienced graduate student who manages all things ethics.  When the students hand in worksheets connected to the ethics case studies, she records them and comments on them.  She will review their ethics portfolios mid-semester and grade them (with assistance from me and another TA) at the end of the semester.  She is the person to whom students can take their ethics questions.  She also hands out candy to students who participate during class.  A third TA will be working virtually (she is based in Iowa this semester).  Her job is to manage and grade the discussion threads on Piazza.  She has some help from a volunteer TA--a former student of mine who is now in medical school but enjoys keeping up with her Roman history/culture.  My fourth TA helps with things like bringing scantrons for quizzes, making copies of exams, and he will grade 1/3 of the exams.  The two undergraduate graders will each grade 1/3 of the exams.  As well, I have divided the class into thirds and assigned each third to one of the three campus-based TAs to serve as their "point-person", that is, the TA they should think of as their own.

So far, I am very pleased with my new system of role distribution.  Each TA knows very clearly what their responsibilities are; they are very good about doing their job with minimal drama; and thus far, I have not been inundated with questions from students that should be taken to the TAs.  It also helps, I suspect, that I set up a special email account for this class, so that I can easily find (and forward to the right TA) the emails that come in from students.  Certainly, some issues have to be handled by me.  But many are things that are easily handled by a teaching assistant.

I don't think I appreciated at all how important it would be to develop some basic "best practices" for managing a larger team of TAs.  With two TAs, it was pretty simple to just have them do the same thing and share the workload.  But with a larger class and a more complex course design, it suddenly requires a much clearer division of specific roles.  The other thing it requires is for me to leave the TAs alone to do their job.  I have a tendency to micromanage, to fret.  I am slowly but surely learning that, for me to do my part of the course well, I have to assume that my TAs are doing their parts and not waste mental energy double-checking or intervening.  Or, worse, deciding that I am the only one who can do a particular task (as happened when I graded 800 written assignments in the fall).

As faculty, not only are we not particularly trained in pedagogy; but we are not trained in basic management.  It can be a pretty big adjustment to work with teaching assistants, and to figure out how to make good use of them (without overusing them, of course!).  That challenge becomes even greater as the class size and, consequently, the size of the teaching team, increases.  Eventually, I'd like to have an even larger teaching team, probably by adding more undergraduate student TAs who would come to class and help with discussion activities.  Other departments at my university have done this very successfully; yet it is clear that this is successful because a lot of time is devoted to mentoring and training.  Still, as we move away from traditional lecture and towards more active, student-centered classrooms, it will be imperative to have a fairly large teaching team--and that will require substantial management, division of roles, and basic oversight on the part of the instructor.

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