I work in a department that regularly enrolls 250 students in first-year classes, as do many other departments in colleges and universities. In my case, the situation is complicated by a small graduate program, too few teaching assistants, and an inability to break the larger classes into smaller sections for discussion. This makes for a very challenging teaching situation. I use groups in the large class one day per week, using activities I described previously in The Teaching Professor (March 2003). Since then, I have worked on solving the staff problem with senior undergraduate students. I call them classroom assistants (CAs).
The CAs are drawn from a competitive pool of applicants at the beginning of the term. They must be top academic students, seniors, and interested in helping first-year students develop an understanding of our discipline. They go through a competitive application and interview process. Usually I have around 15 applicants for two positions. After selection, the new CAs sign a contract that contains a list of roles and responsibilities. I expect CAs to respect the objectives of the course and positively reflect on the faculty, department, and institution when dealing with students.
The CAs work 50 hours over a 13-week term and are paid $10 per hour, roughly one-third of what their TA counterparts are making. They are provided with all the reading materials for the course and attend class on the days when I have students working in groups. I let them know in advance what tasks the students will face on those days. Along with the TAs and me, they circulate among the students, keeping them focused, helping them with their work, and asking and answering questions about the course materials. They are invited to participate in the plenary discussion during the final 15 minutes of class. Much of their work is completed behind the scenes. They assess and record the results of the group work and random reading quizzes.
My use of CAs significantly improves the instructor-student ratio, which is especially important on days when students work in groups. Students in the class accept the presence of the CAs without question. To first-year students, seniors look quite advanced, and they give beginning students a glimmer of hope about the kind of students they may one day become. The CAs have also taken a number of relevant courses in the department, and their appraisal of these courses sometimes seems more honest to students. In contrast, the instructor and TAs are removed from the students by age, education, and vocation, making it more difficult for them to relate to student concerns.
The CAs free up valuable hours of senior course staff time; while the instructor and TAs remain responsible for delivering lectures and doing the bulk of the grading for the course, the administrative work of the CAs makes it considerably easier to accomplish these tasks. CAs also provide useful feedback to me about how well the material is getting through, which has encouraged me to change the pace, order, and content of the lectures. I appreciate getting the feedback during the course as opposed to getting ratings results after the course has concluded.
There have been some challenges. Because nobody else in my department uses CAs, securing funding, modest as it is, is an annual hat-in-hand ritual that depends entirely on the current budget and the department head’s support. When I began this program a few years ago, there was excited talk of developing a senior seminar on university teaching, in which students in their final year would work as CAs; read literature on pedagogy; discuss what they learned with one another in weekly meetings; and receive course credit based on written work, participation, and feedback from the instructors with whom they worked. This had the advantage of making the CAs far more cost effective while also giving the program some official sanction and pedagogical merit. Within a few months, the idea fizzled, as so many ideas do.
Some colleagues see the program as pragmatic and innovative, while others have expressed concern that it might reduce the quality of education in the department. Having seen the benefits of using CAs firsthand, I am convinced that the program has the potential to ease strained teaching and financial resources, provide senior students with valuable and relevant experience, and offer beginning students a key link to the senior course staff.
Dr. Ken MacMillan is an asociate professor at the University of Calgary.
Reprinted from The Benefits of Using Classroom Assistants, The Teaching Professor, February 2009.