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Orientation and Ongoing Development Survey Report 2003



The 2003 Graduate Teaching Assistant Orientation and Ongoing Development Survey was conducted online in the summer of 2003. This biennial survey is part of the Graduate School's ongoing use of assessment results for the improvement of GTA training and development activities, for the purpose of assisting departments in their efforts to improve the effectiveness of their GTAs. Forty-two (42) departments submitted completed surveys in 2003. At the time of the survey, these 42 departments had 252 graduate teaching assistants, individually approved by the Graduate School as meeting the SACS 18-hour requirement.

The survey consisted of three main sections: initial departmental activities for GTAs prior to stepping into the classroom, ongoing GTA development and supervisory activities, and planned changes for 2003-2004. These activities do not include The University’s Annual Workshop for GTAs, whose effectiveness is assessed by a combination of objective and subjective measures, but represents what departments do individually to prepare their GTAs for teaching responsibility.

ORIENTATION ACTIVITIES Before/During First Semester as GTA

The departments reported the following orientation and initial training activities prior to and during the first semester of a GTA’s teaching responsibility.

Courses in Teaching Methods

Asked whether or not their GTAs normally take a course in teaching methods before they teach, thirteen (13) said yes; twenty-nine (29) said no. Seven (7) of the 13 departments require the course; six (6) do not. Of those departments requiring their GTAs to take a specific course offered by the department, ten (10) departments give academic credit. For instance, in American Studies, GTAs are required to take AMS 589: Teaching American Studies, for which they receive 3 hours' credit. In the Department of Criminal Justice, GTAs can take CJ 597: Practicum in Supervised Teaching and receive 3 hours' credit.

Of the twenty-nine (29) departments that do not require their students to take a specific methods course, five (5) require prior teaching experience, eleven (11) require in-class assistant experience before teaching a class and seven (7) have optional courses available in teaching methods. Therefore about two-thirds of the departments require a teaching methods course, offer an optional teaching course, or require prior teaching experience.

One of the reasons that many departments do not offer specific teaching courses is because GTAs have different levels of experience when they enter a graduate program. For instance, many GTAs in Elementary and Secondary Education come into their program with “lengthy” experience in classroom teaching at the elementary and secondary levels. Computer Science and Chemical Engineering point out that they rely on GTAs mainly for grading papers and other non-student-contact activities.

Training needs sometimes require a variety of methods within one academic unit. For example, GTAs in the School of Music work in a variety of areas, each having a different system of orientation, observation and evaluation. GTAs teaching Music Theory are not assigned classroom responsibilities until they have completed at least two semesters as lab assistants, the required 18 semesters of graduate course hours, and a pedagogy of theory course. GTAs teaching Music Appreciation must take a seminar on the teaching of such courses, and GTAs teaching Applied Music do so only after completing an appropriate graduate pedagogy course. 

In-class Experience and Supervision

Once a GTA is in the classroom, thirty-three (33) of the forty-two (42) departments either assign the GTA a mentor or allow the GTA to choose a mentor to oversee their teaching. Of the nine (9) departments not assigning a mentor, three (3) require in-class experience as an assistant prior to teaching.

Departments were asked whether they also provide the following: additional workshops, videos, syllabi, handouts, handbook/manual, or lecture materials. All but four departments provide at least two (2) of these teaching aids; the majority (70%), provide three or more. Additional training and materials such as preparing digitized teaching samples, practicing writing teaching plans, giving teaching demonstrations critiqued by supervisor and peers, and learning current theoretical teaching concepts are included in the department of Modern Languages and Classics.

Looking specifically at the twenty-nine (29) departments that do not offer a specific teaching course, twenty-six (26) provide syllabi, twenty-five (25) provide handouts, twenty-one (21) require mentors, thirteen (13) provide alternate workshops, ten (10) provide lectures, eight (8) provide a handbook, and four (4) provide videos. It should be noted that the GTAs in some departments such as Geography and Biology oversee students working on established laboratory assignments, and much of their interaction with students is devoted to answering questions on a one-to-one basis; they are not responsible for full-length lecture materials. More experienced GTAs and faculty in these lab settings, however, always supervise GTAs. History and Anthropology are also examples of this situation. In History, GTAs conduct only discussion sections of large survey courses under the direct supervision of professors who retain overall responsibility for the course. For History and Anthropology GTAs to have sole responsibility for classes is rare, and only if they are doctoral students who already have completed their comprehensive examinations. Anthropology GTAs may give a lecture or two or conduct one-hour section meetings, but this is at the discretion of the supervisory professor.


Center for Teaching and Learning

Asked whether the department encourages GTAs to have their undergraduate students use resources available at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), sixteen (16) said yes, twenty-four (24) no. Specific resources recommended were tutors (8), Writing Center (3), videos (2), testing (2), study skills workshop (1), lectures (1), and assistance with learning disabilities (1).

Evaluating Progress and Performance

Thirty-two (32) of the departments conduct regular meetings with their GTAs. Sixteen (16) departments have weekly meetings, three (3) meet monthly, five (5) meet two or three times a semester, four (4) meet once a semester, and four (4) departments meet at the discretion of the professor. These meetings are conducted both individually and in groups. 

Performance Evaluations

Of the regular evaluations conducted by departments, twenty-three (23) conduct the evaluations once per semester. One (1) department evaluates weekly, six (6) give an evaluation twice per semester, and the frequency of evaluations in other departments varies at the discretion of the GTA supervisor.


Six (6) departments report the use of videotaped evaluations of their GTAs. Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics records every QUEST class, Chemistry uses videotaping occasionally, Modern Languages and Classics tapes students at least once a year, and Secondary Curriculum Teaching and Training tapes at least twice a semester.

Other Evaluation Processes

Departments reported a variety of evaluations in addition to the above items. Advertising and Public Relations and Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics both use student evaluations and feedback as part of the ongoing evaluation process of each GTA. Art, English, and Modern Languages and Classics utilize informal peer reviews that include such activities as assignment exchanges and discussions about classroom rapport and management techniques. In Biological Sciences, GTAs are required to have an outline showing their goals and how they will present the lab. This outline is examined periodically to determine how well GTAs are prepared prior to labs.

Departmental Opportunities Provided to Enhance GTA Development:

Departments were given a list of activities such as teaching seminars, visiting-scholar seminars, lectures, teaching colloquia, continued mentoring/supervision, workshops, practicums, and focus groups for GTAs to discuss concerns and needs as well as explore teaching issues and techniques. Twenty (20) provide visiting scholar seminars, fifteen (15) provide lectures, fourteen (14) provide focus groups, ten (10) give seminars, nine (9) provide workshops, four (4) provide colloquia, and four (4) provide practicums. 

More than half of the departments provide three or more of the ongoing GTA development activities listed above. Outstanding examples include Accounting, Biological Sciences, English, Management and Marketing, Modern Languages and Classics, and Women’s Studies, with each of these departments providing six (6) or more ongoing training activities.


Departments listed the following changes for the immediate future to assist their GTAs: increasing mentoring/supervision (15); having more class visits by faculty members and/or veteran GTAs (14); refining the mentoring process (13); expanding teaching evaluations (10); having more meetings with GTAs (9); providing colloquia or seminars on teaching (6); developing a department handbook or manual for GTAs that is more discipline-specific than the Graduate School's "Graduate Assistant Guide " (6) (http://www.graduate.ua.edu/ga_guide/index.html); team teaching (4); developing teaching evaluations (3); providing an optional course on teaching (3); rotating faculty members in charge of GTAs (3); assembling a task force or committee to address GTA issues (2), and greater incorporation of computer-based instruction (1).

The most frequently considered changes center on supervisory issues: having more class visits by faculty members, increasing mentoring/supervision, and refining the mentoring process. More skillful mentoring of GTAs continues to be a primary focus of faculty members who supervise GTAs.

SELECTED IMPROVEMENTS Since the 2001 Survey:

  • Two-thirds of departments report some form of required teacher training prior to classroom teaching, in addition to the University-wide, required Workshop for New Graduate Teaching Assistants (http://www.graduate.ua.edu/policy_guide/background.html). Only half of the departments reported such additional training in 2001.
  • Thirty-three departments report assigning a mentor to GTAs; only twenty-seven reported this in 2001.
  • Thirty-two departments report regular meetings with GTAs, up from twenty-seven in 2001.
  • More departments report providing lectures (15/13), providing visiting-scholar seminars (20/11), and providing focus groups (14/11).
  • More departments (33/28) plan to make changes to improve training, mentoring, and evaluation of their GTAs.

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