This semester, 11 undergraduate students in the University of Delaware’s Department of Applied Economics and Statistics (APEC) have worked as teaching assistants (TAs) for various professors in the department, getting hands-on learning experiences working with their peers while at the same time allowing the professors to expand their curriculum or focus on research projects by alleviating a bit of the teaching work load. Tom Ilvento, professor and chair of APEC, said that while having undergraduate TAs isn’t new for the department, it is something that he is trying to push as another way to give undergraduates an experiential learning opportunity and a chance to get involved. “We’re viewing it as an experience for the student as much as help for the faculty so we’ve developed a new policy that the department would support this,” said Ilvento. “We think this is a good investment for the faculty and the student. We’ve got to find a way to teach more but still hold the line that we’re a research department. We’re looking at teaching smarter, teaching larger and being more effective and offering support to faculty, and this is a way to do that. We think the best way to learn a subject is to be involved in teaching it.” Leah Palm-Forster, assistant professor in APEC, had three student teaching assistants this past semester and said that they allowed her the opportunity to incorporate frequent assessments, such as in-class polls, problem sets, quizzes and discussion boards into her classes that “provide opportunities for students to apply and test their understanding of course concepts – hopefully these activities increase knowledge retention.” Palm-Forster said that working with undergraduate TAs has “improved how I teach. TAs provide feedback about how course content is presented, and they let me know what knowledge gaps they notice when grading or answering student questions.” Keith Medwid, a senior majoring in food and agribusiness marketing and management, was a TA for Palm-Forster and said that his role included everything from grading tests and assignments to assisting with in-class activities, answering student questions and updating course material with more accurate figures and information. Being able to help the students was Medwid’s favorite part of the experience. “If they have a question or do not understand the material, working with them to understand the material is rewarding,” said Medwid. “Many of the situations when a student needs help, it creates a challenge for us to understand the material better and figure out a new way to explain it to the student. This allows me to reassure and strengthen my knowledge on the topic as well as create new ways to explain things.” Candace Casey, a junior majoring in wildlife conservation and agriculture and natural resources and minoring in resource economics, and Erica Rossetti, a senior majoring in natural resource management and agriculture and natural resources, also worked with Palm-Forster as TAs and said that the process gave them an appreciation for everything that professors do behind the scenes. “I don’t go to the class that I TA for because I have another class at that time so most of what I do is online but it’s a lot of grading,” said Rossetti. “I don’t grade everything but there will be some weeks where I spend 15 hours just working on grading, and I can’t imagine doing that and going to class and doing research.” In addition to helping grade, they also helped Palm-Forster develop questions for exams and create some course content. Casey said she thinks it is a big benefit to have TAs readily available to help answer any questions that students might have. “I feel like it’s a good resource if they’re too intimidated to go to the professors. It’s nice to have a peer because a lot of the people that are in these classes are people that are also in our major and we know them and are friends with them so we can be more approachable if they have questions or need help on assignments,” said Casey. Grace Hassler, a senior natural resource management major, has been a TA this semester for Olena Smith, the lead geospatial information consultant at UD, for APEC 480, a class focused on geographic information systems (GIS) and natural resource management. Hassler, who took the class previously, said that the class meets for one three-hour session each week, which she attends and then also helps out in the lab. “Most of the time, students are pretty good on their own but sometimes, especially with GIS, problems can arise and so I’m there to help them through that or if they have just general questions, I’m there,” said Hassler. Outside of class, Hassler grades assignments and assists students on an as-needed basis. She said that it is an interesting and fun experience meeting new students in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) and grading her peers. Hassler said that for as much as she learned from taking the class, she has learned even more being a TA. “Olena has also taught me so much and taught me how to instruct well on top of that, and she’s always been so patient. If I don’t know the answer, she’s always willing to show me and explain to me what the answer is so that in the future I can be the one to tell them what to do,” said Hassler. Jessica Simmons, a senior majoring in statistics, has spent the semester as a TA for Melissa Ziegler, a senior biostatistician in the College of Health Sciences, for Stat 674, a graduate-level class that teaches Statistical Analysis System (SAS) programming. Simmons took the class last semester and said that her favorite part and the most beneficial aspect about being a TA is grading. “I learn a lot through grading and I’m really bad at explaining things to people so I’ve gotten better at that,” said Simmons. “I really like the program so I’m learning every time I’m working. I guess that’s why it benefits me personally.” Simmons said that her responsibilities in addition to grading include helping students outside of class and helping students prepare for exams.
Article by Adam Thomas
Photo by Wenbo Fan
This article can also be viewed on UDaily.