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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 30, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 19
A New Era for TA Training

Allyson McCabe, center, director of the TA Training Institute, with Lu Zhang, a doctoral student who assists her in the program, and Ben Tilghman, co-chair of the GRO, who presented during the fall orientation/training session.

Pilot program offers slate of workshops for newest KSAS, WSE instructors

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

For any teaching assistant who feels overwhelmed by that stack of ungraded papers or the prospect of leading an hourlong class discussion: Help is on the way.

The Homewood schools, in conjunction with the Center for Educational Resources, will roll out this week its new TA Training Institute's second phase, a series of weekly workshops that let all Homewood graduate students meet with faculty and advanced TAs in order to explore teaching and learning issues.

The first phase of the TA Training Institute, launched this fall, was a revamped orientation/training session for incoming TAs only.

The program is designed to substantially augment whatever training TAs might be getting through their departments.

The workshop schedule kicks off on Thursday, Feb. 2, with "Starting the Semester Off Right in Engineering and Sciences," a session led by Jason Eisner, an assistant professor in Computer Science, and Becky Pearlman, a lecturer in Biology. The final workshop of the spring semester, to be held on April 27, will be "Lab Skills: Making Students Active Problem Solvers."

Other sessions include ones on grading, WebCT, effective lecture techniques, organizing student interactions and "Engaging your Students with Texts."

Each one-hour workshop is limited to 20 students to ensure ample opportunity for discussion and exchange. The workshops are voluntary, and students can opt to take one or all 12.

A similar training workshop program will be offered in the fall.

There are currently about 2,000 graduate students in the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering, the majority of whom will be TAs at some point in their Hopkins career.

Responsibilities for TAs vary, but they typically can be asked to hold office hours, lead a class section, grade student papers and put together an electronic classroom presentation.

Allyson McCabe, director of the institute and a pedagogy specialist at the CER, said that some of Johns Hopkins' peer institutions — Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Duke among them — have similar training programs in place. McCabe, who came to Johns Hopkins in February 2005, said that part of her charge when she arrived was to add pedagogical elements to TA training and supplement what the TAs learn on the department level, which can be uneven. Some departments offer extensive training, she said, while others offer relatively little.

To enhance the instructional experience of undergraduate students and to introduce TAs to sound pedagogical theory and practice, CER, in collaboration with departments, deans, faculty and graduate students of the Graduate Representative Organization, developed the TA Training Institute.

"In the future, we would like to expand the [institute] by repeating workshops and adding new ones, and by working more with interested departments to enhance the department-based training that TAs receive," McCabe said. "We also want to offer more programming and resources to advanced TAs in order to contribute to their professional development."

The new training program supports a recommendation included in the Commission on Undergraduate Education's final report that sought to "increase support for faculty and graduate students in teaching effectiveness."

"The TAs here asked for more training. They want the help," McCabe said. "One moment they are a student, and the next they are thrown in front of the class. It can be very daunting."

Erin Ackerman, a TA in Political Science, will lead a workshop with Marius Stan, a TA in Philosophy, called "Tips for TAs in Social Sciences and Humanities." The two ran a similar workshop in the 2005 TA Training Orientation, a program that had been retooled to offer more practical information than it had in previous years.

Ackerman said her workshop this spring will be geared toward TAs who lead sections and perform grading duties.

"We'll focus on how to get a discussion started and how to keep it going," she said. "Not an easy task."

One technique Ackerman learned for a class on American politics was to ask a student to bring in an article from a daily newspaper that had a connection with the topic they were learning. "This way, one student is on point and prepared, and the others can hopefully connect to the topic and what is going on."

Ackerman said she's learned how to be a better teacher from her faculty mentor and other TAs who have offered her tips. She feels the TAs here will embrace the new program and the extra coaching.

"I think this new training program is great," she said. "Being a TA is your first experience teaching at a college level, and it can be overwhelming. It's nice to have a forum to exchange what works from other TAs across disciplines and departments."

For more information on the TA Training Institute and a full list of workshops, go to and click on the "TA Training" link. To register for a workshop, call McCabe at 410-516-8633 or e-mail


Calling All Faculty: CER Offering Grants to Enhance Undergrad Classes

Want to enhance your classroom learning with a little digital razzle-dazzle? Applications are currently being accepted for CER's Technology Fellowship Program, a mini-grant initiative intended to help Hopkins faculty develop digital course resources by combining their instructional expertise with the technology skills of students.

The focus of this program is to create instructional resources that support undergraduate education. Faculty and students develop proposals together to integrate technology into projects that will enhance pedagogy, encourage active learning and promote critical thinking or collaboration among students.

Student fellows receive $4,000 for project implementation, and their faculty partners receive $1,000 for project design and oversight. The program is available to faculty and students at Peabody, SAIS and the schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Nursing, Medicine and Public Health.

To date, the program has spawned a music theory drill program, virtual lab modules for physics principles and an interactive U.S. highway, among dozens of other projects.

The deadline for program applications is midnight on March 3. For more information, go to or contact Cheryl Wagner at 410-516-7181 or


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