Patrick Schuneman
Graduate Student Senate
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Anne Mayhew
Vice Provost and Dean
University of Tennessee

Proposal to Recognize, Reward, and Remediate Graduate Teaching Assistants


"The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is committed to the development of individuals and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit. This is accomplished through teaching, scholarship, artistic creation, public service, and professional practice." Mission Statement of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, can more effectively fulfill its mission statement by critically assessing the teaching abilities of its graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), rewarding outstanding GTAs, and providing a mechanism by which underachieving GTAs can improve their skills as teachers. The present evaluation system, though purposefully generalized, does not provide sufficiently specific questions to address teaching concerns. A re-appraisal of the current evaluation system and development of more precise evaluative approaches is readily available to the University and, simply, overdue. This critical step in developing higher-quality instruction will facilitate both the recognition of outstanding GTAs and identification of GTAs that can enhance their own graduate experiences by improving their teaching skills. This may also serve as a means by which several facets of the University community can collaborate to propel the key mission of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, teaching excellence.

It is proposed that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, review and revise the current method of Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) teaching evaluations. It is also proposed that updated teaching evaluations serve as the basis for which outstanding GTAs be nominated for University-level award(s) that recognize their enthusiasm, encouragement, and skill at teaching. Finally, it is proposed that a mechanism be developed to aid underachieving GTAs perform teaching duties at a level suitable to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.



Review of the Present System
Tennessee 101 is meant to be a comprehensive guide to the quality of course offerings at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This compilation of evaluations has evolved to be a valuable resource for students through the efforts of many faculty, administrators, staff, and students. Tennessee 101 is designed to aid students when choosing their courses; nevertheless, course decisions should not be made based on this publication alone. Its sole purpose is to provide students with valuable and reliable information. The value of this resource, however, is underutilized and can be improved upon through more proactive methods, meaning greater student input and instructor effort to improve their teaching skills.

In the table below (Table1), some of the present teaching evaluation questions are listed, and comments regarding each question are addressed.

Present Evaluation Question
Coordination between lectures and lab activities In most cases, lectures are completely separated from laboratory schedules. This question does not address instructor abilities--neither the abilities of the lecture instructor nor the lab instructor.
Reasonableness of assigned work This question is great for extreme cases. For the preponderance of classes, however, most students do not know what "reasonable" means. Rewording of the question may help: "Was the amount of assigned work necessary to succeed in this class?"
Clarity of students' responsibilities/requirements This question is very important to both the students and the instructor.
Course as a whole This is a good general question. It should appear first or last among the evaluation questions. It may be focused to the instructor, as in "The lab instructor's ability to teach the subject matter as a whole"
Amount you learned in the course This question needs to be guided, as in "Comparing your first day of class with now, the amount you learned in this course"
Relevance and usefulness of course content This question seems to be covered by a subsequent question that concerns whether the course was taken for general education credit, or if it was in the student's major. If this question is meant to highlight the instructor's abilities, relative to the question immediately below, it could be combined and rephrased: "Instructor's ability to relate course objectives to student objectives"
Course instructor's contribution to the course This question seems to be covered with "The lab instructor's ability to teach the subject matter as a whole"
Use of course time This question is important. It could be focused to "The percentage of time spent in the classroom necessary to succeed"

Course content This question seems out of place as a multiple-choice question. Perhaps it could be changed to a "writing" question: "How well did the course content contribute to course goals and objectives?"
Course instructor's effectiveness in teaching This question seems to be covered with "The lab instructor's ability to teach the subject matter as a whole"
Interest in whether students learned This question is vital to the instructor-student relationship. However, it seems highly subjective and relies entirely upon the students' perceptions. This question may be perceived as, "Did my instructor like me?" This should be changed.

Table 1: Present evaluation questions and proposed changes/discussion.

Proposed Updated System of Graduate Teaching Assistant Assessment
The present university mechanism for evaluating and publicizing teaching assistant qualifications can be updated and improved to more precisely reflect abilities, isolate areas of improvement, and coherently address the more relevant teaching issues. The teaching evaluation system is a critical foundation upon which recognition of both outstanding teaching assistants and teaching assistants that need to improve their abilities can be built. Subsequent steps of improving instructor-student relations cannot succeed without improvement of the evaluation system.

A revision of some of the questions presently on the evaluation forms is necessary to provide accurate feedback to instructors, as well as insight for potential students through the Tennessee 101 program. Proposed changes and discussion are provided in Table 1.

Teaching evaluations can be drastically improved by simply adding space for students to respond to relatively open questions that focus on their instructor's ability to teach the subject matter. Multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank is quick and efficient, but lacks critical input from students that would like to provide essential feedback. Of course, this method is not perfect, either. But it will at least provide instructors more feedback than presently received. The applicability of this proposed change with regard to Tennessee 101 web publication should be further investigated by SGA, especially the Student Senates (both Graduate and Undergraduate).

The most significant concern with the proposed evaluation changes concerns teaching ability versus popularity. The proposed changes should not reflect whether students liked their instructor as a person, but rather if the instructor provided an environment in which students could learn effectively. The updated evaluations should answer the underlying theme, "How effectively did this instructor present clear goals and objectives for the course, and how effectively did this instructor facilitate making those goals and objectives come to fruition?"

It is proposed that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, develop a mechanism to reward outstanding teaching assistants annually. The Graduate Student Association (GSA) may be one avenue by which teaching assistants can be peer-evaluated for a University-level award. First-round nominations may be solicited from individual departments, based upon updated teaching evaluations and department-specific criteria, and presented to the GSA for review and secondary nominations for a selection of the instructors. Those nominations might then be sent to the upper echelons of the University administration, including College Deans, the Dean of the Graduate School, the Dean of Students, and the President, and final selections be made. Simply being recognized by individual departments, by their peers, and by the heads of our University makes this award significant and valuable to teaching assistants. A luxurious awards banquet, extravagant trophies, and monetary awards may detract from this award. After all, teachers don't become teachers because of fame and glory. We become teachers to live for that moment when you catch a student in their moments of interest, recognition, and realization. A simple award that carries the weight of the entire University family--from student evaluations, peer review, and administration selection--is likely to be more than enough reward, and cost effective for the University.

The same mechanism that recognizes outstanding teaching assistants can be used to identify those teaching assistants that need to improve their skills as teachers. The most efficient means of providing this aid is likely through increasing the size and scope of the GTA mentoring program, or by developing a similar program that focuses directly on teaching, rather than developing future-faculty as teacher-scholars. This program may simply be two-day workshops, held two or three times per semester, that encourage teaching assistants to learn different learning styles, and therefore, improve teaching styles. This would not be meant to make every teaching assistant a "drone" or in any way discourage individual practices, but rather to provide teaching fundamentals to be built upon.

This proposed new program may be an additional function of the Graduate Student Senate (GSS), although significant input by students, faculty, and administration would be necessary. It would be the role of the GSS to identify GTAs that need help, in a manner similar to which outstanding GTAs are identified. Then department heads may be enrolled to ask GTAs identified in their respective departments to attend a workshop on improving GTA teaching skills. Through the efforts of the entire University, we can provide teaching assistants a means by which they can improve their skills as teachers.

Patrick Schuneman
Graduate Student Senate
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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