Another semester is in the bag, and, if all goes according to plan, this will be the last time I teach physics 132 for quite a while. As such, I think a deep reflection on the semester is particularly warranted. While some changes/additions such as a fully remote option, there were several attributes added or revamped for this semester’s course. These, and existing features, all need consideration for their successes and areas for improvement. This is the first post in a series taking that deep dive into reflecting on Physics 132 Spring 22.
The teaching of large enrollment courses is always a team effort: requiring not only the instructor but also support staff such as lecture prep as well as both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs). During the Spring 2022 semester, Physics 132 had two graduate and seven undergraduate TAs. In order to optimally support student learning, I feel that, as leader of this team, my critical roles include: forming a team with diverse experiences and knowledge; leveraging each team member’s unique knowledge, skills, and perspective; promoting a culture wherein each TA feels their expertise is acknowledged; ensuring everyone feels comfortable in their role and empowered to do their best to support students.
A successful TA team begins at its formation. When I started at UMass in 2015, I used graduate TAs exclusively as that was my prior experience. As time went on, and the level support I felt was necessary increased, I began to hire undergraduate TAs to help fill the gaps using exclusively upper-division physics majors. This preference for physics majors was not carefully considered. I am somewhat ashamed to admit this preference arose from a sort of “physics chauvinism.” I assumed that majors in their third and fourth years, with their presumably deeper knowledge of the content, would make the best TAs.
I have since discovered what, in retrospect, should have been obvious: that a more diverse teaching team that mixes in life-science majors who had previously been successful in the class was superior. While my assumption regarding the deeper knowledge of upper-division physics majors has turned out to be true, life-science majors bring several other important attributes which strengthen the team as a whole.
The undergraduate Physics 132 alums not only bring their valuable perspective as former students in the course to the TA role, but also their life science knowledge and disciplinary mode of thinking are useful to share with the physicists on the team. Physics 132 is very much an introductory physics for life sciences course. In addition to biological applications sprinkled throughout the material, each unit has a central biologically- or chemically-authentic motivating context [link to talk]. Having biologists on the teaching team can help make these examples more authentic and can ensure that I am using the language with which my life-science students will be familiar. For example, I was using the term van der Waals interactions. However, thanks to my undergraduate TAs, I learned that the term London dispersion forces is more common. Thus, I switched to primarily using London dispersion forces while still mentioning van der Waals for those who may be more familiar with that term.
To further empower my team members, I adopted a new format for my weekly team meetings taken wholesale from Prof. Guy Blaylock in our department. In past semesters, I struggled with promoting engagement during these planning and preparation sessions. TAs would often remain quiet while I presented information about upcoming topics and would even remain reticent when I explicitly solicited their feedback on student challenges they had observed. Prof. Blaylock’s practice for these meetings involves assigning one teaching team member each week to present on the upcoming material with an emphasis on the particular challenges that they think students might face along with suggestions on how they themselves learned the material. To ensure that the presenting member was fully prepared for this role, they were notified a week in advance and had access to the prior semester’s materials.
This meeting format has, in my opinion, been a wildly successful switch. All my TAs were more engaged throughout the meeting process – not just when it was their turn to present. These presentations resulted in more feedback from the TAs on student difficulties, their own struggles with the material. I feel that giving officially dedicated space for TA insights gave them all permission to contribute as full members of the teaching team.
My role in these discussions was often became that of “translator:” explaining biological concepts to the physicist members of the teaching team and physics concepts to the biologists. This role forced me to grapple more deeply with the disciplinary differences between biology and physics resulting in, I feel, a better understanding for myself and thus a better course.
These observations are not just my own. The TAs themselves shared similar opinions in an end-of-semester evaluation of me. In the words of one TA, “I thought the structure of the team meetings each week was quite beneficial. Specifically, having each TA lead a brief discussion on the current and/or upcoming topic being taught in class often provided the rest of the team with tips on how to explain concepts students often struggle with using different approaches and perspectives that are conducive to a more wholesome understanding. Overall, the team meetings were more involved than those I attended the previous semester, which I felt made a difference in the way I engaged with students taking the course both during class and in the physics help room; there were numerous times were I employed suggestions taken from the team meetings and found that the concepts clicked with students after doing so.”
Beyond ensuring that the TAs were prepared for the material, I feel that giving the TAs the potential for ownership helped them feel more comfortable sharing other challenges with me. For example, two young women on my teaching team were comfortable enough to share some personal difficulties they were having with some students in the help room. I am very glad that I was able to create a sufficiently trusting environment that these two young women felt comfortable sharing this with me and that we were able to work together to find a solution to address the issue. The fundamental philosophy of these meetings is, I think, beneficial to leadership in general: allow the team to have a substantial and empowered leadership role (as opposed to simply explaining their importance as I used to do). While I know that this is not at all a new idea, as a faculty member moving in to more roles of leadership, such insights are of critical importance. Perhaps a similar philosophy could be, at least partially, implemented in 691G?