How do you improve classroom learning? Hire students to help.
Editor’s note: With Virginia Tech Giving Day 2022 beginning at noon Feb. 23, a series of stories highlighting the impact of donations are featured on VTx this month.
For faculty members in the Pamplin College of Business, having an undergraduate teaching assistant (TA) is a little like gaining a secret superpower, the kind that enables you to teach a class, start a quiz, update a lesson plan, and answer a million student questions at roughly the same time.
TAs are so valuable, even the most reluctant faculty members become enthusiastic once they have the help. “Faculty tell me, ‘I didn’t know Canvas had this feature,’ or ‘Now I can do more project work because I have more hands on deck,’” said Michelle Seref, the director of Pamplin’s Engage Undergraduate TA Program.
Seref had organized a small undergraduate TA initiative for the Department of Business Information Technology, where she's an associate collegiate faculty member. Then COVID-19 hit. Faculty needed help with emergency online teaching. Students needed help staying engaged in virtual classes. Could undergraduate TAs be the solution?
Associate Dean Kevin Carlson asked Seref to expand her TA program to all of Pamplin for fall 2020. It was such a roaring success that, in spring 2022, Seref filled more than 150 TA spots across Pamplin, with financial support from the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost and corporate and individual sponsors. Now 80-plus instructors use TAs for online and in-person classrooms, with more signing up all the time.
The magic is in the four days of hands-on training Engage TAs receive at the start of the semester. Guests from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS), and the Office of Inclusion and Diversity facilitate sessions about a range of technology, teaching, and equity issues, from mentoring students to setting up virtual office hours to making classrooms more accessible to a diverse student body.
Engage's success has become a model at Virginia Tech; recently, Seref was asked to help the College of Engineering launch its own undergraduate TA program. “Pedagogically, it is so wonderful to involve undergraduate TAs in the teaching and learning experience,” she said. “I just really think it should be part of the university experience.”
Supported by donations, including past Giving Day generosity, Pamplin’s Engage Undergraduate TA Program provides opportunities for students to learn in action, as well as essential help to faculty. Meet five TAs whose superpowers helped Pamplin faculty members teach their fall 2021 courses.
The Group Whisperer
In Rich Curtis’s strategic management class, group work is a crucible that makes up 75 percent of assignments. Students are put into teams early in the semester, then work together for months. Tensions are not unheard of.
When senior Alexis Sou’s group went off the rails, Curtis, an adjunct professor in the Department of Management, told her, “Sometimes it's easier to make change from the inside. Apply to be a TA.” She did— and made it her goal to help groups thrive.
As teams prepared to give a presentation in class, Sou gave them candid advice: too boring, not professional enough.
She coached teams till they weren’t saying phrases like, “You guys” or reading off their slides. “I’m nitpicky,” Sou said, “but I also think that in the long term, being the Simon Cowell of the group helps them.”
Curtis agreed. “There was a night and day difference based on her feedback, based on her experience,” he said, noting that as a fellow student, Sou could provide her real-life lessons “without giving them the answer to the rubric.”
An average day of TA-ing might have Sou taking attendance or role-playing a CEO in an in-class exercise. But her best work was convincing a student who was ghosting his team to re-engage. He ended up becoming the team lead on the class’s last major project. “She has that ‘cool student’ thing,” said Curtis. “That’s why I say she's a mentor, not a TA.”
The Tech Guru
Kristin Lamoureux, a collegiate associate professor in the Howard Feiertag Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, had always wanted to reorganize her Canvas course site to make it more user-friendly. She just never had the time. It took a TA in a previous semester to get it done.
So for fall 2021, she trusted Jessi Cohen, a junior majoring in digital marketing, to manage the tech side of her teaching for two sections of Socio-cultural Impacts of Tourism. “I spend the most time probably in Canvas,” Cohen said, “whether that's opening quizzes with people or hosting peer-to-peer office hours.”
She and a fellow TA, Hillary Simpson, stepped in whenever a Canvas quiz needed tinkering or student participation points needed to be logged. “I can throw it at these guys and say, ‘Can you do all this?’ And they can do it,” said Lamoureux. “It’s really great that they have this skill set. I would guess some of the undergraduate teaching assistants know more about this than some of us [faculty].”
With her newfound skills, Cohen even offered to redesign a wonky Canvas page for Pamplin’s Behavioral Research Lab. “Now I’m going up to professors saying, ‘Hey, can you unhide the assignment?’ And they'll be like, ‘How do you know how to do that?’” said Cohen. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I'm a TA.’”
The Peer Mentor
For the 75 freshmen in Ron Poff’s Foundations of Business class, Pamplin’s first-year experience course, everything was new: not just the College of Business, but college life entirely. Luckily, Poff, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Management, had fourth-generation Hokie Clay Guill, a junior majoring in business management, as his TA. “He embodies the spirit of being a Hokie,” said Poff.
Guill passed out his contact information and welcomed office hour visits or emails about anything—classes or social life or transitioning to college. “You get to see them come into their first college class or their first round of midterms or exams, and you get to help them through that and talk to them,” said Guill. “I'd always try to remind them, you know, I'm a student, too.” When some students reached out for advice, it made him feel like “they knew that I was there for them as more than just a TA—as a fellow Hokie.”
Poff asked Guill for advice too. “How did today’s lesson go?” he regularly asked in the hall after class. For Poff, a self-described fan of continuous improvement, “I think the value that a TA brings is that I can get immediate feedback from a partner. Having Clay's point of view and his perspective is tremendous.”
The Trend Translator
Donna Wertalik has used undergraduate TAs for the past ten years. Emma Babiec, a junior majoring in digital marketing, may be the best of all of them. “She’s really just extraordinary in so many ways,” said Wertalik, a professor of practice in the Department of Marketing. “She’s taught me too! And I think that's part of the collaboration.”
After being wowed by Babiec’s diligence as a student, Wertalik hand-picked her to TA a 400-plus-student section of Marketing Management in fall 2021. That underlying trust made the relationship feel more like a partnership. Babiec wasn’t just managing Poll Everywhere quizzes and patiently answering questions after class, she was deciding course content details with Wertalik.
“What are some of the latest trending TikToks you could send?” Wertalik asked. “What’s relevant for students today? How can we connect to their world?” Babiec suggested talking about a viral TikTok campaign by makeup brand E.L.F. that prompted users, including celebrities, to create millions of videos. “It was a perfect example,” Wertalik said. “Emma, under pressure, works extraordinarily well. From a business perspective, she knows what she’s talking about.”
The Problem Solver
With five classes to teach in the fall semester, Steve Matuszak, an assistant professor of practice in the departments of management and marketing, knew a TA could help lighten his load. But he’d never envisioned a TA like Kennan Murphy, then a senior in business information technology and a December 2021 graduate. “He was the kind of TA that if you just said, ‘Hey, could you look into this, it looks like Canvas has a glitch,’ or ‘It looks like this thing doesn't work for the students.’ I never had to give it a thought,” said Matuszak. “I knew he either understood [the issue] already, or he had no idea and he just went and figured it out until it was done.”
The naturally organized Murphy saw his job in the Foundations of Business class as taking care of details so Matuszak could focus on teaching. In class he made sure students put their phones away. He monitored the syllabus to know when assignments were due. “I learned that it's important to be prepared as much as you can possibly be and try to anticipate those little things that come up every now and then,” Murphy said.
Surprisingly, he also learned he might like to teach one day too. “You can really use organizational and leadership skills to figure out how to best address student's needs and questions and you can really help them understand the material better, hopefully. And I think that for me is very fulfilling.”
For alumni and employers interested in supporting the Pamplin Engage Program on Giving Day and ongoing, please direct your gift to the Pamplin Annual Fund, which provides support for the program. If interested in a named sponsorship for the 2022–23 academic year, please contact Bonnie Gilbert, firstname.lastname@example.org.