To TA or not to TA

As a graduate student and a TA, I have often looked at my non-TA peers and thought about how fantastic it would be to be in their shoes.  No more grading papers and no more long hours sounded fantastic.  A recent study showed that there may be more to being a TA than the fanfare and 7 digit salary* that come with the job.

The study, conducted by Felton et al (2011) focused on 2 groups: those who only conduct research, and those who conduct research and teach.  The 95 participants in the study submitted research proposals in the early fall and resubmitted them in late spring.  The fall and spring proposals were scored based on a rubric and compared.

The study showed that there was a significant difference between the two groups in 2 areas: improvements in writing testable hypotheses and improvements in experimental design.  For both, the group of students that taught and conducted research showed a greater amount of improvement.

The authors claim that these findings should substantially effect the way programs are designed, and that the merit of learning-by-teaching is very much at work in this type of environment.  While I do not disagree that learning does happen while teaching I would like to see more work done in this area before I change my dream of no longer teaching while I do research.  Does a second year of teaching yield the same amount of improvement as the first?  Did the students who were not teaching do a significantly better job the first time around?  And finally, if the main goal of a student’s graduate work is to contribute to the scientific community as a researcher, does teaching help, or hinder, the quality and quantity of work?  Hopefully follow-up studies will answer these questions, and we can take a second look at the nature of graduate research programs.

Feldon, David; James Peugh; Briana E. Timmerman; Michelle A. Maher; Melissa Hurst; Denise Strickland; Joanna A. Gilmore; Cindy Stiegelmeyer. Science 19 August 2011.  Vol. 333 no. 6045 pp. 1037-1039

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