History of TA Training at ESG
For over 30 years, ESG has served as a place where educational innovation in undergraduate teaching is explored and developed. The program was started in 1969 as a more flexible and personalized alternative to the highly structured method of instruction (lectures and recitation sections) provided by the regular MIT curriculum. ESG students were allowed flexibility in pace and content of their studies, independent work was encouraged, and close staff-student interaction was fostered. Students were encouraged to learn at their own pace, to gain self-awareness, to learn to cooperate with others, and, most of all, to take an active role in their educational process.
As the program at ESG evolved, students who had excelled in their GIRs were spending time at ESG helping the new classes of freshman, in large part as a way to keep connected to the ESG community after their freshman year. What became clear was that these unofficial TAs were enriching the ESG community and offering a unique teaching perspective to the incoming classes. As upperclassmen, they had recently been through the material that the freshmen were seeing for the first time, and they understood the freer, more discussion-based teaching style that was the core of the ESG experience. Eventually, ESG began to hire these upperclassmen, and the Teaching Seminar was established as a means of supervising and offering pedagogical instruction for first-time TAs.
The role of the Teaching Seminar in the overall mission of ESG
A key component to the ESG style of education is based on the tenet that teaching and learning processes are symbiotic, and that students learn in a more profound and intimate way through the process of teaching others. Having mastery over material is one thing; being able to impart that understanding of the material is quite another. We find that through the process of teaching the material that they have mastered, our students develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of the subject. ESG TAs who have come through the Teaching Seminar report that they gain confidence and skills that serve them throughout their academic careers.
In addition to having a deeper understanding of the materials they are teaching, TAs learn how to work with peers in a teaching role, how to set appropriate boundaries, and how to work effectively within the expectations of both their students and their supervisors. TAs act as liaisons between ESG teaching staff and the freshmen, and they serve an important role in helping the staff stay apprised of student progress and to anticipate potential problems. By having TAs work in small groups and one-on-one with freshmen, they are able to act as “first responders,” helping staff to get a pulse on a given group of students. Through the TA’s close connections with students, staff can adapt pace (slower or faster depending on how students are grasping material), and can use different approaches to teaching material when desirable. In this way, teaching staff need not wait until mid-term exams to get a fair sense of how their students are performing.
The ESG TA program provides a continuity that serves the ESG community as a whole in a variety of ways. Freshmen get the benefit of having motivated TAs who are peers, adding an powerful and empathetic dimension to the learning environment. TAs are closely monitored and receive regular practical feedback that guides them through the process of teaching for the first time. Teachers are given the opportunity to encourage talented students to come back to ESG after their freshmen year to TA, and then can see these students develop throughout their entire undergraduate careers. This longer-term investment in an undergraduate’s education beyond their freshman year provides benefit for the entire ESG community.
Teaching Seminar syllabus (ES.200)
The Teaching Seminar is a 6-unit, pass/fail class that provides training and supervision of the first-time teaching assistants and recitation instructors who serve ESG's freshman population.