BRAZIL: Teaching assistants deliver mutual benefits

The University of Campinas (Unicamp) is continuously improving initiatives aimed at enhancing education quality. Among such initiatives, teaching assistant programmes have received a very positive response in the context of the OECD Institutional Management in Higher Education's Supporting Quality Teaching Project.

The PAD (undergraduate teaching assistantships) and PED (graduate teaching assistantships) are programmes that train students as teaching assistants and provide scholarships for them.

Both were initially created by setting up informal tutorials in Latin, calculus and physics in which better-performing students were matched with under-achieving students. When the outcome indicated that the tutorials resulted in better learning for both groups of students, the process was formalised in the PAD and PED programmes.

A call for students interested in participating in the programme is made, with several requirements regarding their academic performance. The students are chosen based on their overall performance as well as the grade in the discipline they are interested in covering.

For each course in which a graduate student (PED) collaborates, there is a designated supervising faculty member. The faculty member and the graduate student must submit a teaching project to a committee housed in the university's Central Graduate Commission. If the teaching project is approved, the graduate student must obtain the consent of his thesis supervisor in order to take part in the programme.

The scholarship may last from five months to one year. After the completion of the term the students must collaborate on a report with the course supervisor, which is analysed by the committee responsible for the programme.

As for undergraduate teaching assistants (PADs), once appointed they receive a scholarship for four-and-a-half months, starting one week before the beginning of term and terminating one week after the end of term. An assigned faculty member monitors their performance and they are evaluated on the basis of student feedback (through the formal course rating process) as well as the reflective paper they must submit at the end of the term.

A one-day orientation and three half-day seminars give candidates an overview of the general skills they require (public speaking, pedagogy, evaluation, safety and so on). Both programmes also have many volunteers taking part who do not have a scholarship, which shows that students see the programmes as adding value.

The range of responsibilities a teaching assistant is given varies depending on their status. Undergraduate students only assist professors; they do not teach or mark exams.

Graduate student assistants can, typically, teach up to 25% of a course in the presence of the supervising professor, but do not evaluate students. Depending on the level of teaching assistants, they can teach up to 100% of the course. For example, doctoral students can be assigned as instructors to teach a course. However, although the assistant is teaching the whole course, there is still a supervising faculty member who is ultimately responsible for the course.

Currently, the PAD and the PED programmes offer around 400 and 600 scholarships per semester, respectively. It is worth noting that the university has around 12,000 undergraduate and 12,000 graduate students, indicating that during a typical period of four to five years an estimated 50% to 70% of enrolled students participate in one of these initiatives. The total budget of the university for these programmes was US$2.2 million in 2010.

With such a lot of effort put into this initiative by the university, it is extremely important that its outcomes are properly evaluated and analysed.

Each school or department has a different culture regarding teaching practices, and the students who participate in the programmes need to be properly engaged in order to get the very best out of this opportunity and to ensure peers attending the corresponding course also perceive the benefits.

Another huge positive is that it can help faculty members with their teaching workloads. It is worth noting, however, that a fundamental part of the programmes is that teaching assistants are under constant evaluation and that they and faculty members meet regularly to discuss the work and ensure the excellence in teaching required by the university.

Overall, the teaching assistant programmes have several advantages.

First, they provide additional teaching resources to enhance the quality of learning for all students. Second, students selected to serve as teaching assistants receive a one-day orientation and three half-day seminars about their role and responsibilities. Although this is short, it is a formal introduction to a key role that is not often offered in university curricula.

Third, for graduate teaching assistants, participation in classroom and teaching activities provides good training. This training has been proven to give teaching assistants an advantage later on in their careers when they apply for positions in academic institutions.

Fourth, the scholarships provide monetary remuneration and serve as financial assistance to the recipients. Finally, the programmes offer undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to study their subject more in depth so that they can teach it to others.

* Marcelo Knobel is dean of undergraduate programmes and professor of physics and Euclides Mesquita Neto is dean of graduate programmes at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil.