Physics Team’s Research Paper is Editor’s Pick

jacquelyn-chini-headshotA UCF research team just had its paper on how to improve graduate student teaching methods chosen as an Editor’s Pick in “Physical Review.” The journal is the flagship series of the American Physical Society, the largest society of physicists in the U.S. Among its newest offerings, added in 2005, is an open access online journal, “Physical Review Physics Education Research,” which examines the human aspects of teaching and learning physics.

The paper was written by Assistant Professor of Physics Jacquelyn Chini, and her team, Matthew Wilcox, a physics graduate student, and Yuehai Yang, the Director of the Learning Assistant Program. Their study examined if graduate teaching assistants (TAs) understand and agree with the teaching methods that are expected of them from their course designers.

The experiment consisted of an observation protocol that organized teaching actions into 10 mutually exclusive categories.

“These were actions such as explaining course content to the whole class, talking with a group of students about course topics, or observing students working,” Chini, who holds her doctoral degree in physics, said. “We asked our TAs what they thought we as the course designers wanted and what they thought was the best way to spend their time.”

The TAs generally understood how the designers wanted them to teach and more importantly, the TAs agreed that this was an effective way to teach. This was shown by a correlation between how the designers wanted them to spend their time and what the TAs thought was the best way to spend their time.

While the TAs indicated they agreed with the course structure, this was not always reflected in their actions. The TAs’ actions appeared to be most influenced by student responses and expectations that did not align with the design of the course.

This finding suggests that there are multiple influences that affect TAs’ actions in a classroom. With her easy way to measure TAs buy-in and additional influences, Chini hopes this method can be helpful for course designers in both Physics and other disciplines in prepping their TAs to make deliberate teaching choices.

“There is a big push in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] education to transform the way we teach to be more student-centered, and there are many ideas floating around about how to do it,” Chini said. “Many STEM faculty have not had the opportunity to actually be trained in teaching, so the idea was to start this training for graduate students.”

Her innovative research on STEM learning strategies doesn’t stop there. Chini is already implementing a similar survey with her own graduate student TAs and is actively collaborating across the university on STEM education research.

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