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Report on Policies and Practices Related to the English Proficiency of International Teaching Assistants

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August 1999

Executive Summary

During the Spring of 1999, President Spanier called for and Provost Rodney Erickson (then Dean of the Graduate School and Vice President for Research) appointed a working group to address concerns expressed by undergraduates that English language deficiencies of International Teaching Assistants (ITAs) were inhibiting student learning. The working group was asked to consider five kinds of actions and make recommendations. They were to identify successful department efforts for preparing ITAs to teach, suggest additional processes that might strengthen the preparation of ITAs, consider an increase in the standard for English proficiency required of ITAs, recommend changes in recruitment practices that might result in the admission of graduate students with better spoken English skills, and suggest ways to recognize and promote outstanding teaching among ITAs. The working group addressed these areas as well as a related concern that undergraduates may need to address their own preparation and attitudes for interacting with international staff and students and to recognize the benefits they derive from living in a community with many kinds of differences, including differences in accent. After its investigations and deliberations, the group has also developed the sense that ITAs are best assisted through a broad-based effort to help all teaching assistants to employ better teaching/learning strategies including active and collaborative learning, and creating the best possible learning climate for students. Further, the strong theme of this report is that international students and staff are a great source of strength for Penn State, to be praised and encouraged, and that all efforts to make them feel glad that they are here and that they are a valuable component of Penn State's diversity will be widely beneficial. Thus, the working group makes the following recommendations [action agents are identified with each recommendation]:

Recommendation 1: Drawing on successful departmental TA training and on various organizations that promote better teaching and learning, departments and colleges should move to improve and expand preparations for all TAs to know and employ active and collaborative teaching/learning strategies, so that they will become more effective in their own careers, and be valued for their teaching service. A website describing availability of services should be expanded from existing efforts. [University Park colleges, departments and the Office of Undergraduate Education]

Recommendation 2: The University administration should organize, and colleges and departments should implement, an ongoing teaching/learning colloquium for new ITAs, which would begin with some days dedicated to discussion and practice just before the International Programs Office orientation. Patterned after the model now employed by the Physics Department, they would continue with informal discussions, ideally involving American TAs, during the orientation period and well into the fall semester. [Departments having substantial numbers of ITAs and the Graduate School]

Recommendation 3: The Department of Speech Communication should raise the minimum score on the American English Oral Communicative Proficiency Test (AEOCPT) for certification for ITAs to function in the classroom from 230 to 250 (or achievement of a grade of "A" in SPCOM 118G.) [Department of Speech Communication]

Recommendation 4: The University should expand its resources for reducing difficult-to-understand accents to include software and qualified support. [University administration]

Recommendation 5: Undergraduate Student Government should take responsibility for ensuring that students play a regular and active role in the assessment of the readiness of ITA's to function in the classroom. [Undergraduate Student Government and Academic Assembly]

Recommendation 6: All units making offers to international graduate students for whom English is a second language, should conduct telephone interviews prior to extending offers. [Academic units which offer assistantships]

Recommendation 7: The University should consider administering an English speaking test overseas, similar to a process employed by Michigan State. [University administration]

Recommendation 8: Formative assessment of TA teaching/learning skills should be carried out by departments and colleges and successes should be recognized and celebrated University-wide. [The Office of Undergraduate Education, colleges and academic departments]

Recommendation 9: The orientation process should make undergraduate students aware early in their Penn State careers (for example, in their First-year Seminar) that they will be interacting with people for whom English is a second language. This should be presented as a positive opportunity, but one that will, like all learning experiences, require their effort. [Orientation working group and general education groups]

Recommendation 10: Undergraduate Student Government, the Graduate School, the Office of Undergraduate Education, Student Affairs and the Office of International Programs should collaborate to create numerous opportunities for students to interact with international students. Undergraduate Student Government should also become more proactive in communicating what constructive next steps are currently in place that students can take when they do have difficulty understanding ITAs. [Undergraduate Student Government, the Graduate School, the Office of Undergraduate Education, Student Affairs and the Office of International Programs]

Recommendation 11: The faculty, through the University Faculty Senate, should undertake to offer more intensive intercultural experiences within the diversity focused courses. [Faculty]

Recommendation 12: The Office of Undergraduate Education should update and expand the 1996 survey of departments/units, with the goal of assisting departments in improving their TA preparation programs. Also, the office should work with departments to improve their formative assessments of TA activities. [The Office of Undergraduate Education]

These recommendations underscore the notion that everyone at Penn State is served by a wide effort to create a more invigorating and mutually respectful learning community, and that everyone can contribute to it.

Working Group Members

  • John Cahir, Chair (Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education)
  • Jimmy Adegoke (Graduate Student, Geography)
  • Dale Brownawell (Distinguished Professor of Mathematics)
  • Robert Crane (Associate Dean, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences)
  • Tineke Cunning (Assistant to the Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education)
  • Diane Enerson (Director, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching)
  • Sarah Gallagher (Graduate Student, Astronomy and Astrophysics)
  • Michael Hecht (Head of Department of Speech Communication)
  • Lynn Hendrickson (Undergraduate Student, Health Policy Administration)
  • David Kayal (Undergraduate Student, Operations Management)
  • Stephen Turns (Professor of Mechanical Engineering)
  • Xiaoxing Xi (Assistant Professor of Physics)

Report on Policies and Practices Related to the English Proficiency of International Teaching Assistants

Table of Contents

Introduction: International Teaching Assistants at Penn State

  • Overview of This Report
  • The Working Group's Approach

Framing the Task: Improve the Learning Environment

  1. Identify and Share Departmental Efforts in TA Preparation
  2. Help ITAs Become More Effective Teachers
    • Help with General Teaching Strategies
    • Help with Teaching Strategies Related to Cross-Cultural, Cross Language Barriers
    • One Model for Teacher Training
  3. Employ a Higher English Competency Standard for Allowing ITAs to Teach
  4. Improve Practices for Recruiting ITAs
  5. Recognize Outstanding Efforts by ITAs and Vehicles for Conversation, Interaction, and Sharing of Good Practices among Them
  6. Create Vehicles to Promote A Greater Appreciation within the Penn State Learning Community for International, Intercultural, and Linguistic Diversity.

Report on Policies and Practices Related to the English Proficiency of International Teaching Assistants

Introduction: International Teaching Assistants at Penn State

  • In recent years, Penn State has strongly enhanced its presence and stature in the international arena. Along with being a leader in Fulbright fellowships and substantially increasing the number of students who study abroad, the University has also increased enrollment of international graduate students. The enrollment of international graduate assistants in Fall 1998 totaled 1,155, a 22% increase over the average yearly enrollment of international graduate assistants of 900 for the preceding five years. A similar sharp increase in the employment of new international teaching assistants (ITAs) has occurred, growing from an annual average of 117 between1993-97 to 192 in 1998, a 39% increase. These are results to applaud and celebrate, for the richness of the learning community grows in direct proportion to the diversity of its members.

    The rapid growth of the ITA cohort, combined with some growth in the student body, has undoubtedly resulted in the exposure of more undergraduates to TAs who speak with accents. In recent years, some students have complained that language difficulties inhibit their learning. This view was articulated in February by the Undergraduate Student Government Academic Assembly in a resolution stating that "a language barrier has hindered the learning of undergraduate students university wide." In response to this concern, Rodney Erickson charged a working group to examine Penn State policies and practices for placing graduate students for whom English is a second language in teaching situations and to recommend useful changes in policy, strategy and practices. This report provides the group's analysis and recommendations.

The working group was specifically asked to consider the adoption of the following:

  • Identification of successful departmental efforts related to preparing ITAs to teach and means of sharing their success with other departments.
  • Examination of an additional process to help ITAs become more effective teachers and more understanding of their roles in helping students to learn—to remove obstacles to learning that are more related to culture and experience in foreign universities than to language issues in themselves.
  • Consideration of a higher testing standard than the one currently employed, which permits international teaching assistants with language restrictions to teach.
  • Recommendation of recruiting practices, such as telephone interviews for prospective graduate students who may be asked to function as TAs, to establish their level of English language skills.
  • Recognition of outstanding efforts by ITAs and vehicles for conversation, interaction, and sharing of good practices among them.

Overview of This Report

The report addresses each of the five potential action areas with recommendations, while also advancing recommendations in a sixth area, preparing undergraduates to better interact with ITAs. First, we frame the task within the broad need to improve teacher preparation for all TA's, for to a large extent, ITAs, like their American counterparts, come to Penn State with very little direct preparation in effective teaching or of promoting learning habits in students. We then call on departments and colleges to examine their current efforts to prepare TAs in light of the best practices now in use at this university and to take steps to improve their efforts. We specify the need for upgrading help for all teaching assistants in employing effective teaching strategies and suggest, as well, some particular strategies relevant to ITAs. We then advance a recommendation to assure that Penn State has satisfactory standards for the English-language skills of ITAs and also recommend some resources for accelerating language learning. We propose steps to improve recruitment of ITAs to reduce the frequency of language situations that are unfortunate for all concerned; such steps may improve recruiting overall. To allow for critical feedback to ITAs on the effectiveness of their teaching, we propose that undergraduates assist in formative assessment of that teaching, and propose recognition of excellent teaching where it occurs. Finally, we propose that students undertake ventures to greatly improve the dialogue between undergraduates and international graduate students.

The Working Group's Approach

The working group met a number of times from March through June. We discussed the issues presented in the Undergraduate Student Government Academic Assembly's report, reviewed reports from the Speech Communication Department and the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) on current practices, and learned about orientation programs for ITAs conducted by the Physics Department and the College of Engineering. A sample of ITAs were surveyed for their thoughts and ideas. We also gathered data from those university departments that have the highest numbers of ITAs. Finally, we compared Penn State practices to those at other universities, including Iowa, Michigan State, Illinois (Chicago), and Texas Tech.

Framing the Task: Improve the Learning Environment

In keeping with the spirit of the charge, the group placed the task of exploring practices for preparation of ITAs within the context of strengthening the broad Penn State learning community.

The working group's discussion determined that the goal of helping ITAs to become better teachers is best addressed by attending to the needs of all TAs to become aware of new practices for promoting learning. Most universities are striving, for example, to make effective use of technologies for teaching and learning, to pay greater attention to the learners' needs, and to engage students in pursuing knowledge in collaboration with others. Preparing ITAs to teach well thus includes helping them employ teaching/learning strategies that are being broadly promoted for their effectiveness. And if faculty and domestic TA's find this task to be daunting, how much more so it must be for international graduate students, who are facing changes in so many other aspects of their lives?

Attempts to promote effective interactions between ITAs and their students also require looking at particular cultural or linguistic barriers that may impede communication. ITAs must have a sufficient command of English to be able to communicate clearly—both to meet their own need to build successful careers while in academia and to meet undergraduates' needs for understanding the material. But the very strengths that make ITAs uniquely valuable—their cultural experiences, insights, traditions, and language skills that differ from those of their American counterparts—may make them vulnerable to difficulties in the classroom. It is not fair to ITAs to place them, without excellent preparation, in situations in which teaching conventions and domestic students' expectations may differ greatly from their earlier experiences. Likewise, undergraduates often come from communities in which there was very little diversity or exposure to internationals; it is not realistic to expect that all these students, especially when struggling to learn difficult course material, will automatically adjust to unfamiliar accents. They may resent having to listen a little harder and may resist those who seem different.

Thus, the working group sees the challenge of improving ITA teaching as multifaceted and best met by multiple strategies. In general, we serve all interests best if we invite American TAs, faculty, and students to join in making ITAs feel welcome and valued. ITAs should not be seen as an isolated group and something of a problem. They are instead a great asset to be encouraged, developed, and integrated into our common undertaking of contributing to a vital learning community.

With this broad view as a foundation, we move to consider specific recommendations.

1. Identify and Share Departmental Efforts in TA Preparation

The working group reviewed available descriptions of current departmental practices in support of TA teaching development. It considered results of a 1996 survey completed by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. Among the 60 departments that responded, all but one department reported providing support and assistance for their graduate students who teach through a various combination of their own structured training programs, CELT programs, and one-on-one faculty mentoring. Several departments with only a few TAs rely primarily on their own teaching programs, including college teaching courses or seminars, weekly meetings, or orientation workshops to support their graduate students who teach, although most also use CELT programs as an accompaniment or supplement to these departmental activities.

More specifically, twenty-five departments indicated they have a graduate-level course or seminar designed for helping graduate students develop teaching skills. Twelve departments — typically those with laboratory courses and multi-section practicums — hold weekly meetings between TAs and faculty, or between TAs and course coordinators, often to ensure general consistency among the various sections. And ten departments offer two- to three-day workshops at the beginning of the semester, to go over specific teaching responsibilities and familiarize TAs with department guidelines and expectations, an approach that is quite typical in departments with large numbers of TAs who will be teaching early in their careers as graduate students. Departments in which significant number of graduate students teach are currently making an obvious effort to provide the kind of support and guidance that will help TAs teach more skillfully, although there are clearly many more ways that support for graduate students who teach at Penn State could be improved.

The working group suggests that a first step for improving teaching preparation for ITAs would be for departments and colleges to renew efforts for preparing their graduate students to teach. Departments should compare their practices with those of other departments and locate models that may allow them to improve on their current practices. Departments and colleges should consult with agencies whose mission is to improve teaching and learning at Penn State, including CELT, the Schreyer Institute for Innovation in Learning (SIIL), and Educational Technology Services (ETS). They can also draw on college-based resources such as the Leonhard Center in the College of Engineering.

To support these reviews among the many departments, the 1996 CELT survey should be updated. Further, a more comprehensive study of the TA teaching/learning development process will be helpful to the graduate students' development and should help departments diagnose their own changing needs. One of those needs lies in the area of helping ITAs. References to some excellent existing programs at Penn State for preparing TAs and ITAs to teach are provided in the next section.

2. Help ITAs Become More Effective Teachers

The goal of helping ITAs become better teachers can be addressed through two kinds of assistance: help with general teaching strategies, important for all TAs at the university, and help with a narrower set of strategies specifically useful when the teacher's native language and culture differ from the students' (likewise a situation that is faced not only by ITAs but by domestic TAs, who often teach students from diverse backgrounds). Both kinds of help are considered below.

Help with General Teaching Strategies

University teaching has become a greater challenge than ever before. The impact of information technology alone assures that. But there is also a contemporary emphasis on making instruction more learner-centered, for creating opportunities for active learning, and for designing tasks that require students to collaborate. Further, increasingly, teachers are asked to probe for, recognize, and adapt to different learning styles. The rapidly changing educational environment can be intimidating for veteran professors, let alone for TAs new to the classroom, whether domestic or international. According to a survey conducted among ITAs by the working group, there is a need for training among all TAs in "cross-cultural issues, communication skills, teaching methods, and pedagogy as part of a more rigorous orientation before ITAs/TAs are assigned teaching responsibilities." One way, therefore, to promote better results with ITAs is to address the need among all TAs for ongoing training and mentoring in teaching and promoting learning. If the person in charge of a class activity projects that they are interested in, care about, and know how to help students learn, they will be effective, and will be well-received, whatever their accent may be.

The University Faculty Senate has wisely charged departments (or equivalent units) with addressing TA preparation and training, and many departments are handling the task well. Good programs typically involve regular meetings throughout the year, during which TA's discuss concepts, watch demonstrations, and receive feedback on teaching practices, focusing not only on the disciplinary content but on ways to create a good learning environment. Such programs also draw on colleagues in other disciplines, either through formal interactions with CELT, SILL, ETS, or through college-based vehicles such as the Leonhard Center. Sometimes these conversations are organized around particular courses, often large general education courses. Additionally, the group recommends that a website be created that contains information about the many University resources available to TAs as well as the support structures in place at the department, college and University-wide levels.

Further, specific programs and resources are available to TAs. The following CELT programs are particularly relevant:

  • New Instructor Orientation—Offered before the start of each semester, this orientation provides an overview of some basic issues that often concern faculty and TAs as they prepare to teach for the first time or for the first time in a new situation. The orientation introduces participants to the teaching and learning culture at Penn State so that they will have some idea of what to expect from their first teaching experience here. Topics include selecting goals and objectives, determining teaching methods, organizing content, and ensuring student participation. In a hands-on workshop, participants are guided through planning a class session for the course they will be teaching. Participants also learn about resources and support services available at Penn State, which they can draw on as they continue their Penn State career. Approximately 130 TAs attend the orientation each year, but that is only 23% of all new TAs.
  • Course in College Teaching—This non-credit course is open every semester to all Penn State faculty, TAs, and instructors. The seminar meets to explore issues of pedagogy, share teaching experiences, and discuss some of the relevant literature. In addition, the course helps participants begin building individual teaching portfolios. About 75 TAs per year take this course
    In addition to programs offered by departments and CELT, other offices at the university can help graduate students design effective learning experiences. The Schreyer Institute for Innovation in Learning is very active in this area and regularly offers lunch-time seminars related to improving teaching through the "Voice Box" series. The Center for Academic Computing also offers a series of workshops for faculty, staff, and teaching assistants on effective use of technology for promoting learning and teaching.

Recommendation 1: Drawing on successful departmental TA training and on various organizations that promote better teaching and learning, departments and colleges should move to improve and expand preparations for all TAs to know and employ active and collaborative teaching/learning strategies, so that they will become more effective in their own careers, and be valued for their teaching service. A website describing availability of services should be created.

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