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Graduate Teaching Assistants' Decision Making and Perceptions of Autonomy

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Graduate Student Experience

Tagged Divisions

Graduate Studies and Student

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.757.1 - 22.757.13



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Paper Authors


Katherine E. Winters Virginia Tech

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Katherine Winters is a Dean's Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. Her primary research interests center on graduate student motivation. She earned her B.S. and M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Brigham Young University.

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Holly M. Matusovich Virginia Tech

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Holly Matusovich is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. Dr. Matusovich has a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University. She also has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and an M.S. in Materials Science with a concentration in Metallurgy. Additionally Dr. Matusovich has four years of experience as a consulting engineer and seven years of industrial experience in a variety of technical roles related to metallurgy and quality systems for an aerospace supplier. Dr. Matusovich’s research interests include the role of motivation in learning engineering as well as retention and diversity concerns within engineering education and engineering as a profession.

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Teaching Motivations and Practices of Graduate Teaching Assistants in EngineeringFor many years, graduate students have served as laboratory assistants and graders forundergraduate engineering courses. Due to recent efforts to increase hands-on activities inengineering education, many institutions are now also employing graduate teaching assistants(GTAs) as course instructors and lecturers. While researchers have studied GTAs in thehumanities and physical sciences, little is known about GTA experiences in engineering. Thepurpose of this study, therefore, is to investigate the motivations and practices of GTAs inengineering by answering the following research questions:  How do GTAs describe their motivations for teaching?  How do GTAs describe their motivations for adopting various teaching strategies or making teaching decisions?  How do GTAs' descriptions of their teaching beliefs and practices relate to their observed teaching practices?This research is grounded in self-determination theory which posits that people are motivatedintrinsically or extrinsically and through a desire to satisfy three basic psychological needs:autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Previous research shows that intrinsic motivation andfulfillment of basic needs in teachers allows teachers to better support the needs of their students,and can promote greater teacher persistence and effort among students. While much of the workon self-determination theory in education has focused on the student perspective and quantitativemeasures, this research will qualitatively investigate the motivations and need fulfillment ofGTAs.This research was conducted at a large, research intensive, land-grant university. We used casestudy methods, with each GTA representing a case. Participants were interviewed using a semi-structured interview protocol and then observed while teaching. We used a follow-up interviewto specifically probe the connection between GTA beliefs and practices. As research has shownthat the institutional climate significantly impacts teachers’ practices and motivations, thesupervising faculty members for each participant were interviewed. Finally, the students in theobserved sections were surveyed to provide their perspective on the graduate teaching assistants’practices throughout the semester.Initial analysis suggests that GTA beliefs about teaching largely stem from their own experiencesas students and prior successes or failures while teaching. Classroom practices are somewhatconstrained by the supervising faculty, but many GTAs appreciate guidance from supervisorsand are not inclined to develop their own materials. GTAs are motivated by the tuition benefitsand stipends associated with their assistantships, but are also intrinsically motivated by anaffinity for the course material and desire to teach and interact with students. Implicationsinclude the importance of supporting and mentoring graduate teaching assistants as they take onincreasingly important instructional roles.

Winters, K. E., & Matusovich, H. M. (2011, June), Graduate Teaching Assistants' Decision Making and Perceptions of Autonomy Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18038

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