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WIP An Interview Study of Faculty, Course Assistant, and Student Insight within Teaching and Learning Assistant Programs for Undergraduate Engineering Courses

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Works in Progress II

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Hernán Gallegos Tufts University

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Hernán Gallegos is an undergraduate student at Tufts University. He is studying Mechanical Engineering and minoring in Engineering Education. His academic interests lie in trying to aid students to understand engineering concepts and how they can enhance their learning through various resources. With this in mind, he is working within the Engineering Learning Systems lab under Professor Kristen Wendell, a Mechanical Engineering Professor. With this opportunity, Hernán is able to further his understanding of both engineering and education to aid the generations who aim to become future engineers.

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Kristen B. Wendell Tufts University

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Kristen Wendell is Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Education at Tufts University. Her research efforts at at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach focus on supporting discourse and design practices during K-12, teacher education, and college-level engineering learning experiences, and increasing access to engineering in the elementary school experience, especially in under-resourced schools. In 2016 she was a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

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Jessica E. S. Swenson Tufts University, Center for Engineering Education and Outreach

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Jessica Swenson is a graduate student at Tufts University. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a research focus on engineering education. She received a M.S. from Tufts University in science, technology, engineering and math education and a B.S. from Northwestern University in mechanical engineering. Her current research involves examining different types of homework problems in mechanical engineering coursework and the design process of undergraduate students in project-based courses.

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This work-in-progress paper explores multiple stakeholders’ perspectives on both TA and LA approaches for instructional assistants. The research question guiding this study is: how do three engineering education stakeholder groups – professors, assistants, and students – experience instructional assistant programs and the changes they influence?

In undergraduate engineering courses, students typically have access to three kinds of resources to succeed: online resources, printed literature, and face-to-face help. These in-person resources might include the professor, tutor(s), fellow classmate(s), and instructional assistant(s). Broadly speaking, instructional assistants fall into two main categories: teaching assistants (TAs), who typically receive no or minimal pedagogical training, and learning assistants (LAs), who participate in a pedagogy seminar to build their skills for helping peers learn. LAs are typically undergraduate students who have previously completed the course in which they are assisting. Previous work has shown positive impact of LA programs on traditional student learning outcomes, and researchers have begun to explore what motivates TAs, but few studies have focused on comparing and contrasting experiences and impressions of assistants, professors, and students.

For this qualitative descriptive study, data collection consisted of 15 semi-structured interviews with 7 professors, 5 course assistants, and 3 students from 4 different institutions. Out of these 15 participants, 7 were involved with instructional assistant programs that followed a TA model as described above, and 8 were involved with programs that followed an LA model. Ten of the participants were teaching, assisting, or taking engineering courses, but we also interviewed 5 participants from other STEM disciplines for comparison. The semi-structured interview protocol asked participants to recall their experiences with and knowledge about an LA or TA program with which they had been involved. We transcribed all interviews, and data analysis followed a grounded theory approach. Using open coding and constant comparative analysis, we identified categories of perceptions and experiences that were common to all three stakeholder groups and that differed across them. From the analysis of transcripts, we found widespread appreciation for the connections and mentorships that arise from assistant programs, as well as common perceptions that assistant programs support change by enabling shared identities, collaboration, feelings of emotional and intellectual support, critique and feedback pathways, and newfound agency and responsibility. We also identified one widespread theme identifying a major barrier to ideal assistant program implementation: logistical challenges.

These preliminary findings reveal the key role that assistant programs can play in building connections and shared identities between and among stakeholders in a school or department of engineering. This result suggests that a carefully developed assistant program may contribute meaningfully to diversity and inclusion efforts.

Gallegos, H., & Wendell, K. B., & Swenson, J. E. S. (2018, June), WIP An Interview Study of Faculty, Course Assistant, and Student Insight within Teaching and Learning Assistant Programs for Undergraduate Engineering Courses Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31244

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