For the on-campus version of 5.111 Principles of Chemical Science—like many of the high-enrollment courses that satisfy MIT’s General Institute Requirements—much of the instruction is done by teaching assistants, who may be intimidated by their first experience in the role. Starting almost a decade ago, Cathy Drennan, professor of chemistry and biology, pushed to establish a 20-hour “TA Boot Camp” for incoming grad students to teach them how to facilitate dynamic discussions and hands-on experiments.

The training also creates bonds among TAs so they can rely on one another for support. If they don’t know an answer to a student’s query right away, for example, TAs are encouraged to put their heads together and get back to the class with a full response. The resulting increase in TA confidence has had an effect not only on their own experiences, but also on student learning. In a study conducted in 2007–2008 with co-instructor Elizabeth Vogel Taylor and the Teaching and Learning Laboratory’s Rudy Mitchell, Drennan found that students of TAs who’d gone through the boot camp rated their teaching assistants on average above 6 on a 7-point scale, versus an average range of 3.7–5.4 for those who hadn’t had the training.

TA Boot Camp also emphasizes diversity, building awareness of subtle factors that can affect the student experience—such as “stereotype threat,” the perceived risk of confirming a negative stereotype, frequently related to (but not limited to) race or gender. That concept in particular “has had a remarkable effect on how I have interacted with people not only as a teacher, but throughout my career,” says former TA Darcy Grinolds PhD ’14, who now works as a hardware reliability engineer.

Drennan has since started a separate TA training program for MIT’s Department of Biology. Last year, she was awarded a $10,000 MacVicar fellowship, which recognizes MIT professors who demonstrate innovation in teaching, which she says she’ll use to further diversity training among teachers at MIT and elsewhere.


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