Training to be strengthened for GSIs
Teaching preparation for graduate student instructors (GSIs) will be strengthened and will become more consistent across all U-M schools and colleges under recommendations issued by a University task force.
The task force was appointed by Provost Paul N. Courant and Shirley Neuman, then dean of LSA, in May to review how the University conducts testing and training of GSIs, particularly those from foreign countries. Testing and training of international GSIs has been an issue in the past three contract negotiations between the University and the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the union representing GSIs.
The most recent employment contract signed May 7 eliminated citizenship as a criterion by which graduate students can be required to participate in testing and special training on English language classroom competency. In addition, the contract requires that all academic departments employing GSIs provide a minimum of four hours of training.
The Task Force on Testing and Training Prospective GSIs was chaired by Constance E. Cook, director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). Its 16 members included faculty, staff, undergraduates and graduate students, two of whom were representatives of GEO. The group worked MaySeptember and conducted extensive research among U-M schools and colleges, as well as peer institutions around the country, before arriving at its recommendations.
The final report received the endorsement of both the provost and the leadership of GEO.
"I am extremely pleased with the work of this task force," Courant says. "The development of our GSIs as teachers is important both to their own academic and professional success, and to the quality of the education that we provide to our undergraduates. As a result of this group's work, we have a clearer understanding of what we have been doing well in this area and where we need to make improvements."
The task force found that "there are many exemplary programs on campus that prepare graduate students to teach and develop their instructional expertise throughout their postbaccalaureate career." These include LSA, which requires 20 hours of training for GSIs in all departments; Engineering, which has a centralized pre-teaching program for all GSIs provided by CRLT; a four-semester pre-teaching curriculum for all doctoral students in the Business School; and a five-week capstone program for advanced graduate students co-sponsored by CRLT and the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.
However, both the amount and content of training vary widely across academic units, according to the task force report, and there also is inconsistency in standards for requiring testing of English language classroom competency for international GSIs.
Specifically, the task force found that:
• No central review of GSI training is done on a regular basis.
• Some schools and colleges have no testing and training specifically for international GSIs, while others have required programs.
• In some academic units, GSIs are not required to receive pedagogical training, or they receive fewer than the four hours mandated by the new employment contract.
• Some GSIs receive no mentoring, monitoring or evaluation, and others receive very little.
• Some academic units have no mechanism for identifying, helping or reassigning GSIs who are having difficulty with their teaching. The purpose of the task force's recommendations is to ensure that "all GSIs receive equitable and adequate testing, pre-teaching training, and ongoing support as developing teachers," according to the report. "The task force members were unanimous in their commitment to excellent training for University of Michigan GSIs," Cook says. "Their recommendations reflect the increasingly global nature of the U-M community."
Key recommendations include:
• Appoint a committee to collect data and conduct regular evaluations of the testing and training of prospective GSIs campuswide. The evaluation committee would report periodically to the provost and deans.
• Exempt students from English language classroom competency testing and training if they have received an undergraduate degree from a college or university in the United States, or from an institution in which English was the primary medium of instruction. Students who are not exempt would be reviewed by the English Language Institute (ELI) and would undergo training as recommended by ELI. The task force noted that offers of funding by academic departments to first-year graduate students should not be contingent on whether a student is able to pass testing and training requirements.
• Establish equitable and adequate pre-teaching training for all GSIs and make such training available more uniformly across academic units, with the support of CRLT and ELI. This includes practice teaching with feedback from trained observers, and the option of training to help graduate students with undergraduate degrees from universities unlike U-M make the transition to teaching undergraduates here.
• Establish equitable and adequate monitoring, mentoring and ongoing training for all GSIs while they are teaching. This includes appointing faculty GSI coordinators in each department and providing resources and training to those faculty; making greater use of experienced graduate student mentors; providing ongoing training to GSIs, especially during their first semester teaching; and developing procedures for early monitoring of and feedback to GSIs during each semester they are teaching.
The Michigan Student Assembly agreed this fall to help pilot a new early-monitoring program in six 100- and 200-level classes in political science, economics, chemistry, biology and engineering.
Lester P. Monts, senior vice provost and senior counselor to the president for the arts, diversity, and undergraduate affairs, says the task force report fits nicely with the recommendations made earlier by the President's Commission on the Undergraduate Experience. "The quality of the environment we provide to our undergraduates is a high priority," he says. "We have a number of important efforts underway to continue to improve the learning experience for students both within and outside of the classroom. GSIs play a crucial role. They have an ability to make close connections with undergraduates in a way that sparks learning at all levels."
The next steps include presentation of the report to deans and associate deans. Terrence McDonald, interim dean of LSA, notes that it will be essential for the schools and colleges to get engaged in order for the recommendations to be effective. "We have the support of the provost, and the commitment of central resources to enable these improvements. But it will be up to each of the schools, and the academic departments within them, to carry out many of these specific recommendations. We'll be looking to the deans and the faculty for additional leadership."