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International TA training helps instructors and their students

January 10, 2008

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By Stuart Colcleugh

Nicholas de Jager had so much trouble understanding the international teaching assistant (ITA) in one of his tutorials, he lost all hope of getting a decent mark.

“I didn’t really understand the subject and the TA was no help,” says the third-year SFU student. “She would answer the assignment questions on the board, but her English was too poor to explain the solutions well enough for anyone in the class to understand.”

De Jager’s is an increasingly familiar complaint at North American universities, as the numbers of international graduate students—and ITAs—continue to grow. It’s a gripe that many participants in the Continuing Studies ITA training program are well aware of, and make every effort to address by improving their communication and TA skills through ITA Seminars.

The 13-week program runs at the start of each semester. And in addition to topics such as grading, lecturing and classroom management, the students learn strategies to become more fluent and confident with their English. Enrolment in the weekly three-hour seminars is limited to 12 participants so everyone can take an active part.

“We started in 1992 with one class per semester,” says ITA program director Wendy Steinberg. “Now we have four separate classes running every semester, training as many as 50 participants.”

Much of the training takes place informally, with “authentic discussions” that encourage students to participate and practice their English skills, says Steinberg.

They also do exercises that help acclimatize them to Canadian higher-education culture, “which is often quite different from what they’re used to.

“For example, many international students wouldn’t think of interrupting a teacher back home with questions during a lecture. They’re used to listening, taking notes and not questioning or challenging authorities.”

The program aims to have all international TAs take the voluntary training before they begin their jobs. And Steinberg says SFU’s dean’s council is supporting that goal with additional funding.

“We’re very encouraged by success stories from many of our participants,” says Steinberg, noting that one of the program’s alumna has just recently obtained a permanent position with the university. “She credited a lot of her success to her ITA training.”

More: www.sfu.ca/cstudies/lang/ita/what.htm


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