The Value of Undergraduate Teaching Assistants in Synchronous Online Learning Environments: 10 Steps That Can Make a Positive Change

Credit: iStock.com/demaerre
Credit: iStock.com/demaerre
Transforming an in-person course to an online teaching and learning environment is always challenging, especially if the course has a laboratory or studio component. As two co-instructors of a large introductory inquiry-based biology laboratory course with nearly 400 students enrolled, we faced such a challenge when our university switched to online instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. We had to plan for this transition wisely and consider the possible impact of our decisions on all the moving parts associated with such a large course. One of the available resources to our course was a group of undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs), who had been assisting the laboratory instructors when classes met in person. The successful outcome of having UTAs during the spring semester and during an online summer course has encouraged us to share the lessons we learned from this experience here. As we move forward with online laboratory instruction in the future, we will rely on our UTAs in this relatively new learning environment. We believe that incorporating UTAs in online synchronous classrooms could help them gain valuable teaching and communication skills in such a developing learning environment. In addition, UTAs’ assistance can save instructors a great deal of time and reduce the pressure of teaching in and managing a virtual classroom, especially during a pandemic.

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Transforming an in-person course to an online teaching and learning environment is always challenging, especially if the course has a laboratory or studio component. As two co-instructors of a large introductory inquiry-based biology laboratory course with nearly 400 students enrolled, we faced such a challenge when our university switched to online instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. We had to plan for this transition wisely and consider the possible impact of our decisions on all the moving parts associated with such a large course. One of the available resources to our course was a group of undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs), who had been assisting the laboratory instructors when classes met in person. The successful outcome of having UTAs during the spring semester and during an online summer course has encouraged us to share the lessons we learned from this experience here. As we move forward with online laboratory instruction in the future, we will rely on our UTAs in this relatively new learning environment. We believe that incorporating UTAs in online synchronous classrooms could help them gain valuable teaching and communication skills in such a developing learning environment. In addition, UTAs’ assistance can save instructors a great deal of time and reduce the pressure of teaching in and managing a virtual classroom, especially during a pandemic.

Here, we summarize what we learned and provide some tips and strategies for instructors who are interested in but also skeptical about involving UTAs in their online synchronous classrooms this fall. Even if your program does not offer UTA positions, student volunteers in your online classrooms can fulfill some of the tasks discussed here. Since we have been using Zoom during our synchronous classrooms, most of our examples are related to the features this software provides. But if you are using other video communication software for your online classrooms, you can still benefit from these recommendations as similar features exist in other programs. Here are the steps we believe can enrich the involvement of UTAs in the remote learning environment:

  1. Familiarity with the possible challenges UTAs may face: UTAs are students themselves who are facing the same challenges that other undergraduates face. Make sure to reach out to UTAs before the first day of the class to understand and become aware of challenges they may face that could potentially prevent them from, or cause some difficulties with, leading the online synchronous teaching sessions (e.g., access to a personal computer, reliable internet).
  2. Providing teaching support to UTAs: To enrich the involvement of UTAs in the remote learning environment, make sure to have frequent meetings with them where you can update UTAs about the teaching materials and strategies you wish to use in a synchronous session. For example, to help the UTAs become familiar with the technologies selected for online instruction before the first virtual labs, instructors should meet with UTAs to discuss different Zoom features and the ways UTAs can help in that environment.
  3. UTAs and the beginning of the online classrooms: The early moments of the synchronous online classrooms can be boring, dull, and listless for students. Since UTAs know their peers’ interests better than instructors do, they can play an important role in developing icebreakers to start the class with high energy. UTAs can be encouraged to be creative in designing engaging poll questions that can be asked via Zoom poll while students are entering the online class. They can survey the students’ interest in music and create a class Spotify channel that can play at the beginning of each class. Having the UTAs start each class with a non-course-related activity seems to lower student anxiety and raise the energy level.
  4. UTAs and Zoom breakout rooms: In virtual labs, instructors are encouraged to use Zoom’s breakout room feature often as a way to encourage students' group work and discussions and to mimic this essential part of in-person active learning. The UTAs should be assigned as cohosts so they can join and move between breakout rooms, moderate students' discussions, and further assist students. They can monitor if students call for assistance and promptly join a breakout room to help. When individual students or student groups fall behind, they can be assigned to a breakout room with the UTA, who can offer personalized assistance, while the instructor continues the work with the rest of the class without delay.
  5. UTAs and the Zoom chat feature: The Zoom chat feature is a useful tool for questions and discussion, especially when instructors ask an opinion-based or low-stakes question from students. Students are also encouraged to use this feature to share their course-related items as an alternative to verbal communication within the virtual environment. It can, however, be distracting for the instructor to manage both the lecture and the chat. Instead, the UTAs can frequently monitor the chat box and let the instructor know if there was a question or a comment that needed to be addressed. Summarizing the key points in the Zoom chat box was creatively suggested by our UTAs in the spring. The UTAs can also use the chat box to guide students to where they can find course-related information and resources, such as rubrics or worksheets. Instructors will find the use of the chat feature by UTAs extremely helpful.
  6. UTAs and the Zoom reaction feature: Both students and the host often use thisfeature in the online learning environment. For example, students to virtually raise their hands when they have a question or want to show their agreement with an opinion or a concept. UTAs can monitor and respond to these notifications when the instructors are occupied with other course-related activities. Alternatively, UTAs can praise students’ verbal participation and responses by using this quick and effective nonverbal feature without disrupting the conversations.
  7. UTAs and the Zoom waiting room feature: We encourage instructors to use the Zoom waiting room to regulate the access of students to their lab sections. UTAs’ presence can be very helpful in admitting the students who either joined the virtual labs later than the start of the class or who had to rejoin the lab because of unreliable internet connection they may have. Since the waiting room cannot be seen from breakout rooms, having a UTA in the main room is essential to let students into the course when the instructor is working with student groups in breakout rooms.
  8. UTAs in Zoom as cohosts: In some situations, if the instructor encounters poor internet connection, the presence of UTAs in the Zoom room as cohosts proves invaluable as they can lead the lab until the instructor rejoins the meeting.
  9. UTAs assisting with student participation: Encouraging student participation in a virtual classroom can be challenging. Our UTAs have encouraged participation in many ways, including managing discussion boards or Google Docs built into the course LMS. They created shared questionnaires, where students could provide feedback on classmates’ presentations using a rubric, and while UTAs are not allowed to grade assignments, they can help to check whether assignments are submitted and alert the instructors about missing assignments.
  10. UTAs as a source of emotional support: Feedback from students who took the course with UTA support indicates that having UTAs in online synchronous labs can reduce the students’ apprehension about uncertainties associated with the pandemic and remote learning. Because of the similar age of the students and UTAs as well as the similar challenges they face, UTAs can provide emotional support to students. More importantly, students in need may feel more comfortable reaching out to the instructor via a UTA rather than directly approaching the authority figure (main instructor) in the online classroom. Since the virtual learning environments often struggle with being inclusive, the presence of the UTA can be essential in identifying when students need support.

Our spring and summer 2020 experience showed UTAs to be great assets in helping the instructors to lead the synchronous sessions, engage students with activities, and contribute to the lab atmosphere during such difficult times. The experience of being involved and assisting in the online classrooms seemed to assist our group of UTAs both in their studies and in dealing with emotional difficulties caused by the pandemic situation. Due to their incredible value, we will continue to seek the assistance of UTAs in upcoming semesters that are taught online. With the continuation of the current pandemic and the high possibility of online teaching, we urge you to take advantage of UTAs in your synchronous online classrooms to create a more rewarding, student-centered learning environment. Also, let’s not forget to mention that UTAs are often more tech-savvy than most of the instructors, which makes them a great resource to have in your virtual teaching environment!

Mitra Asgari, PhD, is a lecturer at the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. As a college teacher and a biology education researcher, she has been a strong advocate of evidence-based teaching practices to improve engagement, learning, and sense of belonging of undergraduate students in STEM classrooms.

Mark A. Sarvary, PhD, is the director of the Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories and the faculty advisor for the science communication and public engagement undergraduate minor at Cornell University. He uses education research to improve undergraduates’ learning experiences and their skills in experimental design, information literacy, and science communication.


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