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Student-Assisted Teaching

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The excerpt below describes what can only be called a radical

approach to undergraduate education in which teaching teams that

include some of the students themselves are used throughout a course.

It is based on two

ideas I find quite compelling; that one of the best ways to learn

something is to teach it to others, and that in higher education everyone

from freshman, to graduate students, to senior professors, are part of an

intellectual community in which everyone is both a teacher and a learner.

The excerpt is of Chapter 7, The Teaching Teams Program: Empowering

Undergraduates in a Student-Centered Research University, in

STUDENT-ASSISTED TEACHING: A Guide to Faculty-Student Teamwork,

JUDITH E. MILLER, Worchester Polytechnic Institute JAMES E. GROCCIA,

University of Missouri-Columbia, and

MARILYN S. MILLER, University of Missouri-Columbia, editors. ?2000,

Anker Publishing Company, Inc., Bolton Massachusetts.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Purpose and Mission of Higher Education

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


------------------ 2,345 words ---------------------


A Guide to Faculty-Student Teamwork


The Teaching Teams Program: Empowering Undergraduates in a

Student-Centered Research University

Lacey A. Stover, Kirstin A. Story, Amanda M. Skousen, Cynthia E. Jacks,

Heather Logan, and Benjamin T. Bush


The University of Arizona is undertaking an ambitious restructuring

of the undergraduate experience with the goal of creating a

student-centered university, of which a defining characteristic is that

its undergraduates are actively engaged in their education. However,

this engagement cannot be accomplished solely by restructuring core

program requirements and individual course curricula. Meaningful

involvement can be achieved by incorporating undergraduate students in

the teaching process and by offering them roles in course and curriculum


To further undergraduate students' engagement in their own learning and

that of their peers, the University of Arizona created the teaching

teams program (TTP), described in detail in Chapter 5. Teaching teams

consist of faculty, GTAs, and undergraduate peer leaders working

together to facilitate collaborative learning experiences in large

general education classes. In this chapter, we discuss the experience

of the undergraduate members of the team, the preceptors.


Preceptors are an integral part of the teaching team along with faculty

and GTAs. The specific duties of preceptors are dependent on the goals

of the instructor and on the structure of the class. However all

preceptors assist students with course material, act as liaisons between

students and instructors, hold office hours, and attend training

workshops (Table 7.1). Course syllabi (TTP,2000), created by the TTP

with substantial input from its undergraduate coordinators, formalize

this standard. Instructors are free to supplement these activities with

additional responsibilities that they consider necessary for their

courses. Approximately 75% of preceptors in 1998-1999 assisted with

in-class activities, 50% acted as discussion leaders, and 25% helped

develop class projects or activities.



Obligatory Duties of Preceptors:

* Finish assignments on an accelerated schedule when concurrently

enrolled in the course

* Hold one to two office hours per week to assist students with projects

and coursework

* Attend TTP training workshops

* Attend weekly meetings with instructors and GTA(s)

* Give instructor constructive feedback on student progress and concerns

* Refer students to instructor or GTA(s) when uncomfortable with


Examples of Additional Preceptors Responsibilities

* Help create in-class activities for small group discussions

* Develop and deliver in-class presentations

* Facilitate in-class group discussions and collaborative learning


* Conduct study sessions to assist students with exam review or homework


* Conduct peer writing review

* Assist the instructor with class field trips or other special events


The presence of preceptors is beneficial to everyone in the classroom

when they assume roles in the teaching process that their classmates

readily embrace. An obvious benefit of this is that preceptors increase

opportunities for help in the course by explaining the number of office

hours available per week, and by conducting out-of-class help sessions.

In "traditions and Cultures: Confucian Asia" (TRAD 103), preceptors

discussed Confucian virtues with small groups of students. Preceptors

were able to answer student questions because they had completed the

work ahead of time. Preceptors in the TRAD course also performed

practical tasks such as taking attendance, monitoring student activity,

and answering students' questions.

Preceptors provide the resources necessary for instructors to include

hands-on activities in high-enrollment science courses. For example,

preceptors allowed the instructor of "Natural Sciences: The Universe and

Humanity: Origin and Destiny" (NATS 102) to implement a model-building

activity based on student-defined experiments using a Crookes'

radiometer. This project required a great deal of out-of-class,

hands-on activity, so there was a need for supervision beyond what the

instructor and the GTAs could provide. The preceptors on the teaching

team in this course readily provided the extra supervision after having

conducted and analyzed their own observations prior to the rest of the

class. Preceptors then peer reviewed the final drafts of the radiometer

experiment reports.

Preceptors provide the facilitation necessary for collaborative learning

activities in large lecture classes. In "Individuals in Society:

Language" (INDV 101), a large, lecture-oriented linguistics course,

preceptors monitored small group discussions and assisted with class

discussion of group presentations. In a special project, preceptors

polled students about their linguistics backgrounds, then created and

presented a map based on this information.

We discovered early in our program that giving preceptors high

visibility in classes could generate negative reactions among students,

GTAs, and faculty. One major risk of giving undergraduates leadership

roles in the classroom is that their peers may assume that these

positions bring preferential treatment, such as access to privileged

information. When students feel that preceptors are receiving special

treatment, trust between the two groups suffers, and benefits from

student-preceptor interactions diminish. In order to head off such

problems, instructors should describe the qualifications for a preceptor

position and emphasize that all students are eligible. Also,

instructors should make clear that preceptors are neither privy to

confidential information, nor permitted to dispense answers to students.

In our experience, accusations of special treatment rarely emerge when

these two points are established and reiterated throughout the semester.

The fact that preceptors, when concurrently enrolled in the same course,

tend to achieve higher grades than their peers can compound the

perception of privilege (see Chapter 5). Faculty need to explain that

preceptors achieve higher grades because they spend extra time reviewing

assignments and because they explain the assignments repeatedly to other

students, an action that any student wishing to improve his or her study

skills can engage in independently. Also, preceptors receive assistance

from instructors during weekly team meetings, and such attention is

available to all students during faculty office hours.


We believe that it is important for undergraduates to be involved in course and

curriculum development if they are to take an active role in their

education. Traditionally, undergraduates have had difficulty giving

feedback to their instructors during the semester because evaluations

were not available for inspection by faculty until after the semester

was completed, and they have rarely had any role in the planning of

their courses. Through the TTP structure and the curriculum development

grants offered by the TTP, undergraduates can provide timely feedback to

their instructors and take part in curriculum development.

Because preceptors tutor their classmates, they can observe the

students' progress and inform their instructor about areas of confusion.

This method provides more immediate opportunities for course adjustment

than relying on exam results or end-of-semester evaluations to judge the

progress of the students. The most successful teaching teams hold

weekly meetings in which preceptors feel free to voice their concerns

about the course.

TTP awards curriculum development grants for the creation of new

student-centered general education courses. The requirement that one

third of the budget must be used to support undergraduate members of the

project team gives undergraduates a very unique and powerful role in

transforming the curriculum to a student-centered one. Principal

investigators of TTP grants have employed undergraduates to assist in

adding technology to existing general education courses, creating

experiments for natural science courses, and designing new courses.


Preceptors work with faculty and GTAs to create unique collaborative

learning environments in large lecture classes. Preceptors benefit from

this interaction because they must understand the course material in

order to help design an activity that will help the students, and as a

consequence their course performance improves. In addition, preceptors

benefit from the opportunity to develop communication skills, practice

critical analysis, and reflect on their educational and life goals.

Serving as a preceptor while concurrently enrolled in the course is

unquestionably beneficial to the preceptors themselves. Although

earning better grades is not overemphasized as a benefit during

preceptor recruiting, in the questionnaire data collected in spring

1999, 71% of respondents cited earning a better grade in the course as

either a "strong" or a "moderate" influence in their decision to become

preceptors. Similarly, 61% of respondents stated that they expected to

earn higher grades by serving as preceptors. Preceptor grades were

indeed higher than would be expected from their high school GPA and

SAT/ACT scores (see Chapter 5). We know that many preceptors are highly

motivated and would likely outperform the group average whether they

served as preceptors or not. On the other hand, we also know that many

preceptors improved their study an time management skills through their

experience. In our opinion, these students almost certainly earned

higher grades because of their preceptorship.

One of the most difficult transitions to university life is the change

in student-teacher relationships. Students in large research

universities are often too intimidated to approach instructors who are

renowned experts in their fields. Before a university can call itself

student-centered, this intimidation must be overcome by instilling in

students the self-confidence necessary to approach and to communicate

successfully with their faculty. TTP requires frequent, extended

interaction between preceptors, GTAs, and faculty, thus allowing

preceptors to get to know their instructors personally early in the

semester. Often, this familiarity helps preceptors in their other

courses, as it gives them self-confidence necessary to approach their

other instructors. In addition, the TTP structure allows non-preceptors

to develop self-confidence by providing them peer resources to approach

for help, and by providing them with role models who interact regularly

with faculty. Helping, undergraduates develop these skills diminishes

the impersonal nature of the research university and allows students to

feel comfortable speaking openly with other members of the university


Every semester, the TTP collects assessment data from preceptors

(Appendix D-9). Of the 101 respondents to the spring 1999 evaluation,

78% of preceptors "strongly agree" with the statement, "being a

preceptor has allowed me to get to know the professor better."

Similarly, 88% of respondents stated that they either "strongly agree"

or "somewhat agree" with the statement, "being a preceptor has improved

my ability to explain complicated ideas to others." These data clearly

indicate that students involved in TTP feel that they acquire

communication skills that are vital to their professional development

and to the creation of a student-centered academic culture.

We see general education as an opportunity for students to integrate

their major area of study with other disciplines and, in doing so, to

improve their critical thinking and problem solving skills. TTP

provides opportunities for interdisciplinary study because preceptors

are rarely majors in the disciplines in which they serve as preceptors,

and therefore bring knowledge of other fields into their preceptorships.

For example, in the NATS course, two political science majors prepared a

presentation and facilitated a discussion on the effect on the upcoming

presidential race of the debate on evolution. In another presentation,

a psychology major facilitated a class discussion about the public fear

of irradiated food and prompted students to consider the complex reasons

why such fears are sustained. In each case, both preceptors and

non-preceptors were able to realize the value of interdisciplinary

study, and the process of integrating the disciplines was valuable to

improving reasoning skills, obtaining active involvement, and making

informed decisions.

Attending college is a life-changing experience in which students are

exposed to new points of view and new potential careers. We have

observed our peers changing their majors and future plans frequently

throughout their academic careers. In a spring 1999 survey, 55% of

responding preceptors agreed that they had an increased interest in the

teaching profession as a result of their preceptorships, suggesting that

a preceptorship is an opportunity to evaluate new educational and career



Some perceptions of the program's strengths and weaknesses are at odds

with GTA opinions. A sometimes, contentious issue has been delegation

of roles between preceptors and GTAs. In assessment feedback, GTAs have

expressed concern that preceptors are usurping duties traditionally

reserved for GTAs, such as holding office hours (see Chapter 6). As

preceptors, we do not perceive a problem with role definition, so long

as the instructor clearly defines roles at the beginning of the semester

and takes steps to isolate non-team players.

Our perception is reinforced by preceptor evaluation data. Sixty-four

percent of respondents in spring 1999 felt that their instructors were

"completely clear" and another 28% felt that their instructors were

"somewhat clear" in defining roles between preceptors and GTAs. In a

related question, 85% of respondents indicted that the word "team" is a

"very good" descriptor of the interaction between the instructors, GTAs

and preceptors on their teams (compared with 75% of the faculty and 70%

of the GTAs). These data indicate that the majority of preceptors in

the spring 1999 semester did not perceive a conflict between GTA and

preceptor roles. However, the sharp contrast between GTA and preceptor

opinions on role definition cannot be discounted (see Chapter 6).

GTAs have also expressed reservations about the ability of preceptors

concurrently enrolled in a course to help classmates without

disseminating false information (see Chapter 6). We do not share their

view. We believe that concurrent enrollment is actually beneficial to

both preceptors and non-preceptors. In our classroom experience,

preceptors who are concurrently enrolled in the class provide their

peers with moral support. By observing preceptors master and teach

material, non-preceptors may acquire more confidence in their ability to

comprehend the same material. Moreover, in our experience as

coordinators, we have never heard participating faculty raise the issue

of the dissemination of false information.

We believe that allowing students to serve as preceptors while

concurrently involved in the course is vital to affording undergraduates

control over their education. In our opinion, if students had to wait

to serve as preceptors until they had completed courses, they would miss

opportunities to obtain the valuable skills that come from learning and

teaching material simultaneously. In addition, students miss

opportunities to participate in course and curriculum development and,

in so doing, to provide feedback on the future of a course in which they

are enrolled.


Empowering undergraduates is a necessary step in creating the

student-centered research university. In addition to placing students

in leadership roles within the classroom, the teaching teams program

allows them to seek out interdisciplinary opportunities and to

participate in course and curriculum development. Only when

undergraduates take active roles in their education, and have real

control over their undergraduate experience, can a university truly

become student-centered.


We would like thank the TTP coordinating council for advocating

undergraduate empowerment at the University of Arizona. Dr. Hal Larson,

Dr. Cecile McKee. Dr. Elizabeth Harrison, and Stacy Tollefson

contributed to this chapter, and Jennifer Hart, Carl Copeland, and Dr.

Reed Mencke assisted with revisions. The TTP is supported with grants

from the US Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of

Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.


TTP. (2000). Teaching teams program (online). Available:


LACEY A. STOVER is a political science major and a preceptor in the

Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona.

KIRSTIN A. STORY is an English and creative writing major and a

preceptor in the Department of Planetary Sciences, English, and Latin

American Studies at the University of Arizona.

AMANDA M. SKOUSEN is a graduate of the University of Arizona with a

degree in political science. She was a preceptor in the Department of

Planetary Sciences.

CYNTHIA E. JACKS is a business management major and a preceptor in the

Department of Astronomy and Classics at the University of Arizona.

HEATHER LOGAN is a speech and hearing sciences and elementary education

major and a preceptor in the Department of Mining and Geological

Engineering at the University of Arizona.

BENJAMIN T. BUSH is apolitical science major and a preceptor in the

Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona.

All have served as TTP coordinators