Students Teaching Students?

UNC-Chapel Hill may have a 14-to-1 ratio of students to teachers, but introductory courses often have as many as 400 students. To help those students learn the material, the university has students attend “recitations,” weekly discussion sessions that are mostly led by graduate students.

Except when they are led by undergraduates.

For at least the past nine years, undergraduate economics students have served as teaching assistants to sections of Econ 101. The practice of having undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) is both a cost-saving measure and a way to help the UTAs themselves learn more economics—following the familiar adage that the best way to learn is to teach. 

My investigation of this program led me to conclude that, in general, it pleases students on both the giving and the receiving end. Whether it should please parents or taxpayers is a different question. After all, even graduate students lack the knowledge and skills of most instructors, and, according to former graduate teaching assistant Jenna Ashley Robinson, training for graduate TAs is virtually nonexistent.

And undergraduates are just learning to grasp the subject. Even those who did well in their 101 classes may not be good at explaining it to new students.

To serve as undergraduate teaching assistants, students are expected to have a GPA of at least 3.5 (between a B+ and an A-) and have taken Econ 410 and 420 (intermediate micro- and macro- economics). They must enroll in Econ 496, a class that can cover activities such as internships and special interest projects. Two students partner in teaching an Econ 101 recitation. These undergraduates earn three credits if they lead two semesters of recitations. Approximately forty undergraduates are currently serving as Econ 101 teaching assistants.

Officially, these undergraduates are expected to take a three-hour training session and are strongly encouraged to attend the lectures for which they serve as TAs. However, in a pinch (as occurred recently) some of the requirements are waived.

According to economics professor Ralph Byrns, if there were no undergraduate TAs (UTAs), the recitations would be too large—more than 30 students. (There are about 15 students in the undergraduate sessions, plus the two “teachers.”)

As Byrns notes on his website, there are pros and cons to using undergraduates as TAs.

On the positive side, the UTAs get experience and the Econ 101 students get smaller classes and more individual attention. The negatives are that UTAs require a lot more guidance from professors, and they are less experienced than graduate students.

The teaching assistants are grateful for the chance to teach. Stephen Padgett, a UTA, told me, “It is a great opportunity to help people out while reinforcing what you learned in Econ 101.” Another UTA, Morgan Dean, who runs a help session—rather than a formal recitation—likes the flexibility of the program and its relevance to her major. Clearly, it’s a resume booster (and usually an easy A).

It appears that Econ 101 students like UTAs, too. Justin Hardy, a student taking Padgett’s section, sees no problem with undergraduate TAs. “The atmosphere is relaxed and good.”

Students say that UTAs are less intimidating than graduate students, making it easier to ask questions. And most UTAs are easy to understand. It is very common for graduate TAs in economics to come from another country, such as Turkey or India. Although graduate assistants may know the content better, many students struggle to understand their English. “I have had a couple classes with graduate TAs from foreign countries and it really disrupts the learning process,” Padgett said. “It adds a step to learning the material if you have to take time to try to understand what your TA is saying.”

Another benefit of UTAs is that their participation opens up more sections of recitations, giving students more flexibility. Sophomore Charlotte Smith was able to swap her meeting time to complement her work and class schedule. Christina Faison, also a sophomore, said that additional sections give her the opportunity to follow up at another section if she is still having trouble with a topic.

The recitation I visited with undergraduate TAs struck me as similar to any recitation, except that there were two TAs, not one. When one UTA couldn’t answer a question, the other would jump in. Stephen Padgett and Patrick McLane, the UTAs who taught the session, didn’t run across any questions they couldn’t answer at that early-morning session. They did say, however, that when that happens, they promise to take the question to the professor and obtain an answer for the next recitation (or by email if it relates to something due in class).

Since using undergraduates reduces the size of the recitations, will upcoming budget cuts at UNC-Chapel Hill lead to an expansion of the program? No, says Byrns. “This UTA program cannot reasonably be expanded to offset UNC budget cuts because eroding the requirements to qualify as a UTA would be hugely problematic.”

In fact, Byrns will be leaving UNC-CH after this year, and as a result he believes the program will shrink because other economics professors may not be as willing to work with undergraduate TAs.

Undergraduate TAs seem to be beneficial to the economics department. They give students smaller recitation sections and more choices of sections. Furthermore, students do not seem to be concerned with the UTAs’ lack of experience. I remain a little leery, because the knowledge level of the UTAs is inevitably low, but, all in all, the system seems to work rather nicely.