Facilitated Learning Strategies for Statistics TAs

Penn State Learning and the Department of Statistics, with support from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, hired three graduate students in statistics to develop an eight-hour training program that teaches new STAT 200 TAs the transformative pedagogy of ceding their mathematical authority to their students—in labs, in the classroom, and in office hours—so that those students could begin to develop and trust their own strategies and solutions.

Specifically, the training program focuses on two TA tasks:  1) how to answer student questions with questions, rather than jumping too quickly to solutions, and 2) how to encourage students to work collaboratively (preferably at the board) on problems until they can agree among themselves that they have solved problems correctly. In both tasks, the TA intervenes only as much as needed to support students’ own mathematical reasoning. TA leaders and PIs follow up by observing TAs in action (2-3 times on average) and providing written feedback and debriefing consultations.

Students were invited to participate in focus groups or individual interviews and reported positive effects of this pedagogy, including increased confidence in their ability to think through statistical problems, alone and with peers. TAs were also interviewed, and reported that it took persistence to overcome the urge to provide instant gratification to students seeking answers, but that in time they were able to show students that this holding back was necessary and helpful in building their confidence.

While these methods have been used in STAT 200 labs and classrooms by individual TAs who received the training, an additional practical outcome has been a major overhaul of the entire system of TA office hours for all 100- and 200-level statistics courses.

In September 2012, 25 hours a week of shared office hours were launched in 7B Sparks (Penn State Learning commons area) for statistics 100, 200, 240 and 250 students. Office hours are staffed by at least two TAs so that this pedagogy can be reinforced and more easily observed by research personnel. TAs report they are seeing more students in shared office hours than they saw collectively in their offices in Thomas Building.