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Teaching to teach: BSU program encourages undergrads to get in front of the class

BSU undergrad Aaron Myers teaches a class in pyschology under the Undergraduate Teaching Associate Program. Allison Simonson (left) and Sierra Senske (right) listen as Myers discusses the pros and cons of video games. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- College students can adopt a range of leadership roles on campus, from serving on the student senate to being a varsity team captain to leading a club or activity.

They also can help direct student learning.

Bemidji State University was the first in the state to adopt a program that offered teaching positions to its undergraduate students. The Undergraduate Teaching Associate Program, founded in 1990, partners high-achieving students with professors to offer them teaching opportunities.

"You think you understand things when you go through the class yourself, but when you have to teach it and explain it, you really have to know it in far more detail," said Aaron Myers, now in his second semester as a TA. "Teaching really solidifies my knowledge of psychology."

The idea behind the program is to help support the faculty while also providing students with opportunities to expand their learning and perhaps consider a career in academia.

"We wanted to have graduate-school-bound students to have early exposure into the real nuts and bolts of teaching," said Russ Lee, retired professor of psychology, who helped found the program, "the actual fun parts of the teaching, the standing in front of students and figuring out what to say, how to say it, to really teach something to a group of students."

Each student's TA experience is unique, developed specifically for him or her by their overseeing professor. A consistent thread, however, is that the TAs be active teachers: They are not there to simply take attendance or to grade multiple-choice exams.

"They do study sessions with the students, they prepare and give lectures," said Laurie Desiderato, a psychology professor who oversees the Center for Professional Development on campus. "They hold group activities in the classroom. They often times will contribute active-learning exercises."

In Myers' case, he is serving along with 10 other TAs this semester to assist psychology professor Keith Gora in his Lifespan Development course. About 160 students are enrolled in the course, which meets twice a week for two-hour sessions. Every Wednesday, the TAs meet with groups of 10-12 students from the class to offer more personalized learning experiences.

The students seem to enjoy this system, Myers said.

"They feel a little more comfortable in smaller groups to ask questions," he said. "They feel more comfortable talking and working with someone who is maybe a little closer to their age and schooling maturity."

There are usually about 30-35 TAs working with between five to 10 professors each semester, Desiderato said. Some professors really love the program and commit to it time and time again, whereas others may wait until that one ideal student cross his or her path.

"We have a core of faculty who do it every semester because they love it and value it," she said. "They will, as we're teaching our classes, be looking at who is really promising, who is really articulate, who they would like to work with, and then invite a student (to consider the program)."

The TAs take the program for credit as an independent study and develop goals and benchmarks with their professor.

Also, professors and TAs meet outside of the course to attend UTAP functions, where they together discuss some aspect of pedagogy, the science and art of education.

"It's a really nice opportunity for faculty and student to talk about what is going on in their classes, what's working, what's not working, and then we focus on a specific topic," Desiderato


BSU was the second campus in the state -- after the University of Minnesota Duluth -- to establish a Center for Professional Development, which predated the UTAP by about five years to assist professors with learning to teach better. Often, Lee said, faculty members obtain their degrees and become professors without instruction on how to actually teach.

"Bemidji stood as a model, a national model, for how to do a faculty development center," he said. "