Just before noon on a Monday, another kind of collaborative session is about to begin as 14 students assemble in a first-floor room in Maxwell Hall. One student stands and begins writing on the board such phrases as "TA Reports" and "Today in Class." Moments later, in walks Meredith Professor William D. Coplin, chair of the Arts and Sciences/Maxwell
School Public Affairs Program and teacher of PAF 101: Introduction to the Analysis of Public Policy. But this isn't Coplin's class of 140 students that meets across the hall in Maxwell Auditorium. That's an hour later. This is the pregame strategy meeting where Coplin and his undergraduate teaching assistants hammer out the game plan. While undergraduate TAs and big classes can be an unsettling thought in higher education, witnessing Coplin and his team in action is reassuring and refreshing. He challenges TAs, and they challenge him. "I really depend on the undergraduate TAs; they're my staff," Coplin says. "I see myself as a professor who listens to students and sees them as apprentices. Essentially, it's a professional relationship in which I'm the senior partner and the student is the junior partner."
Coplin defines education as a "life-changing experience" and emphasizes that he wants to develop good students, and good citizens. They learn by doing, he says, whether it's through the rigors of being a TA, doing community service, or participating in a lively class debate. Coplin believes faculty can benefit from collaborating with undergraduates, who can offer an array of help ranging from creating web sites and peer tutoring to facilitating group discussions to providing valuable insights not readily apparent to the professor. "TAs become links between me and the students. They tutor and support the students, personalizing the class," he says. "I find it very effective; we're continually revising the course, and TAs have developed many innovations." |
Make no mistake: Being one of Coplin's undergraduate TAs is demanding, but it's also a privilege. They've already succeeded in the class, and are chosen to become mentors in this experiential learning process. They must adhere to strict guidelines, and are expected to be well-versed on the TA manual for the course from day one. "They have no choice but to immerse themselves because they know people are going to be asking them questions. Anyone who has taught knows that the best way to learn something is to teach it," Coplin says. "They also see how ambiguous the whole process can be, so they have to make judgments and get into debates. They question whether something is a reasonable policy and make new policies."
TA manager Karen Carp, now an Arts and Sciences junior, says Coplin makes students care about the issues. "It's good to be part of the team," she says. "It's helped me develop skills as a facilitator, a mentor, and also as TA manager. I need things like this to ground me academically."
Coplin is not alone in his belief in the advantages of student-faculty collaboration and its ability to raise teaching productivity and improve student learning. According to a 1996 campus survey of department chairs that Coplin conducted, 23 departments, 39 professors, and 58 courses benefited from the experience. Engaging undergraduates as collaborators could become more widespread, imaginative, and better implemented on campus, he writes in the survey evaluation. "As in all forms of education, those responsible must be careful to articulate objectives and to seek to continuously improve operations to insure a quality experience for the undergraduate collaborator and for the students who are the ultimate beneficiaries."