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 development.
To further undergraduate students' engagement in their own learning and that of their peers, the University of Arizona created the teaching teams program (TTP). 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' Roles in the Classroom
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. 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:
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 expanding 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" 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," 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. 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. Preceptor Roles in Course and Curriculum Development
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.
Endowing Students with the Skills Necessary for Success
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. 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 and 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 community.
Every semester, the TTP collects assessment data from preceptors. 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 paths.
Conflicting Points of View About the Preceptor Role
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. 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. GTAs have also expressed reservations about the ability of preceptors concurrently enrolled in a course to help classmates without disseminating false information. 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.
Downloaded from the Tomorrow's Professor's listserv, March 8, 2001. This is excerpted from Chapter 7, "The Teaching Teams Program: Empowering Undergraduates in a Student-Centered Research University," in Student-Assisted Teaching: A Guide to Faculty-Student Teamwork, edited by Judith E. Miller, Worchester Polytechnic Institute, James E. Groccia, University of Missouri-Columbia, and Marilyn S. Miller, University of Missouri-Columbia.