New Models for Teaching Assistants: The Research Mentor Project
New Models for Teaching Assistants:
The Research Mentor Project
By Hilary Karasz, Paula Reynolds and Melissa Wall
University of Washington
School of Communications
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington 98195
email: [log in to unmask]
This paper describes the University of Washington
School of Communication's project to redesign the graduate
student teaching assistant position into a new "research
mentor" role. This new position emphasizes undergraduate
acquisition of research skills where students are guided
through the research process by graduate students who serve
as role models and instructors. The conceptualization and
evolution of the role is detailed, and implementation
guidelines are provided for departments that wish to initiate
New Models for Teaching Assistants:
The Research Mentor Project
This paper reports the efforts of the School of Communications at the
University of Washington to redesign the responsibilities of the "teaching
assistant" (TA).  The department's on-going goals for its TAs are those
common to most university programs: to enhance undergraduate education as well
as to contribute to the professional development of graduate teaching
assistants. In 1996, changes within the university and within our own
department provided an opportunity to try a new approach to realize these goals
by making substantial changes in the traditional role of the schools' TAs.
The University's new president, Richard McCormick, issued a directive calling
for departments to increase attention to the teaching of research skills at the
undergraduate level. At the same time, our department introduced a new
curriculum which places less emphasis on traditional mass communication
education in broadcast journalism, advertising, and public relations "industry
skills," and more emphasis on media and communications studies as an academic
discipline. These changes also included a new focus on teaching
undergraduates research skills, which required redesigning the role of the TA.
Traditionally, the department's TAs taught or assisted with the skills courses.
TAs also worked with "quiz" sections at the freshman level as well as with one
upper level substantive course. With the elimination of our skills classes, the
department perceived an urgent need to maintain TA positions in a way that would
complement the new curriculum. A committee of faculty members first met to
discuss ways to do this, and later, a group of graduate teaching assistants was
invited to participate in the project. What emerged from these various
discussions was the idea that TAs could become "research mentors" (RMs) to
undergraduates learning about the research process. A Research Mentor "team"
consisting of the authors was formed to develop the RM concept further.
This paper outlines how the RM role evolved. Pertinent literature on
conceptualizing the role of a RM is reviewed, the steps taken to give the
position form are described, the efforts to introduce the research mentor (RM)
in the classroom are detailed, and the results of these efforts are reported.
While the three authors were appointed to serve as the initial team, a number of
graduate students have now served as RMs and they should be acknowledged for
assisting in the development of this project.
The conceptualization of this new position for TAs is anchored in two strands
of research about education: active learning and mentoring. The authors turned
to these concepts based on our own philosophies of teaching as an empowering
process for students and also because of the changing demographics in
communications programs, including ours. Like many others, the program now has
more female than male students as well as increasing numbers of students from
various ethnic groups. The team wanted this new method of teaching to take into
account the different needs and learning styles of a diverse student body.
Scholars agree that some groups do not do well in a traditional lecture course
where listening is the primary means of learning but can excel when able to
learn by doing (Vasquez and Wainstein, 1990; Chism, Cano and Pruitt, 1989).
Nontraditional students in particular are more likely to be successful when
given plenty of regular feedback (Chism, Cano and Pruitt, 1989).
Active learning. While the idea of active learning can be traced to John
Dewey's classic Democracy and Education, more recent calls for this approach
began to be heard in the 1980s when groups such as the Association of American
College's Task Group on General Education, the Study Group on the Conditions of
Excellence in American Higher Education and the National Association of Student
Personnel Administrators all recommended college educators focus more on this
approach. While active learning is often based on educators' common sense
definitions, Bonwell and Eisen (1991) give a more precise definition: Active
learning consists of a situation in which students are doing more than
listening, where less emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more on
developing skills, where students are involved in higher order thinking as well
as being engaged in activities.
Mentoring. Most of the literature about mentoring in higher education has
tended to focus on the needs of groups that have traditionally been outsiders to
the typical university community. Thus studies often examine mentoring as a
means of assisting minorities and women as undergraduates, graduates or new
faculty members (Ross-Thomas and Bryant, 1994). While mentoring is usually a
one-on-one interaction, some researchers (Klausmeier, 1994; Wildman, Magliaro,
R. Niles and J. Niles, 1992) suggest that there are many types of mentoring.
Nevertheless, common characteristics of mentoring have been identified: Mentors
must be willing to work closely with the person(s) being mentored, be aware that
they may be seen as role models, be comfortable blurring of boundaries between
mentor and person being mentored, and be able to commit more time than ordinary
In this project, the ideas of active learning and the concept of mentoring have
been combined and adapted to the realities of this department. It was thought
that students should do more than passively sit in a quiz section, occasionally
offering a comment on a discussion in which they were mostly uninvolved. Active
learning should consist of something more than students merely working on their
research projects on their own time. Student would receive more intensive,
individual attention, but the mentoring relationship was broadened to include
all students. This all needed to be done within the context of research
The team began the project by gathering and assessing information at various
levels. We conducted individual interviews with faculty members, TAs and the
department's undergraduate academic advisor were conducted. We also sought
advice and direction from the University of Washington's Center for
Instructional Development and Research. In addition, several informal surveys
related to research and TAs were conducted in the undergraduate advising office
and in selected classes.
All of the information collected was used to guide us in the formulation of the
RM project. We decided we could address the various educational goals of the
research mentor project (combining active learning with the concept of
mentoring) through reconceptualizing a familiar course design. Previously, at
the freshman level, students attended a faculty lecture from Monday through
Thursday and then smaller TA-led quiz sections on Friday. Under the redesigned
structure, the Friday sections would be thought of as "research labs," which
students would attend to acquire research skills and complete research projects.
The labs would be used primarily at the sophomore and junior level, though it
was hoped to incorporate aspects of the project into the sections for the large
introductory mass communications survey course which all majors must take.
The research labs would be used to help students acquire critical thinking by
guiding them through design and implementation of research projects with a
secondary emphasis on improving writing skills. We proposed that over the
course of several of these labs, students would be exposed to a variety of
quantitative and qualitative approaches. We also proposed that they learn to
locate and critically assess relevant research materials. To help RMs run these
labs, we also initiated the first edition of a manual of research exercises that
RMs could use in their classes. Acknowledging that some students would need
more individual attention, we began seeking space for a mentoring center to be
staffed by TAs where students could come for additional one-on-one assistance
with research problems and questions. (The center, which now includes four
Macintosh computers with Internet access and a variety of books, journals and
reference works, was officially opened winter 1997. It is staffed entirely by
volunteer graduate students).
Initiating the Project
This section details the initial experiments implementing the RM project in the
classroom from winter quarter 1996 through autumn quarter 1996. Starting in
winter quarter 1996, the three authors of this paper were assigned to two
undergraduate classes each to begin trying out various ideas we had for the
project. In consultation with faculty members, it was decided that we would not
attend class on a regular basis but would instead spend our time conceptualizing
the RM position and to use these classes as places to experiment with various
ideas. Among the activities we attempted were: a) conducting generic workshops
on topics such as using library resources and how to research media-related
topics; b) holding extended office hours for one-on-one assistance for students;
c) staffing a department computer lab that had access to the university's
on-line library databases; d) facilitating small group project meetings; and e)
creating electronic class lists and posting course information for students.
From these experiences, we made initial recommendations for professors who were
assigned a RM the following quarter as well as for TAs assigned to this role.
The two models that emerged from this process - the secondary research model and
the primary research model - are detailed below.
Secondary Research Model
The model for a secondary research project was put into place spring quarter
1996 in a senior-level course, which was an overview of the impact of
communications technology on society, ranging from the printing press through
the breakup of AT&T. The 34-person upper-level class met for one hour every
day, but the instructor designated every other Friday of the quarter as sessions
to be directed by the RM. The course required group presentations, exams, and a
research paper based on a survey of secondary research literature. Their paper
topics ranged from the impact of the electric switch on women working in the
telephone industry to the use of the African drum as a communications
The professor and RM met before the course began to map out the RM's role, and
continued to meet informally throughout the term. The RM decided to run his
Friday sessions as workshops similar to ones that had been tried the previous
quarter. However, he held even more workshops and also held extra office hours.
Nevertheless, he feared not having enough material for the entire term, so he
taught only every other Friday. In addition to attending the workshops, student
groups were required to meet with the RM before submitting their project
proposals, and every student had to meet with the RM individually before
submitting a research paper proposal.
Unlike the previous quarter's workshops whose topics the professor arbitrarily
determined, these workshops were based on student responses to a diagnostic
survey that asked the students what type of assistance they wanted from the RM.
Based on these answers, he designed a series of workshops on topics such as how
to generate research paper topics, how to use the Internet to conduct research,
how to write a thesis statement, the basics of English grammar, and how to give
a presentation. Because sessions were not directly tied to the substantive
content of the course lectures he did not attend class sessions himself.
At the end of the quarter, the students were asked to evaluate the RM's
performance and the workshops he provided. About half the class thought the
workshops were invaluable as they reported never having been taught these things
before. The other half, however, said the material was too elementary for them,
and, as the RM put it were "bored to tears and pretty much offended that I
thought they didn't know what a thesis statement was." Some students complained
that the RM did not review class material as they expected a traditional TA to
do. For the RM, the teaching experience did not seem as challenging. Many
students did not bother to attend the sessions; out of a class of 34, never more
than 15 to 20 came to the Friday sessions. He did not grade their work or even
see the finished research papers, and admitted that he felt like an "outsider"
to the class. Other than intensive assistance for a few students during his
office hours, he felt like he had "little impact on their quarter."
A second attempt at the secondary research model was made during the fall of
1996 in a sophomore/junior-level international communications course that
focused on global communication systems. The class had 110 students enrolled,
and two RMs were assigned to the course. The RMs attended the hour-long
lectures held Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, each RM conducted two
research labs with 25-30 students per lab, which were designed to assist
students in the completion of a 10-15 page research paper. The professor in
charge of the class initially conceptualized the written research project as a
case-study paper focusing on an aspect of telecommunications in a foreign
country. Each student was to pick a country of interest, describe the nation's
media system in general, and report in detail on one aspect of the media system
(for example, the country's phone system or cable network).
Though the professor originated the paper idea, the RMs were completely
responsible for its implementation, from explaining the assignment to students
to grading it at the end of the quarter. Other than designing the assignment and
setting up general parameters for Friday sessions, the professor had nothing
further to do with the lab sessions. As with the previous RM, they used a
diagnostic survey partly to determine lab topics. For example, the RMs led
sessions on basic library searching, evaluating sources, taking notes from
texts/articles, and citation/reference style. One of the differences from the
previous RM's sessions was that some session time was reserved for discussing
general research problems each week. Students would be asked to share problems
they encountered during the research process, and the RM or other students would
offer solutions. In general, session content was decided on an ad hoc basis
based on issues that came up the week before.
Results showed that the "secondary research" model worked well with this class
from the perspective of both RMs, the professor, and most students. Generally
speaking, the RMs felt that research lab sessions were more exciting to teach
than traditional quiz sections, and one RM said that he felt much more
"investment" in the course. The other RM said he "really enjoyed helping
students become more confident" [in their researching skills], and that it was
"actually possible to see progress." He related examples of students
approaching him in the halls to give him updates on their research. In general,
both RMs concluded that this type of teaching was more satisfying than
traditional assignments. They enjoyed their autonomy and the challenge of
preparing material for class each week. As one RM said, "While a teaching
assistant usually goes over what the professor has already said, the RM teaches
new material, which is inherently more exciting."
While the RMs found the project satisfying overall, they also noted some
problem areas. Difficulties arose over a lack of organization and preparation
in advance of the quarter. The professor did not have the opportunity to flesh
out the paper assignment with the RMs until the quarter was underway. This
contributed to the disorganization in the lab section content. For example, the
"citation/reference" session came before the "evaluating content" session, an
order that seemed backwards to the RMs.
According to the RMs, students adapted in different ways to the new "labs."
Some complained that the lecture/lab dichotomy made it seem as though they were
"attending two different classes." Several students saw the RMs as "advocates"
rather than as "eyes of the professor," as one RM put it, because of the concern
that the RMs had for the progress each student was making on the project. As
such, some of these students tried to use RMs as substitutes for doing their
work themselves. On the other hand, this advocacy role worked out well for
motivated students. One RM commented that he was able to have better
relationships with students than in the past, even though he felt it was
difficult to mentor 60 students. The RMs believed that the problems identified
above could be managed if more time was spent developing the project before the
quarter began. For example, the mentors could give input as to what should be
included in the assignment, and the professor could find ways to introduce the
lab concept to students so that students could better see the connection between
lecture content and their research papers.
Primary Research Model
The model for teaching primary research skills was also put into place spring
quarter 1996 with a senior-level course of 35 students focusing on the
intellectual foundations of American journalism. One RM was assigned to the
course. The class met only twice a week for two hours, so the RM and professor
had to be creative about how to split their time with the students. Students
were required to give a class presentation, take a test, write an opinion paper
and, under the tutelage of the RM, conduct a primary research project, which
accounted for one-third of their grade.
The RM and professor met just before the quarter began and decided a
small-scale content analysis project would be suitable for the class. Because
the professor was a former journalist who traditionally taught reporting
classes, he thought the RM's graduate level work in content analysis made him
better prepared to teach that material. The professor was also concerned that
the RM should have a chance to develop his own teaching skills by leading class
sessions and creating assignments, so he turned over the entire teaching and
grading of the content analysis project to the RM. Additionally, some class
time would be handed over to the RM to lecture and lead discussions of the
material. At other times, students would cycle in and out of class for brief
meetings in the hallway with the RM to discuss their individual projects. The
RM attended class regularly. A key reading in the class was Joshua Meyrowitz'
No Sense of Place, which the RM used to put together a content analysis
project. During class, he led students through the stages of conducting a
content analysis, then met with them several times individually to discuss their
projects. Each student completed a content analysis which either proved or
disproved one of the hypotheses of the book. At the end of the term, the RM
gave a presentation that used student papers to talk about what was done well
and what could have been improved with some of the projects. While noting that
his position was still evolving, the RM believed the concept showed potential
for encouraging higher level work from students and providing them with more
individual mentoring and coaching. He thought that the project worked well with
this class because the professor "bought into the RM concept" and was operating
from the same set of goals, principles and assumptions as the RM.
In the fall of 1996, the same professor was assigned one RM for a
sophomore-level class on mass media and the government. This class had 110
students, and four Friday sections for groups of 25 to 30 students. The
professor was responsible for a midterm and a final; the RM was given
responsibility for the primary class project. The professor encouraged the RM
to work as if she was teaching her own class on content analysis research. The
professor's only input was that he specifically wanted a research project that
focused on media coverage of the 1996 presidential elections.
Working from the model of the previous RM, this RM created a mini-class on
content analysis that met every Friday in sections. She did not attend any of
the lectures, focusing instead on her mini-class, which had its own syllabus,
short assignments and the large culminating research project - the content
analysis of media coverage of the 1996 elections. All of these were designed and
graded by the RM.
The RM required students to work first in small groups to create a proposal for
analyzing media coverage and to collect data. Students independently analyzed
the data in their individual final papers. Projects ranged from an analysis of
New York Times election coverage to a comparison of the coverage presidential
candidates received on the "The David Letterman Show" and "The Tonight Show"
with Jay Leno. At first, the unusual relationship between the lecture class and
the sections was confusing to students who expected a rehash of class material
and reviews for the tests. This was especially true after the first test when
many students earned lower-than-expected grades and asked the RM to intervene
with the professor. Though she kept the professor informed about the
frustrations, the RM eventually got the students to accept and even appreciate
that Fridays were only for research project work.
Many students thought the project was too difficult, and the workload was quite
high for both the RM and the professor, who now had to grade all the exams
without the assistance of a traditional TA. The professor and the RM agreed
that 110 students was too many for one RM to take on. Both the RM and professor
described the project as extremely collaborative, almost like team teaching, and
probably could not be done by a first-year TA. The professor thought it was a
unique opportunity for graduate students to teach research skills. He also
thought the project was much more rigorous than what is usually expected of
undergraduates. He cautioned that undergraduates can be quite resistant to
research because they have a difficult time seeing how it directly relates to
job skills development.
Student evaluations were quite high overall for the RM. Students especially
expressed appreciation for ongoing, personal feedback on their research project,
and reported having liked the idea of having class time to spend solely on the
research project Some students noted that the project would make a difference
in future classes or even beyond, writing in their evaluations of the RM, "I
feel prepared for the next time I have to do a project similar to this," and
"It's something we will use later in life." Other students still saw a need for
discussion of lecture material, commenting that the section was "not very useful
in regards to lecture." Some believed more of a connection could have been
drawn between the major ideas of lecture and the project.
Part of the goal of the RM project was to emphasize undergraduate research
skills training while also giving graduate teaching assistants (RMs) quality
teaching experiences. The RM project appears to be accomplishing both goals.
When graduate students lead undergraduates through the research process, they
can act as role models. They can share examples of their research and how they
worked through problems. This makes research more accessible and less
intimidating, and thus demystifies the process for undergraduate students. The
following section is a summary of "lessons learned," based on the UW School of
Communications' experiences, for departments who are thinking of establishing a
similar project. The lessons learned fall into two rough categories:
Preparation and Implementation.
Students, graduate assistants and professors each have expectations based on
prior experiences of the graduate student/undergraduate teaching interaction.
It is critical, therefore, for the professor to carefully introduce the RM idea
to the students, preferably in writing on the syllabus. The professor should
explain the new role, and clarify her/his expectations for students as well as
the RM. Professors, therefore, must have carefully thought through the
integration of the RM into the class. Professors need to be enthusiastic about
adapting and changing traditional TA roles in order to best use the RM. There
may be some degree of resistance in gaining faculty acceptance to the idea of
the RM, as one professor said, "I want the same sort of TA I've had for 25
Likewise, the RM must be prepared to undertake a role that can be significantly
more challenging and time-consuming than the traditional TA assignment. The RM
may very well teach her/his own material. Therefore, the RM assignment may not
work well for a beginning graduate assistant. On the other hand, a RM with
special research interests or skills may be a useful complement to a
communications professor who is trained as a professional journalist but who may
not have been formally trained in some types of academic research. Thus, the RM
project is a chance for collaborative teaching between the professor and the TA.
This is of special value to those graduate assistants to whom it is important to
gain professional teaching experience. In short, as one professor commented,
"The faculty member needs to have a vision for the class. The RM needs to be
confident and well trained enough to do it. It will work well with the right
class, and with a faculty member committed to finding ways to apply it."
Preliminary findings show that it is important to pick a project for
undergraduates to complete that highlights the difference between the
traditional TA and the RM. We did have success with a "traditional" research
paper (secondary research model). Students, however, seemed more engaged in the
project that involved primary research, where the RM was indispensable to the
completion of the task. This less traditional type of project may also help
undergraduates make the distinction between the "old system," where TAs helped
them prepare for examinations, and a "new system," where RMs augment the
Though there may be a substantive split between lecture and research project
material, it is important to establish conceptual links for the students. This
is so students can see connections between research and lecture, so that they do
not feel as though they are taking two separate classes. A carefully thought
through project that links lecture and research will help with this.
Additionally, it seems clear that RMs should stay involved in the lecture part
of the class as much as possible. We suggest that they attend lecture and hold
office hours specifically to help students with lecture material. Attending
lectures helps RMs, as well, because they may benefit from observing the
professor's teaching method and/or reviewing the substantive material of
lecture. To keep the work load at a reasonable level, we believe that the
number of students per RM should be about 50 students or fewer.
Professors need to be aware that the more intensive interactions between RMs
and students may mean that professors have less contact with students than
normal. Professors may want to specifically encourage students, perhaps in
groups, to attend office hours to discuss the lecture or the research project.
This will help students make more connections between lecture and research.
In sum, the RM project represents a way of reconceptualizing the traditional TA
role in a way that combines active learning and mentoring. It allowed us to
implement a new, hands-on research emphasis that otherwise could not have been
done with faculty resources alone. The research process can be personalized on
a large scale providing attention is paid to organization and implementation
issues. All instructors want to improve upon the critical thinking skills of
their students but often lack the resources to realize this aim. The utilization
of graduate student RMs can make a strong contribution towards this goal.
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Ross-Thomas, E. & Bryant, C. E. (1994). Mentoring in higher education: a
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Vasquez, J. A. & Wainstein, N. (1990). Instructional responsibilities of
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 The authors wish to thank Professors Nancy K. Rivenburgh and Roger A.
Simpson for their advice and guidance during the creation and development of the
Research Mentor Project, as well as other faculty who provided support or
otherwise assisted us.
 Today, the department has four substantive areas of focus (international
communications, new technology, communication processes and effects and media
institutions), and 450 majors enrolled in three different levels of courses. For
a description of the circumstances that led to these changes, see J. M. James
(1995). Program quality and centrality in times of financial crisis.
Journalism and Mass Communication Educator. 50(2): 77-81.
 Zahna Caillat, Jennifer Henderson, David Johnson, Erik Krauss, Brennon
Martin, Lori Packer, David Winterstein.