Stanford Peer Program Helps Teaching Assistants Excel
A Stanford University program that helps teaching assistants mentor their peers recently celebrated its tenth anniversary and is ready to further expand its impact.
Since its inception in 2008, Stanford’s Mentors in Teaching (MinT) program has trained nearly 600 Stanford teaching assistants (TAs) across more than 20 university departments to become pedagogic leaders—improving the quality of instruction in countless sections and classes for tens of thousands of Stanford undergraduates.
MinT was co-developed by Robyn Dunbar—then senior associate director for STEM at Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and now the associate dean for educational affairs in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, and PhD student and CTL Teaching Fellow Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann, now a senior lecturer in chemistry. Schwartz Poehlmann has directed the program from its beginning and was recently honored for developing MinT into a program that is widely admired across the academy.
“Jennifer is largely responsible for the success of a program that has made a significant difference to a generation of students at Stanford,” said Mariatte Denman, VPTL senior director of educational programs, where MinT is now administered. “We are grateful for her dedication to our student teachers and are excited to further grow the program in the coming years.”
Participation in the MinT program is open to any Stanford TA who has some teaching experience as well as to lecturers who mentor TAs. Between 50 and 60 trainee mentors take part in the program each year, undertaking a day of training at the start of the academic year and attending group meetings twice per quarter. Professional development combined with reflections about their own pedagogy help TAs improve their own teaching skills, making them more attractive to future employers. Participants gain the skills, resources, and content knowledge needed to support peers in becoming better teachers. Each TA goes on to mentor an average of four or five junior TAs annually.
The MinT program is unique. Many universities offer new TAs one-time training, and at some institutions TAs can work with a professional consultant on specific concerns. University-wide peer-mentoring models like MinT are less common and yet proven to be particularly effective.
“This peer mentoring model allows us to have a far greater impact on teaching than if we used our limited resources to work directly with individual TAs,” Denman said. “Each MinT trainee is encouraged to think about the specific needs of TAs in their department and then develop resources and strategies to support those needs,” Denman noted. That might include providing feedback on sections, developing shared teaching goals, or maintaining archives for departmental classes and training programs to prevent the loss of important course information from one year to the next.
“The mentors we train know the courses their peers are teaching and can anticipate some of the challenges that come up that can be simply overwhelming to new TAs,” Schwartz Poehlmann observed. The cohort model where experienced TAs come together also encourages a broader sense of community. “The opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas across departments makes the program especially meaningful for students,” she said.
Schwartz Poehlmann has recently taken on greater teaching responsibilities in her own department and is handing over leadership of MinT to Tim Randazzo, VPTL’s director of graduate student teaching and peer learning programs. She nonetheless intends to remain in engaged in MinT.
“It’s always fun to be among a group of people who are really excited and passionate about teaching,” she says. “Coming to the lunches each quarter and hearing ideas across departments has given me great ideas for our own program. It’s been wonderful to watch departments get mentorship programs off the ground and to see our trainees become leaders among their peers and better teachers themselves.”
VPTL encourages departments to take advantage of MinT’s ability to advance the quality of teaching and the professional development of graduate student teachers.
Departments interested in participating in the MinT Program should reach out to Tim Randazzo, VPTL’s director of graduate student teaching and peer learning programs.