Teaching assistants go the extra mile to enable remote learning

When Brown University transitioned to online learning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate and undergraduate student teaching assistants grappled with transitioning the courses they supported, and their own studies, to a new learning environment. 

The teaching assistants (TA) helped professors make the transition to online learning while continuing to help students complete coursework and learn new material, said faculty members who taught courses this semester.

Monica Linden, a senior lecturer in neuroscience who taught the course Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, said that having graduate student Rachel McLaughlin as a TA was essential to facilitate the shift from in-person to virtual classes. 

“Without a TA, the amount of work needed to make the transition may have been insurmountable,” said Linden, who is affiliated with the Carney Institute for Brain Science. 

According to Linden, Brown asked faculty to identify a “backup” instructor for their courses in case they were not able to teach until the end of the semester. 

“It was so reassuring to me to know that Rachel could have taken over the course if necessary,” Linden said, adding that it would have been difficult if another faculty member unfamiliar with the course had to take over. 

According to Rachel McLaughlin, Neurobiology of Learning and Memory switched to an asynchronous teaching style to accommodate students across time zones. This meant that Linden had to pre-record videos of her lectures each week. Linden and McLaughlin also started administering more short quizzes to ensure that students were keeping up with the new style of teaching. 

McLaughlin held Zoom office hours at various times of the day to accommodate students in different time zones. She helped students understand the concepts taught in class and provided insights on the papers that the students were writing for the course.  

The “moments where you get to connect with students, that's not just purely about classes,” were especially powerful given that so many students were facing new hardships amid the COVID-19 crisis, McLaughlin said. 

Taylor Wise, who served as a graduate student TA for Learning and Conditioning — a course taught by Ruth Colwill, a professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences affiliated with the Carney Institute —  also helped transition that course's workload to online assignments, rather than in-class exams.

“Despite the increase in work for the instructors, we thought this was a better option than expecting students to recreate a classroom setting for exams at home,” Wise said.

Small groups of students worked together with an assigned TA to complete a semester-long project. The project was designed to allow students to apply what they learned in class to habits or behaviors they would like to change in their daily lives, such as their sleep schedule.

“Working with the students through their semester-long project has been an especially rewarding process in this course,” Wise said. 

Justin Fallon, who taught The Diseased Brain: Mechanisms of Neurological and Psychiatric Disorders, said the two undergraduate teaching assistants for his course “were heroic.” 

“They were proactive. They were thoughtful. They were smart. They were completely committed to the students,” said Fallon, a professor of medical science and psychiatry and human behavior, who is affiliated with the Carney Institute.

Katherine Dunn and Emily Zitkovsky, the two undergraduate TAs for Fallon’s course, worked together to hold discussion sessions about primary literature papers, and they helped Fallon set up the course’s Canvas — an online tool to support instructional needs — to ensure the students had access to Zoom meetings. They also monitored the chat function of Zoom during classes to ensure that students would be able to ask questions. 

“They modified and adapted the Canvas site to make it amenable and friendly to remote teaching,” Fallon said. Given Fallon’s lack of expertise in the technology underlying remote learning, he said, “it wasn't like I guided them, they just figured out how to do it and they did it.”

While serving as a teaching assistant this semester posed unique challenges, Dunn, who is graduating in May, said, “I think teaching is one of the most formative experiences I've had at Brown.” Serving as a teaching assistant, she said, has “really informed the ways that I'm choosing to pursue my future.”

Ruth Colwill said: “Feedback I have had from students in the course indicates how much they valued the help and availability of their TAs through Zoom sessions and email.”