Preceptors bridge gap between professors and TAs
Published: Monday, October 14, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 14, 2013 23:10
The university has added a third person to work with professors and teaching assistants in introductory biology and chemistry courses.
This position, which works between the professor and the teaching assistants, is known as a preceptor. These instructors are meant to help students develop connections between lecture and lab.
In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last month, university President Patrick Harker introduced the idea of adding preceptors.
Preceptors are full-time teachers who have master’s degrees or higher. Many of them work in the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory, which opened this fall, Harker wrote in the article.
“If you have ever taken or taught an introductory science course in college you will recognize this scenario: The professor stands at the front of a large auditorium, lecturing to hundreds of students, only some of whom are actually paying attention,” Harker said. “Sometime later, maybe much later, in a building across campus, a teaching assistant oversees a lab that sports only the thinnest connection to the lecture.”
Renate Wuersig said she is a preceptor for chemistry professor Mark Baillie’s class and biology professor Kenneth Van Golen’s class. She said while these classes are integrated, in other words, students must take the chemistry and biology classes at the same time, she is also the preceptor for two other sections not integrated with the chemistry class.
During her graduate career at Purdue University, Wuersig said she was a teacher’s assistant for several biology courses. After discovering the preceptor position on the university website and on the website HigherEdJobs, she said she thought it was a great opportunity to teach in a new way.
“I enjoyed my research while I was at Purdue, and teaching was always something I’ve wanted to do,” Wuersig said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to do a different type of teaching focused on problem-based learning.”
During the application process, Wuersig said she had a Skype interview and an in-person interview where she put together an interactive lesson for the hiring reviewers. She said she focused the lesson on her background, which is in biology.
“I had a demonstration of some common fruits and what types they fall into,” she said. “I had the panel look at the fruits first, cut them open, see what kind of features they had, where the seeds were, what kind of interior or exterior they had and then gave them a list of terms.”
Although she had seen something similar in her previous teaching experience, Wuersig said students were simply told what the fruits were. They did not get to explore the fruit, but her job is to promote this type of problem-based learning and inquiry, she said.
Wuersig said she goes back and forth between the chemistry and biology labs that take place at the same time to answer students’ questions if they are unclear about something. She said her job is to help them understand the material in lab and connect this material to what they learn from their professors in lecture.
One nice thing about the ISE Laboratory, Wuersig said, is that the space is used to facilitate active learning. She said the rooms are called learning studios, and labs equipped for specific subjects such as biology and chemistry are right next to these rooms.
Wuersig said she agrees with what President Harker suggests in his article. She said that with the new building, students will be better able to retain material.
“I read President Harker’s article, and he hit the nail right on the head as far as a lecture taking place in a huge hall and a lab taking place in a completely different space,” she said. “It still works in some ways, but I don’t know how effective it is for actually solidifying the material and holding onto it for years to come.”
Marisa Gilliat, a freshman taking the chemistry and biology courses Wuersig is a preceptor for, said the preceptor also attends lectures and will ask the professors follow-up questions that students might not even be thinking about, but help clarify the material, if the professors do not seem clear enough. In addition, Gilliat said the preceptor gives lectures once a week.
“It’s a challenging course that you do need to spend a lot of time on, I guess, and it’s obvious that a lot of help is put out there for people who need it,” Gilliat said. “It’s not like anybody doesn’t have any resources.”
Hai Liang, a doctoral student, is the teacher’s assistant for the biology lab that Wuersig is a preceptor for. He said the instructors, preceptor and himself are trying to get students to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom.
He and Wuersig work together as a team to ensure that students will be able to do the experiments by themselves someday, rather than if they just read the book and attend lectures, Liang said. He said the preceptor is an additional resource students can turn to.
“Maybe one instructor cannot cover so many students and maybe TAs don’t have enough experience to do all of the stuff for the lab,” he said. “I think the students will say with the preceptor, they can find the answers during the lab and during the post-lab more quickly.”