Case Study: “Yang Lee”

by Yu-Hui Ching and St├ęphanie Roulon
Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence

Yang Lee is a first-year graduate student in chemistry. It is her first time as a student and teaching assistant in the United States. For her second semester, she is appointed to be a TA for Dr. Gray for an introductory chemistry course. As Yang has heard from senior fellow students, while Dr. Gray is one of the nicest mentors to work with, he also tends to assign a lot of tasks to his TAs. Prior to the start of the semester, Yang met with Dr. Gray to discuss her responsibilities as the TA for his class. Dr. Gray asked Yang to lead a lab session every other week, hold a two-hour office hours every week, attend classes, and grade assignments and exams. Since the introductory course has a large enrollment (300 students), another graduate student, John, is part of the instruction team. They take turns leading the lab sessions and share the workload of grading assignments and exams.

During Yang's first lab session, she noticed that several students looked confused during her lecture. Later in the session, she saw two students reading the newspaper. Yang did not want to lose her students since it was their first lab session, so she decided to discuss the situation with Dr. Gray. When she met with him, Dr. Gray told her that she should try to communicate with her students and encourage them to be more attentive in the class.

During her second lab session, Yang realized that the two students who were reading the newspaper during her last class were still not paying attention. Following Dr. Gray's suggestion, she asked the two students to stay after class, and she chatted with them to find out the reasons for their lack of interest. The students commented that the class was scheduled right after lunchtime and they felt sleepy and could not concentrate. Because Yang could not change the course schedule, she just talked to them about ways to avoid being so sleepy and tried to encourage them to be more engaged in class. Later that day, Dr. Gray forwarded an email to Yang. To her surprise, the email was from one of the students she had talked to after class. The student complained to Dr. Gray that he couldn't understand Yang's lecture due to her accent and he preferred to attend the lab sessions taught by John.

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Questions about the
Yang Lee case

  • 1. What are some of the unique challenges Yang faces as an international TA?
  • 2. What could Yang do to perform her TA duties well without feeling overwhelmed?
  • 3. In what ways could Yang make her class interesting and improve communication with her students despite the fact that she cannot speak native-like English?