GTA facilitated Active Learning in early-years undergraduate practical classes in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences 

Dr Alice Lacsny: Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences. 

Dr Pamela Campbell: Lecturer in Earth Sciences in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences and Geology Tutor at Lifelong Learning.  

Across the UK Higher Education sector, there is a significant body of evidence that points to the positive impact of student-centred and active learning strategies on student engagement, retention and attainment (Herrman, 2013; Bezanilla,, 2019; Zepke and Leach, 2010). Active learning approaches enable students to develop a range of transferrable skills whilst developing higher-order analysis and critical thinking skills (Bezanilla,, 2019). This requires a move away from a focus on the teacher, to a more distributed learning approach for students (Serin, 2018; Hamdi, 2019). In the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences (GES) Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) are responsible for and essential to delivering practical classes (labs, workshops, and tutorials) across all early years’ (Level 1 and 2) undergraduate programs. Within this setting, GTAs have a significant impact on student learning, so much of our focus is on ensuring GTAs are supported and trained in evidence-based strategies. The majority of our GTAs are postgraduate research students from a range of academic backgrounds. Graduates of the school often provide student support through familiarity with the degree structure, while non-GES postgraduates provide interdisciplinary knowledge and experience. In this piece, we explore our collaborative and cross-disciplinary approach to the design and delivery of practical classes, aiming for a consistent but adaptable framework of learning and teaching. We also discuss our framework for supporting and equipping our GTA cohort to facilitate evidence-based active and dynamic learning environments.  

Geography and Earth Science are predominantly field-based subjects with vast potential for active and student-led learning. As such and in line with the University of Glasgow Learning and Teaching Strategy (2021-2025), we, in our role as practical class convenors, are working to transform delivery from traditionally didactic and front-led sessions towards dynamic, problem-based learning spaces through the incorporation of flexible and active pedagogies. This type of pedagogical reform has been shown to enhance both student learning, and retention of students in undergraduate STEM programs (e.g., Singer et al., 2012; Freeman et al., 2015; Lund & Stains, 2015). Using a consistent framework across Geography 1 and 2 and Earth Science 1 and 2 we co-design collaborative exercises and peer-to-peer learning strategies as a way of scaffolding active teaching practice for GTA use. As such, cooperation between practical convenors and GTA teams is paramount to providing a consistent and supportive framework for sharing best practice around effective and embodied learning (e.g., ALN, 2019). 

Across early years practical classes, we operate with class sizes of thirty to forty students and the classroom spaces we use range from state-of-the-art learning and teaching spaces to scientific labs, so our approaches need to account for both size of group and space. The active learning pedagogies employed during sessions are designed to enhance lecture-taught content, whilst also developing students’ transferrable skills and graduate attributes. We incorporate a variety of group and individual activities in each session, with a strong focus on group discussion, reflective practice, and class debate. It should be noted that many of these practices have been adapted and developed following the introduction by our predecessor, Dr Hannah Mathers. Collaborative and peer-learning in small groups builds confidence in early undergraduate students, where they tend to feel more comfortable contributing to their near-peers, and the daunting prospect of participating in a larger class is reduced (Mills and Alexander, 2013). In these classroom spaces GTAs act as a near-peer role model for undergraduate students and are often the primary staff contact for students. Our approach here is to provide a uniform experience in terms of content and focus but leave room for GTAs to enhance their teaching style and identity within the session. This is both beneficial for the GTAs in aid of their teacher development, but also for students, whose class dynamics can vary greatly between groups. By incorporating a level of fluidity into the teaching design, we encourage GTAs to make decisions informed by their students. 

Within Geography 1 tutorials, focus is afforded to the development of transferrable skills and the enhancement of lecture-related content. Across the academic year students attend twenty tutorials divided into blocks of three, each aligned with a corresponding lecture block. This is a newly implemented model which utilises co-teaching between four to five GTAs within classes of eighty to ninety students. Sessions are designed to be dynamic and interactive, and GTAs facilitate these sessions by circulating around the room and working with different groups of students. These are student-led, with GTAs offering support and guidance through directed discussion and encouragement; focus is afforded to the use of case-studies as a way of contextualizing lecture-content through examples. This continuity between tutorials and lectures affords GTAs and students a sense of stability in their learning (and teaching), whilst also allowing them to engage with these themes through a diverse range of active learning strategies.   

For Earth Science (Level 1 and 2) a consistent framework for the practical sessions has been developed over the past two years, where each session is designed with three interactive activities, scaffolded around a central scenario-based problem. This format provides stability and is intended to manage expectations for and of both students and the GTA teaching team. Although the activities and content vary widely throughout the module, the lab model aims to provide familiarity in the interactivity and structure of the activities, and the expectations around contributing during the sessions. This approach extends to the design of the lesson materials and accompanying slides delivered by the GTA team. Elements of a flipped classroom are incorporated to promote student ‘ownership’ of learning, with activities allowing for students contribute to the delivery of content (e.g., reporting their preparatory exercises, presenting their group findings etc.) and working towards creating something ‘tangible’ throughout the session (e.g., an artefact, poster, or presentation). This has proved to be an effective learning tool, particularly with complex aspects geology that undergraduate students may struggle (e.g., 4D conceptualisation and visualisation), as demonstrated by Sample-Lord & Gallagher (2018). 

Another significant benefit of GTA-facilitated active learning is the continuous feed-in from both GTAs and students. For all modules, our support structure includes weekly teaching meetings that provide opportunities to offer constructive feedback on teaching materials and active learning strategies. This feedback is valued both in the long-term re-design of classes and for short-term immediate adaptations. We believe this collaborative and nurturing approach validates GTA teaching identity and self-confidence (Mathers et al., 2021). While this is an important mechanism in our approach, it is an area we are actively working to improve, to include GTA input throughout all aspects of the design process.  

Through our own experience as former GTAs, we can attest that opportunities to feed into the curriculum or design of content validated our experiences and helped in shaping our teaching identity. To this end, opportunities to contribute to the learning experience beyond delivering content enhanced our confidence and helped establish our role within the teaching community. As such, we believe providing a support framework that scaffolds GTA community, autonomy, and self-efficacy should be paramount in addressing the underserving of GTA training needs (Austin, 2002).  

Tailored support and training are imperative not only for the development of GTAs as confident facilitators of learning, but for the wider community of practice (Maries, 2020). As discussed, teaching meetings “provide spaces for innovation, discussion and design and actively encourage conversations around best practice” (Mathers,, 2021: 138). Our own work (Mathers et al., 2021) has demonstrated the value of collaborative reflective practice and teaching observations for building confidence in teaching identity and self-efficacy, and this is another area we are working to develop. Through our reflections, our approach to GTA support in the design and delivery of practical classes is continual processes. We welcome any feedback, comments, and suggestions from others working in this area and hope to explore this further over the coming year.  


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