Training Teaching Assistants as Peer Educators Using an Online Peer Course Facilitator Training

Author Information
Author(s): 
Amy LimBybliw
Author(s): 
Jerri Kjolhaug
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Housed in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, the Rothenberger Institute (RI) designs and delivers high enrollment online one credit undergraduate courses that focus on student wellness and rely on peer education as a delivery model. With the expansion and addition of more courses, RI was faced with the challenge of training as many as 30 teaching assistants (TA) per academic year—more than a two-fold increase in just a little over two years. Core to RI’s TA training are the pedagogical principles guiding our courses--Motivational Interviewing and Prochaska and Velicer’s transtheoretical model of health behavior change--in addition to teaching and online learning best practices and departmental policies and procedures. In-person training time averaged about forty hours prior to the semester’s start. Coordinating and training TAs was already time consuming and unmanageable for three instructors; an increase in courses and enrollment would not be possible if a better training solution was not also implemented.

In order to meet this challenge, the Rothenberger Institute designed and developed an online Peer Course Facilitator (PCF) training for new and returning TAs to complete asynchronously prior to the term’s start. This online training includes interactive online lessons, videos of fellow TAs sharing their experiences, and assessments, and provides TAs with resources to support their work as peer educators throughout the term. RI has effectively trained over 50 TAs since implementing the PCF training, drastically reduced in-person training time, increasing instructor and student satisfaction, and improving overall learning outcomes.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Housed in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, the Rothenberger Institute (RI) designs and delivers high enrollment online one credit undergraduate courses that focus on student wellness. Enrollment in 2011 was nearly 2000 students with 12 undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) facilitating RI’s courses. Core to TA training is the pedagogical principles guiding our courses—Motivational Interviewing and Prochaska and Velicer’s transtheoretical model of health behavior change—in addition to teaching and online learning best practices and departmental policies and procedures. In-person training time averaged about forty hours prior to the semester’s start. Enrollment was expected to double over just a few years with the expansion and addition of more courses, and RI was faced with the challenge of training as many as 30 TAs total each academic year, with training occurring 2-5 times a year. Coordinating and training TAs was already time consuming and difficult to manage for three instructors; an increase in courses and enrollment would not be possible if a better training solution was not also implemented.

In order to meet this challenge, RI designed and developed an online training for new and returning TAs to complete asynchronously prior to each term’s start. RI TAs are more than students who grade papers--they are also peer educators. Because they fulfill both roles, RI TAs require extensive training in multiple domains. As a result, we decided to name them Peer Course Facilitators for the purposes of training. As part of the Peer Course Facilitator (PCF) training, TAs complete a series of orientation materials, online lessons, and assessments before and throughout the term to prepare them to be peer course facilitators and as a means of ongoing training; in this role, they guide students through the course, help students identify health issues, make referrals to relevant campus and community resources when appropriate, and provide individualized feedback—an important part of assisting students in considering or making positive behavior changes.

Orientation materials include a memorial video about the Rothenberger Institute’s namesake, Jim Rothenberger, to provide context for the mission and vision of the organization, as well as training videos on time sheets, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and data privacy. Included in their Orientation is reviewing the Teaching Assistant Handbook and their course’s syllabus. These activities are primarily aimed at new TAs, but returning TAs are encouraged to review them as a refresher, if needed. TAs then complete online lessons, much like their students complete online lessons, addressing the following core concepts:

1. Why Peer Education (http://z.umn.edu/ripcf)
2. Ethical Decision-Making & Bystander Intervention
3. Diversity & Inclusivity
4. Behavior Change Theory
5. Listening, Responding & Referring
6. Motivational Interviewing: Introduction
7. Motivational Interviewing: Tools & Application
8. Strengths & Appreciative Inquiry

The online lessons were developed collaboratively by the Rothenberger Institute instructional team. The lessons cover the pedagogical concepts core to all RI courses that had previously been covered in a lecture form or handouts during in-person training.

In addition, TAs complete online quizzes and reflection assignments before convening for additional training and team building. The online training also includes opportunities to practice providing feedback on sample assignments and submitting practice feedback to Moodle; practice feedback examples are then de-identified and discussed as a part of grading exercises in team meetings. TAs not only learn the methods they need to know to be effective peer educators, teaching assistants, and the logistics of working for our university in the PCF training, but they also experience using Moodle just as their students do by taking quizzes, submitting assignments, looking at grades, and using the online lessons.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Faculty often turn to teaching assistants (TAs) to help shoulder the grading and day-to-day
logistics of high enrollment courses. However, TAs trained as peer health educators have even more potential to play an important role as teachers and motivational change agents on college campuses, a role that goes far beyond serving as an economical solution to reducing faculty workload. While peers have long held the role of educator on college campuses in classrooms, residential halls, and mentoring programs, they have played an increasingly important role in health education (Hunter, 2004). When TAs are trained as peer educators, enrolled students benefit from the guidance of someone who has recently completed the course, and at the same time, empathetically understands their interests and motivations (Owen, 2011). Peer educators have the potential to play a more impactful role than instructors and parents in online courses that seek to establish healthy norms amongst peers and encourage healthy behavior change. If students feel that they are being heard—in the sense that their TAs trained as peer educators are carefully reading their assignments—they will be more likely to actively engage with the materials and thoughtfully reflect on their own behaviors and attitudes as they complete the coursework. RI assignments are designed to best utilize all the benefits of peer education, which is, we believe, the best way to make an impact in promoting positive behavior changes among college students.

Quality training of teaching assistants is critical to improving the quality of instruction (Young & Bippus, 2008). We believe the Peer Course Facilitator training has made a significant difference in the quality of our teaching assistant training program. In fall of 2014, we conducted pre (n= 24) and post (n = 17) surveys of our TAs to evaluate our training. In all areas surveyed, we saw an increase in confidence levels by respondents, including in our TAs’ abilities to:
- Promote a positive learning experience for my course’s students
- Manage the Moodle courses site
- Grade students’ written coursework
- Follow Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act Guidelines
- Recognize change talk when reading a student’s assignments
- Identify what Stage of Change a student might be in
- Know how to use a decision-making framework for ethical decision-making
- Effectively intervene (directly or indirectly) in both emergency and nonemergency situations (Bystander Training)

In addition to seeing increased confidence levels on likert scale items, TAs’ open-ended responses to their questions or concerns that hadn’t been addressed in the initial online training provided instructors with the opportunity to discuss those topics in weekly in-person team meetings or provide additional resources in the learning management system (Moodle).

As a means of evaluating our TAs, we survey enrolled students midway throughout each semester; instructors meet with TAs individually to discuss student feedback. In spring 2015, 451 students provided feedback on their TAs (17 TAs total) between our four courses; 92% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “My TA provides meaningful and helpful feedback on my assignments.” In addition, our TAs receive consistent positive feedback in open-ended comments on these surveys:

“I mentioned I was a little stressed because of conflict with my roommates and the TA went the extra mile beyond just commenting on my assignment and actually sent me a roommate agreement that I could use - it was so awesome and made me feel like she genuinely has an interest in my well-being. If I had a similar assignment in a different course where I mentioned my roommate issues as a source of stress, I'm almost positive no one would have responded the way she did.”

“I liked doing an assignment and instead of getting feedback for my performance, I liked getting feedback on the actual thoughts I put into it. It was like having regular mini-appointments with advisors, psychiatrists, personal trainers, and my mom.”

“The TA always provides applicable, detailed, and thoughtful feedback to my responses. It is evident through his comments that he took the time to really understand my reflections. He also responds with thought provoking questions, which cause me to reflect upon the subject matter even after I have submitted my assignment.”

“The TA leaves great feedback and even asks further questions. She seems very approachable and knowledgeable on the material.”

Overall course evaluation data from Spring of 2014 indicates student satisfaction with the quality of the Rothenberger Institute courses as follows:
- Alcohol & College Life: 95% would recommend the course to others; 97% agreed the course motivated them to be healthy (n=41, 36%)
- Sleep, Eat & Exercise: 93% would recommend course to others; 95% agreed that course motivated them to be healthy (n=176, 42%)
- Sexuality Matters: 96% would recommend course to others; 99% agreed that course motivated them to be healthy (n=97, 42%)
- Success Over Stress: 93% would recommend course to others; 95% agreed that the course helped improve their health-related behaviors (n=183, 40%)

While we recognize multiple reasons impact students’ overall satisfaction with our courses, we believe the high level of skills and quality of our TAs play a large role in this.

RI course assignments focus specifically on building student self-awareness and attempt to shift students’ attitudes and wellness-related behaviors. In addition to online training, instructors work with TAs on reflection assignments to identify where their students are in the Stages of Change model and provide appropriate guidance, feedback and resources during in-person training sessions. As a result, RI’s current TAs often describe their job as being a cheerleader, a listener, or a sounding board for their students. They prompt students to hold what Holmberg (1999; 2003a; 2003b) refers to as an internalized conversation in his teacher learner conversation theory by being a friendly and conversational peer voice; they make learning content accessible on a personal level, provide suggestions and referrals based on individual students’ responses to assignments, and engage students in a deeper, ongoing and personal conversation about the course materials. By establishing a friendly and conversational voice and utilizing Motivational Interviewing strategies, RI TAs establish the trusting and engaging relationship that Holmberg identifies as so vital to meaningful learning in distance education and that is also so core to peer education.

The PCF training has effectively trained over 50 teaching assistants since implementation. This training has significantly cut down on the in-person training time instructors need to schedule with all new TAs at the beginning of the term and hired, as needed. In addition, because we cannot always predict enrollment numbers, it has given us the flexibility to hire and train additional TAs on an as-needed basis when enrollment numbers swell at higher than anticipated rates; hiring is no longer dependent upon finding individuals who can dedicate a significant amount of in-person training time because much of training can be done online.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Learning Effectiveness: Leveraging peer education in an online learning environment aids students in making health behavior changes. The Peer Course Facilitator training has not only matched our in-person training program for our teaching assistant training program, but has exceeded it! By moving our TA training program online, we have been able to better articulate and frame the pedagogical framework so core to our courses and deliver this content in an online training format that our TAs can learn and revisit on an ongoing and annual basis. In addition, we are better able to assess the level of our TAs’ understanding of these important training concepts and address any training gaps prior to the start of the term. Further, the feedback TAs provide to students in their assignments aids students in making significant strides in reaching personal wellness goals and knowledge gains. We truly see evidence of the learning effectiveness pillar in the feedback students provide about their TAs in the midterm TA evaluations and the end of the semester course evaluations they complete.

Student Satisfaction: As noted in the evidence section, midterm feedback and end of course evaluations consistently demonstrate student satisfaction with the role TA Peer Course Facilitators play in our courses.

Instructor Satisfaction: Since implementation of the online training, instructors have found they can dedicate far more time to improving their courses’ content and engaging in other forms of skill development that make them effective educators, rather than spending large amounts of the semester planning and devoting time to TA training. They’re more focused and less disjointed, particularly at the beginning of the semester, because they’re not worried about scheduling and planning multiple training sessions that they have to juggle with their other job responsibilities. The instructors have also found they are better able to deliver the in-person training sessions to their TAs because they come prepared with a base level of knowledge from the online lessons. Their role as online educators has grown more rewarding, as well, because they can see the results in student satisfaction and behavior change, which keeps them energized and motivated to continue innovating.

Scale: In addition to the powerful role TAs can play in establishing healthy norms amongst peers and encouraging healthy behavior change, when they are trained as peer educators, they provide a pivotal role in scaling online learning programs that focus on wellness-related topics. Implementing an online training program for TAs has allowed RI to train more than double the number of TAs. In effect, RI has been able to increase the number of course offerings and increase the number of students in current offerings to enrollment of more than double since 2011. While upfront instructor time to design and develop this training was significant, coordinating and training time over the long term has been reduced drastically and the quality of training, at the same time, has increased. In addition, the PCF online training provides RI with the potential to continue growing our TA workforce and student enrollment without significantly increasing RI staff time.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Learning Management System
Course authoring or Screen Capture tool (Adobe Captivate, Articulate Storyline, Powerpoint, Camtasia Relay, etc.)
Learning Assessments

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

The primary cost of our Peer Course Facilitator training was time invested by our director, instructors, media specialist, and instructional designer to design and develop the training. The training was previously offered in-person, but reimagined for hybrid delivery. The equipment and tools used to create the online component were all things we were already using to develop and implement our online learning program.

References, supporting documents: 

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (1999). Enhancing motivation for change in substance abuse treatment (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 35). Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US).. Retrieved July 31, 2015 from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64964/
Holmberg, B. (1995). Theory and practice of distance education. London: Routledge.
Holmberg, B. (2003) Theory of distance education based on empathy. In M.G. Moore & W.G. Anderson, Eds. Handbook of Distance Education (pp. 79-86). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hunter, D. (2004, May-June). Peer to peer: Effective college learning: About alcohol and other health issues. Changes, 36(3), 40-44.
Owen, J. (2011). Peer educators in classroom settings: Effective academic partners. New Directions for Student Services, 133, 55-65.
Prochaska, J.O., & Velicer, W.F. (1997, September/October). The transtheoretical model of health behavior change. American Journal of Health Promotion, 12(1), 38-48. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4278/0890-1171-12.1.38
Young, S.L., & Bippus, A.M. (2008, October). Assessment of graduate teaching assistant (GTA) training: A case study of a training program and its impact on GTAs. Communication Teacher, 22(4), 116-129.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Amy LimBybliw
Email this contact: 
alimmer@umn.edu
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Jerri Kjolhaug
Email contact 2: 
wach0041@umn.edu