red Supported Site Cornell University: Early Teaching Experience


  • An Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) (formerly Learning Assistant) Program was established in Spring 2008, based upon the University of Colorado model. Cornell has four introductory Physics sequences: PHYS 1101-1102, an algebra-based self-paced workshop/autotutorial-style course for science majors including premedical students; PHYS 2207-2208, a calculus-based sequence for life science students; PHYS 1112-2213-2214, a calculus-based sequence for engineering and non-honors physics majors; and our honors sequence PHYS 116-2217-2218. Eight UTAs were teamed with graduate Physics TAs in facilitating cooperative learning problem solving sessions in the recitation sections of Physics 1112. Assistant Professor Erich Mueller, lecturer in Physics 1112, was an extremely enthusiastic and supportive host for the UTA program. He set up and maintained a staff Wiki, where TAs and UTAs could log their experiences. Mueller is now our Director of Undergraduate Studies, and is responsible for many innovations in how we recruit and advise physics majors.
  • Major revisions to the program after the first semester - including generating exercises for the seminar more directly relevant to the cooperative session content and improving the quality of the coop exercises - led to an overall enthusiastic response from UTA participants, and very positive reviews from the students they serve. The UTA program now services four of our introductory courses - Physics 1112, 2213, 2207 and 2208.
  • Broad-ranging recruiting efforts typically generate four times as many applicants to the UTA program as available positions, and all offers are accepted. Funds from Cornell's match allowed us to support 20 UTAs per semester.
  • An online application process has streamlined our processing of candidates. An improved application form with questions and an essay designed to more explicitly probe teaching interests, together with careful attention to student curiosity/interest in teaching during oral interviews has improved our yield of students who continue in the program and enroll in Education classes from 0/12 in Spring 2008 to an average of 6-7/20 in subsequent semesters. This has allowed the TIRs to be much more effective in their mentoring roles. Appendix 1 shows the progress of our UTA program and recruiting efforts.
  • Following suggestions from other PhysTEC sites, our UTAs were initially paid for 8 hours per week, including instructional time, preparation time, course instructional meeting time and time preparing for and participating in the Teaching and Learning Seminar. For Fall 2010 we reduced the number of paid hours to 4, and this appeared to have no effect on UTA applications or acceptances. We suggest that this be the norm for future PhysTEC sites, and that the money saved be used to support additional UTAs or extended funding of the site. In order to sustain our program for one more semester (Fall 2011) on our remaining Cornell funds, we have eliminated the UTA stipend, and students will instead receive 1 unit of credit for their teaching efforts. In spite of this cutback, we still received roughly 2 applicants for each position available.
  • In Spring 2010 the TIR developed and implemented a "Master UTA" component for UTAs who continue in the program past the first semester and enroll in Education classes. Master UTAs are assigned to mentor new UTAs, and teach both a recitation section and a lab section. The Master UTA concept creates a leadership structure within the UTAs and gives experienced UTAs more status within the program and Physics Department.
  • After several semesters of placing UTAs in recitations, on the suggestion of one of our Senior Lecturers in Spring 2010 we also placed master UTAs in lab sections. Our introductory course labs are challenging and our TAs seldom have adequate time to address both the practical and conceptual challenges of their students. The UTAs felt that the labs provided them with a richer teaching opportunity, that they were more fully engaged with the students, and that their efforts were more highly valued by the graduate TAs.
  • To address the challenges posed by the busy schedules of our UTAs, in Spring and Fall 2009 we allowed second-time UTAs to fulfill their teaching requirements by helping graduate TAs proctor evening problem solving sessions in the Physics building. In Spring 2010, Master UTA Andrew Flye and UTA Ben Nachman, on their own initiative, organized separate "homework parties" in one of our freshman dormitories. Several UTAs participated, allowing coverage of all three introductory courses in which UTAs were placed, and attendance averaged 30-40 students. Based upon this success, the homework parties have become a regular part of our effort. UTAs facilitate 3-person cooperative groups working in a large and comfortable space within the dormitory area. Location, comfort, and immediate access to appropriate learning assistance (not simply answers) are important features of this successful program.
  • During the 2010-11 academic year, Andrew Flye took on the major leadership role of running the homework parties for Physics 1112 and 2207 (introductory mechanics) and running the Physics 1112 UTA instructional planning meeting each week. Attendance at the homework parties routinely topped 50 students and occasionally reached the 80's.
  • All UTAs benefit from being observed and receiving formative evaluation by the TIR. This helps them develop confidence that they can be effective teachers, and also helps them see that teaching effectively is - and will continue to be - a real challenge worthy of their abilities.
  • TIR Overhiser has held "20 minutes with Jim" interviews, in which each UTA (and the TAs taking the "Teaching and Learning Physics" seminar) discussed their experience as a UTA, their history, and their interest in physics teaching.
  • UTAs and graduate TAs indicate a very high level of satisfaction with the TIR-taught "Teaching and Learning Physics" seminar in end-of-semester evaluations.
  • Several UTAs have been actively involved in the Society of Physics Students (SPS). Two have served as SPS President and acted as liaisons between PhysTEC and our TIR and the SPS. The TIRs occasionally attend SPS activities and have made it clear that they are a resource the SPS can depend on.
  • The UTA program provides excellent PR for the Physics Department, especially to students from outside the department who enroll in our introductory courses. It helps build team spirit among our Physics majors, and among those inside and outside physics who have interests in teaching, giving these groups another way to identify themselves within the university. We now see the UTA program as an important part of our undergraduate physics program, independent of its importance in helping to recruit future teachers.


  • In 2010-11 we transitioned from a fully supported development-oriented program with a full-time TIR and part-time program coordinator to a sustainable program with, at best, part-time TIR involvement and limited administrative support.
  • Cornell undergraduate students have extremely busy schedules, and many strong UTA candidates must defer their participation because of scheduling conflicts.
  • Students who have a declared interest in the physics major and thus the easiest path to a physics teaching career comprise less than 5% of the students who take introductory physics classes. We continue to seek methods to attract more of these students - especially from the biological sciences - into the UTA program and into the major.
  • Cornell science and engineering undergraduates are extremely interested in gaining teaching experience for the growth and credentials they know it can provide them. We need to figure out how to convert that kind of interest into a desire - and a commitment upon graduation - to become teachers.
  • UTAs and TAs (like faculty) have been successful as self-learners in a system where lecturing remains too common. Consequently, they can be resistant to implementing the research-based pedagogical methods discussed in the Teaching and Learning Physics seminar in their recitation and lab teaching.



  • Based upon the broad success of our program, the PI and Physics Chair have had discussions with Chemistry, Math and Astronomy as well as with a Senior Associate Dean in the Arts College about expanding our UTA program to include these disciplines as well. In 2008 the PI and Physics Department Chair met with the Assistant Dean for Alumni Affairs and Development in the College of Arts and Sciences to request alumni/private contributions to sustain and expand the UTA program. A fundraising document was generated. Unfortunately, private giving to the university all but collapsed following the country's financial crisis in Fall 2008 and is only now recovering. An opportunity to hire a physics education research Ph.D. to replace one of our two retiring Senior Lecturers disappeared when those positions were eliminated in budget cuts.
  • A detailed document was prepared for the Physics Department and Arts College outlining the many ways in which the TIR and the UTA program benefit the department, in an effort to encourage internal funding.


Lessons Learned

  • Establishing a UTA program early in a PhysTEC grant helps to ensure that by the end of the grant, the program becomes integrated into the undergraduate physics education experience, that it establishes relationships with many instructional faculty, and that it becomes seen as a valuable asset to the Physics Department. This perception evolves independent of its impact on the training of future high school teachers, because roughly 85% of the participants in the program will not earn certification, and yet value other aspects of the program as an important part of their education.
  • The TAs who participate in a UTA program and who work with UTAs should be volunteers, and should be screened by senior staff. In our first semester in 2008, graduate TAs involved with UTAs were required to take the "Teaching and Learning Physics" seminar course. The resulting discussions were very rich and varied, but some TAs were resentful of what they perceived to be an increased time burden and were resistant to the seminar atmosphere. In subsequent semesters we made the seminar optional, and the TAs who elect to take the seminar enjoy it, contribute to it, and benefit from it. Several of our UTAs have commented that many of their TA partners would benefit from the seminar. In Fall 2009, 8 graduate students from Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy enrolled in the course. Advertising to incoming graduate TAs has resulted in repetition of this enrollment pattern, and we encourage other PhysTEC institutions to advertise their physics teaching seminars to all physical science graduate students as a way to encourage them to be 'student-centered' and improve the overall quality of instruction their students receive. 
  • UTAs and TAs are extremely busy with other commitments, and so the UTA program should make as efficient use of their time as possible. The weekly teaching and learning seminar should be tightly integrated with the physics course in which the UTAs are placed, utilizing the upcoming course material as a basis for exercises and activities. The seminar should be scheduled in the evening to reduce schedule conflicts.
  • Cooperative learning session materials should be pre-programmed by senior course staff. Accompanying scripts, worksheets, visual aids, and demonstrations should be generated to help guide the TAs and UTAs in both the physics and in the pedagogical approach (as we have done for our laboratories in Physics 2207 and 2208). Coop problems and reading assignments should be distributed to UTAs and TAs at the beginning of the semester. UTAs and TAs are extremely busy during the last third of the semester, so "frontloading" should help them stay on top of their teaching responsibilities.
  • The instructional team meetings in our introductory physics courses should address Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) issues, and help TAs and UTAs alike to pre-script questioning strategies so as to shepherd students through topics of particular difficulty in a way that is pedagogically sound.
  • The TIR needs to engage graduate TAs who work with UTAs so as to help "close the loop" and maximize the impact of the UTA program. This can involve information meetings with TAs, TIR visits to TA office hours, joint TA/UTA sessions on cooperative instruction methods, and by encouraging TAs to participate in the Teaching and Learning Physics Seminar. 
  • The TIRs observe and provide formative assessment to the UTAs, but take notes throughout the recitation section, or lab they are observing and also note TA behaviors. By doing the post-observation session with both the UTA and TA present, the TAs benefit from the counsel of the TIR, as well. Since this is a totally formative assessment of the UTA, which never appears in the TA's records, it is a completely non-threatening opportunity for the TA to grow as an educator, and to view the TIR as a valuable resource.


  • We have initiated and developed a highly successful UTA program. The accompanying seminar course "Teaching and Learning Physics" was implemented using materials from the University of Colorado and modified by TIR Marty Alderman to include more practical and engaging activities relevant to UTA roles at Cornell.
  • In 2009-2010, TIR Jim Overhiser implemented a comprehensive revision of the seminar to include more activities that modeled the methods discussed in the readings. In previous semesters UTAs often failed to complete the readings. Starting in Fall 2009, students were required to complete a pre-lesson question related to the readings and to read their answers to the rest of the class. These questions and answers provided a pre-assessment for the instructor and improved the engagement and confidence of the students.
  • TIR Overhiser also added a lesson planning component to the seminar. At the end of the semester each UTA worked with their assigned master UTA to prepare and present a physics lesson on a topic from their assigned course.
  • A detailed formal assessment of the UTA program and seminar course was developed and administered to the UTAs and TAs. The assessment and results for Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 are available on our website.
  • UTAs who decided to not continue in the program in Fall 2009 were surveyed to ascertain the reasons for their decision. The response rate was small (<50%), and the most common reasons were time pressure and lack of interest in taking the required education classes.
  • A database of all of the UTAs who have ever been in our PhysTEC program is currently under development, to facilitate follow-ups probing their current thoughts/actions towards a physics teaching career.