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Foreign TAs, students struggle with communication in class

JACOB KONST/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Chemistry junior Tom Schultze receives guidance on an experiment from teaching assistant Valeria Ochoa. Ochoa is an analytical chemistry graduate student from Ecuador who teaches analytical chemistry Tuesdays and Thursdays.
By Natasha Bhuyan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
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Calculus and chemistry can be difficult to understand, and for some students, having an international teaching assistant can make it even harder.

Nathan Barnett, a political science junior, said students were distracted in his math class last semester because they were unable to understand their international TA.

"It was hard to focus and comprehend the material," said Barnett. "There needs to be better screening or some efficient teaching method."

Lindsay Lesser, a psychology junior, said her Globalization and Global Governance TA also makes it hard to learn in the classroom.

"Most of the 45 minutes in discussion, he is trying to find the right English words, and it gets aggravating," she said.

While it is a university requirement that all international graduate students pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language, each department on campus hires TAs through its own screening processes.

Coordinator of laboratory instruction in ecology and evolutionary biology Susan Jorstad said a TA is hired in her department after only an informal interview.

This method relies heavily on the TOEFL, which measures students' understanding of English, but not their ability to clearly speak the language.

Angela Wray, customer service representative for TOEFL, said the Test of Spoken English, not the TOEFL, is what determines whether a student can communicate orally.

But Jodi Bunting, office specialist senior for the University Learning Center, said a mere test is unable to verify whether a graduate student has the ability to instruct in a classroom environment.

"Though it is the best test of this nature we have, as with any standardized test, the TOEFL is subjective," she said.

Steven Brown, a chemistry lab supervisor, said he requires international TAs to pass a speaking test and give a presentation, in order to ensure students receive the highest quality education.

But Brown, who has worked with international TAs for 27 years, said despite the rigorous screening, he has received complaints from students who say accents are a problem.

Dan Madden, associate professor for the department of mathematics, said the trouble may simply be a matter of perspective. While a faculty member may understand an international TA, an American student who has little exposure to an array of accents will have difficulty, he said.

"Besides the language, there is also a cultural difference," Brown said. "These TAs come from the most elite schools in their country, so they have trouble relating to American students."

Brown said a viable solution is more complex than students realize.

An increasing number of international TAs are in the classroom because not enough graduate students want the job, he said.

Of the 50 general chemistry TAs, 40 percent are international students. Thirty-two percent of the general biology TAs and approximately 33 percent of the math TAs are also international students.

Last year, 24 percent of the approximately 7,400 graduate students at the UA were international students, according to the 2002-2003 UA Fact Book.

JACOB KONST/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Teaching assistant Valeria Ochoa, an analytical chemistry graduate student, helps a student during a chemistry lab last week. Ochoa hails from Ecuador and teaches analytical chemistry lab twice per week.

David Vigneaux, an American optical sciences graduate student, said he is not interested in being a teaching assistant because of the paltry salary.

"It's not great pay or anything," Vigneaux said. "It's not the greatest job in terms of time put in and getting money out."

Bill McCallum, a mathematics professor and director of the Vertical Integration of Research and Education program at UA, attributed the lack of interest among American graduate students in the math department to the National Science Foundation's VIGRE program in mathematical sciences.

VIGRE is a grant program that allows American graduate students in mathematics to get involved in fellowships and research.

Because many U.S. citizens and permanent residents receive the VIGRE funding in the math department, the TA positions are available for international students, McCallum said.

If students are struggling to understand their TAs, Jorstad said it is important they inform their TAs and the department, so a solution can be reached that will not hinder the student's learning.

She has recommended that TAs who have difficulty communicating use PowerPoint presentations.

Brown said he handles each case differently, with solutions ranging from conferences with the student and TA to appointing a mentor for the TA.

Despite the struggles, some students have positive feedback about international TAs who go out of their way to prevent language from becoming an obstacle in the classroom.

Dominique Bradford, a pre-pharmacy sophomore, said she thought chemistry lab would be hard to understand when she first met her international TA, but was later surprised. "He explained things so slowly and more thoroughly, and I was like, ╬This guy is the coolest,'" Bradford said. "Ultimately, I feel like I'm learning a lot more."

But other students say their TAs still struggle to explain difficult concepts, disrupting the classroom.

International TAs also try to fix the language barrier by using different strategies to be more clear.

"I try to write things on the board or explain it slowly to students," said Valeria Ochoa, an analytical chemistry graduate student from Ecuador.

Zeynep Ozkan, a graduate student from Turkey, has trouble with American idioms, but takes a unique approach to alleviate the situation.

"I am watching television programs like ╬Friends,' ╬The Simpsons,' ╬Seinfeld,' and ╬That '70s Show,' she said. "Also, I am listening to some of the radio channels which I think are very popular around teenagers."

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