At universities around the world, teaching assistants are integral to undergraduate students’ learning and success.

A professor of educational psychology is leading a project to improve training opportunities for teaching assistants whose focus is computer science.

Brett Jones, professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Education, and his research team, which includes computer science and statistics faculty, received a $399,592 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for STEM Education for the project, Training Computer Science Teaching Assistants to Motivate Students.

Jones, who has received three grants from the National Science Foundation for a total of more than $2 million, also developed the MUSIC Model of Motivation, which is in about 15 countries and available in 14 languages.

He is co-leading the project with Margaret Ellis, associate professor of practice in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech and Inyoung Kim, professor in the Department of Statistics.

Why it matters

Computer science graduates are highly sought after, with growth for 2022 to 2032 projected at 23 percent for the field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Naturally, there’s a need to feed that demand. Finding ways to engage students in the classroom can be a struggle, let alone giving them the tools to use outside the classroom. Enter teaching assistants (TAs), who play a vital role when it comes to sparking a student’s drive. But they may need some extra support.

“Teaching assistants often do not have the teaching experience or skills needed to effectively motivate and engage students,” said Jones. “This project aims to provide the TAs with some of the skills needed to better motivate students to engage in class and remain engaged in computer science courses, majors or minors, and careers in the future.”

Project goals

  • Improve the quality of teaching provided by teaching assistants in Virginia Tech's computer science department. The hope is to have improved teaching lead to increased student engagement and retention in computer science. About 80 Virginia Tech computer science teaching assistants will be participating in the training.
  • Develop a teaching assistant training prototype that can be used in other courses within the computer science department at Virginia Tech. In the future, other departments at Virginia Tech and at other universities could use the training materials to improve the quality of teaching provided by teaching assistants
  • Increase representation of minority students in computer science fields by improving their self-efficacy and sense of belonging within the field

School of Education's voice

“We are excited to apply research from the field of educational psychology to solve real-world problems, such as improving teaching in computer science courses,” said Jones.

Written by Samantha Smith