VIGNETTE: Supporting International Graduate Teaching Assistants

Sihui Ma

Graduate teaching assistants (GTA) are the students who are (1) currently enrolled in a graduate school program and (2) assisting faculty or instructors in colleges, universities, and professional schools on teaching or teaching-related tasks[1]. GTAs take on significant responsibilities in undergraduate instruction at large research universities (Gardner & Jones, 2011). These responsibilities might include teaching introductory undergraduate level courses, helping with curriculum development, proctoring exams, assisting students in science labs or during office hours, and grading assignments. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, there were 131,120 GTAs employed in colleges, universities, and professional schools in May 2016.

International graduate teaching assistants (IGTAs) are GTAs who are neither U.S. citizens nor permanent residents. Instead, IGTAs are temporary visa holders. With the sharp increase of international students attending graduate schools in the United States (Figure 1.1), IGTAs play a considerable role in undergraduate education across many disciplines, including agricultural fields (Table 1.1). The diversified perspectives that international students bring into graduate programs in the United States are essential to both maintaining America’s leading role in technological innovation and preparing the graduates from undergraduate agricultural programs to be competitive in the international workforce. With the increasing global nature of the food and agriculture industry, “diversity skills,” including the ability to work in diverse communities, the possession of multicultural awareness, and the ability to interact with people of different backgrounds, have been identified by faculty in the agriculture field as valuable skills (Blickenstaff, Wolf, Falk, & Foltz, 2015). These were also highlighted as Research Priority Areas by the American Association for Agricultural Education as necessary for agricultural graduates to prepare “a diverse workforce that includes scientists and professionals with knowledge and skills beyond today’s standards” (Doerfert, 2011).  It is essential to acknowledge and utilize the global perspectives that international students bring to American institutions.

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of full-time graduate students at US institutions who are US citizens or permanent residents has remained stable around 45,000. The number of international students who are full-time graduate students at US institutions has been steadily increasing over the same time period, from around 18,000 in 2011 to arond 25,000 in 2016.
Figure 1.1 The number of full-time graduate students in science, engineering, and health in all institutions in the United States between 2011 and 2016.
Table 1.1 Number and percentage of international graduate students in agricultural-related fields.
Field Number of full-time international graduate students Percentage of full-time international graduate students
Agricultural sciences 3940 21.5
Agricultural economics 863 49.1
Agricultural engineering 870 53.5

While IGTAs play an essential role in undergraduate education in the United States (Gorsuch, 2011), IGTAs also face many challenges, including difficulties with oral English proficiency, especially communicative competence—that is, understanding students’ questions and responses. Although IGTAs obtain relatively high scores in standardized English proficiency tests, they still encounter problems interacting with undergraduate students in various instructional settings. This has been a big challenge, often resulting in misunderstandings between IGTAs and students (Andrea, 1995). Emotional factors, such as the anxiety and stress related to public speaking, and their confidence when communicating with students, influence their pragmatic competence (the ability to use the language appropriately considering the social context) (Aslan, 2016). Current support, which often solely focuses on language proficiency (Fox & Gay, 1994), inadequately prepares IGTAs for their duties. A shift needs to be made to a more comprehensive training model, which includes understanding academic culture in the United States, the application of English in classroom communication, and interaction with students in various instructional conditions, both in- and outside of the classroom.

Besides the difficulties in spoken language, cultural barriers also lead to the poor performance often exhibited by IGTAs, which is reflected in the negative evaluations they receive from the undergraduate students in their classes. IGTAs may face additional stress and anxiety from coping with the difference between the culture of their home country and the United States (Ross & Krider, 1992). This anxiety can prompt IGTAs to be less willing to communicate with their undergraduate students and teaching mentors, interactions for which English would be the primary language of communication (Roach & Olaniran, 2001). This break in communication may be negatively interpreted as unwillingness to engage, or a distrust/dislike of students, leading to an inactive and non-engaged learning environment (Nakane, 2007). Also, failure to acknowledge and follow U.S. cultural norms, especially in instructional settings, may result in miscommunication and lack of interaction between IGTAs and undergraduate students.

Training programs for IGTAs need to be developed and enhanced so that IGTAs can better cultivate and strengthen the global leadership skills of undergraduate students with expertise in food and agriculture. Although there are existing on-campus programs and resources to facilitate GTA teaching, there is a need for these programs and resources to be tailored to fit the need for IGTAs. Below are some ideas:

  1. Provide opportunities for IGTAs to understand the academic cultures in the United States.Coordinators can recruit current IGTAs, undergraduate students, GTAs, and faculty who work with IGTAs to build an IGTA Representative Group to identify the differences of academic cultures between the IGTAs’ home countries and the United States. Collaborators for this effort can include the graduate school, the center for international student services, the teaching and learning center, and the office of student affairs. Findings from the IGTA Representative Group should be recorded and shared with future IGTAs. Understanding and reflecting upon the similarities and differences between academic cultures is vital for IGTAs to set appropriate expectations for their undergraduate students.
  2. Provide training for IGTAs on communication skills in various instructional conditions both in and outside of the classroom.Training workshops or courses should be developed to facilitate IGTAs’ English communication, such as public speaking skills in formal teaching. The training sessions offer peer learning practices for IGTAs to improve the communication effectiveness among IGTAs, undergraduate students, and faculty mentors in academic settings should be formed. Participants learn with and from each other, contributing as equally valuable members of the cohort (Boud, Cohen, & Sampson, 2014). These practices create a safe environment to practice both speaking and listening. Real connections are made among the participants, which will encourage the participants to communicate with one another.

IGTAs will be paired with native GTAs. The pairs will meet before the class observation to review the lesson plan and discuss specifics on the aspects of teaching that IGTAs aspire to improve. After the peer observation, the pairs will discuss teaching techniques and classroom management. Teaching experience and strategies will be shared, and misunderstandings relating to U.S. academic culture will be clarified. By continuing this practice, IGTAs will gain a better understanding of U.S. academic culture. They will be better able to communicate with undergraduate students, leading to an overall improvement of instructional quality. Native GTAs will also gain knowledge of and insight into cross-cultural communication, observation and feedback processes, and peer-coaching strategies.

The IGTAs’ better understanding of U.S. academic cultures and improved communication skills will help IGTAs’ succeed in teaching; in turn, undergraduate students will benefit from enhanced instruction. The improved instruction from IGTA’s can encourage undergraduate students to embody global the proper mindset to work with others from diverse backgrounds, especially culturally diverse backgrounds (Council, 2009; Suárez-Orozco, 2005; Ziguras & Law, 2006).


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Figure and Table Attributions

  • Figure 1.1 Data Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Graduate Students and Post-doctorates in Science and Engineering, 2016. Adapted under fair use. Graphic by Kindred Grey.
  • Table 1.1 Data Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Graduate Students and Post-doctorates in Science and Engineering, 2016.

  1. How to cite this vignette:

    Ma, S. 2022. Supporting International Graduate Teaching Assistants. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. License: CC BY-NC 4.0.


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Teaching in the University by Sihui Ma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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