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Undergraduate Students Perceptions of International Teaching Assistants

Info: 10493 words (42 pages) Dissertation
Published: 10th Dec 2019

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Tags: EducationTeaching

  1. Introduction

Graduate education can be considered as a major part of American higher education, with about 1.78 million students enrolled in graduate programs in universities across the U.S.  Among them, about twenty- six percent are graduate students pursuing doctoral degrees (Council of Graduate School, 2016).  Out of this number, a significant number of graduate students hold teaching assistantships to pay for their tuition and to earn a stipend.  The tasks of teaching assistants range from grading and conducting discussion classes to teaching classes as independent instructors.  Whatever their tasks are, they require “broad and complex…support” (Jennings, 1987, p. 5) from the institution in which they are studying and teaching.  This support is particularly invaluable to international teaching assistants (ITAs), particularly non-native English speaking teaching assistants, who have to teach in a language that is not their native language in addition to adapting to a new classroom culture.

This challenging task of teaching in a new environment and in a second language is exacerbated by the responses met by ITAs from some undergraduate (UG) students and their parents.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, UGs’ complaints about ITAs’ lack of language proficiency and their unfamiliarity with U.S. education culture appeared in the national press (Smith, Bryd, Nelson, Barrett, & Constantinides, 1992).  The parents of UGs, in particular, pressured legislators and university administrators to solve the “foreign TA problem” (Bailey, 1983, p. 309).  The result has been the passing of laws or mandates to assess the language skills of ITAs.  Some mandates even require ITAs to complete training programs or short courses to develop language and pedagogical skills (Smith et al., 1992).

Prior to the development of these ITA programs, research on ITAs was conducted beginning, for example, with the works of Mestenhauser and his colleagues and Bailey in the 1980s.  In the Mestenhauser et al. (1980) survey of 404 students at the University of Minnesota, forty-three percent of students perceived that ITAs had negatively affected the quality of course and nine percent believed that ITA had helped improve course quality.  Bailey’s research focused on communication difficulties of ITAs in U.S. universities with attention to the problems of the TA system as a whole.  As research in this field continues to grow, the areas most often researched are ITAs language proficiency followed by intercultural communication between ITAs and their students (Villarreal, 2012-2013).  Inherent in these areas are UGs’ evaluation or perceptions of ITAs. Researchers are increasingly finding value in involving UGs’ evaluation and perception of ITAs to strengthen ITA programs (Sarwark & vom Saal, 1989; Staples et al., 2014).  Yule and Hoffman (1993), for example, explored the possibility of involving UGs in the ITA screening process.  In their study, they recruited UGs to listen to ITAs presenting basic instructional material from their fields.  The evaluation scores given by the UGs were then compared to evaluation scores given by ESL (English as a second language) instructors to check for inter-rater reliability.  The results showed that the UG observers were overwhelmingly in agreement with ESL instructors in terms of their evaluation of the ITAs.  The advantage of involving the UGs in the evaluation process is that it provides validation of the verdicts of ESL professionals regarding the readiness of ITAs to assume instructional duties.  Moreover, it involves the very party whose “complaints provided the impetus for ITA programs to be created and screening procedures to be required” (Yule & Hoffman, 1993, p. 326).

UGs’ perceptions were also studied under the assumption that they can provide invaluable insight into the situation, which has been dubbed as the “foreign TA problem” (Bailey, 1983, p. 309).  Numerous researchers who have examined UGs’ perceptions of ITAs have identified both linguistic and non-linguistic factors affecting UGs’ perception of ITAs.  Hinofotis and Bailey (1981), for example, in their investigation of UGs’ comprehension and attitude toward ITAs found that UGs complained most about language proficiency, communication, and delivery of their ITAs.  The UGs ranked pronunciation as the top most problem area in ITAs’ overall ability.  Rubin and Smith (1990), on the other hand, found that accents of ITAs were not as potent determinants of UGs’ perceptions and comprehension as were factors like ethnicity and the lecture topic.  The impact of this latter factor was also part of Bailey’s (1983) study, where the participating UGs perceived ITA’s communicative competence to be more negative if the ITAs were teaching courses that were outside of UGs’ majors compared to ITAs who were teaching courses that were in UGs’ major areas.

This study was a continuation of these previous studies in terms of studying UGs’ perceptions of ITAs.  However, the primary focus of the study was to analyze the relationship between UGs’ perceptions of ITAs and the colleges the UGs were studying in using a mixed methods design.  The rationale for combining quantitative and qualitative approaches (Creswell, 2003; Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998) was that the quantitative data and results provided a general picture of the research problem (e.g., what differences there are in terms of courses taken by UGs between colleges which are instructed by ITAs), while the qualitative data and analysis sought to explore UGs’ experience and perceptions of receiving instruction from ITAs.

  1. Literature Review

Similar to U.S. American English speaking teaching assistants who often function as instructors in UG classrooms, ITAs also have teaching responsibilities.  Since the classes they teach are often first year introductory classes (Smith et al., 1992), the chance of ITAs instructing UG students is substantial.  Or as Smith et al. (1992) says, “…the majority of U.S. undergraduates …have comparatively limited but intensely important contact with ITAs” (Smith et al., 1992).  However, this experience has not always been perceived positively by UGs and other stakeholders, namely, the parents of these students.

Comparative research to explore who are better instructors – domestic teaching assistants or ITAs, suggest no significant difference between the academic achievements of UG students taught by either domestic or international teaching assistants.  Jacobs and Friedman (1988) used courses with common departmental final examinations and multiple sections taught by foreign and native graduate students.  Their findings indicated that ITAs were as effective in teaching UGs as domestic TAs.  The data also did not indicate a great deal of student dissatisfaction with the ITA in the courses investigated.  Borjas (2000), on the other hand, confirmed his hypothesis, based on a survey of UG students in intermediate Microeconomics classes at a large public university, that ITAs have an adverse effect on the scholastic achievement of American UGs.  Using the same data set, Marvasti (2005), however, demonstrated that while ITAs appear to have an adverse effect on the academic performance of native students, the effect does not seem to be due to the lack of language proficiency of the foreign-accented ITAs.  Flesher, Masanori, and Weinberg (2002) showed little evidence of the adverse effect of ITAs on UGs’ grades by using data set from Ohio State University.  In fact, in some cases, their results show a significant positive effect for the ITAs.  They also found that the drop rate is actually lower for the ITAs than for the domestic TAs.  Yet, reservations exist among UGs, their parents, faculty and the general public regarding the teaching abilities of ITAs.  The criticisms are most “acute when international teaching assistants from non-native English  speaking or non-Western backgrounds teach basic required courses that are used for screening entrance into business, scientific, and technical fields of study” (Smith et al., 1992, p. 4).

Beginning with Bailey’s landmark study on the “foreign TA problem” (Bailey, 1983, p. 309), researchers have continued to study the instructional challenges of ITAs and the implications in the U.S. higher education.  Smith and her colleagues (1992) observed that most of these studies on issues relating to ITAs investigate the communicative competence of ITAs, showing that problems arise from both language and non-language factors.

2.1. Language abilities of ITAs that contribute to communicative problems – as perceived by UGs

In the existing studies on ITAs, UGs perceive inadequate linguistic ability on the part of ITAs to be the primary reason for communication breakdown in ITA-UG interaction.  For example, in a survey of UG students, Hinofotis and Bailey (1981) found that students perceive pronunciation as key in successful oral communication.  In this study, a sample of UG students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) rated videotaped speech samples of ITAs from various academic disciplines in a role play situation before and after instruction in oral communication.  The ratings were in the areas of language proficiency, delivery and communication of information.  In the results, ITA’s pronunciation ranked first in the perceived criteria of successful oral communication. Likewise, Chiang (2009) documented several miscommunications in ITA and American college student office hour interactions, which stemmed from ITAs perceived mispronunciation. Similarly, when Tyler, Jefferie, and Davies (1988) examined ITAs’ instruction through a discourse analytic examination of 18 Korean and Chinese teaching assistants, they found that ITAs’ prosodic features such as stress, intonation, and pause, which differed from that of native English speakers were the source of communication gap between ITAs and their American students.

2.2. Non- language factors that contribute to communicative problems – as perceived by UGs

There are ample studies that suggest that the ITA “problem” could very well be a problem of UGs’ themselves, at least partially.  Fox (1991), for example, found that forty percent of the difficulties that were identified by different stakeholders concerning ITAs could be categorized as arising from ITAs’ limited oral English proficiency, and an equal percentage of difficulties arose from non-language factors such as ITA-UG interaction, mismatched/discrepancy in expectations between ITA and UGs, and teaching skills.  Orth (1982) found that UGs’ ratings of their ITAs’ speaking proficiency were only weakly related to expert ratings of the ITAs’ language proficiency but were biased by the grades they anticipated receiving from those ITAs. A later study by Plakans (1997) also revealed that UGs who expected a C in their courses taught by ITA had a significantly lower ATITA (Attitudes about International Teaching Assistants) composite score than the students who were expecting A or B.

Other non-language factors that Fox (1991), and later Plakans (1997), identified as influencing UGs’ attitude towards their ITA are age, gender, and homogeneity factors.  Females and older students (25 years and over) had significantly higher ATITA composite scores than males and young students.  As regard to the region of residence, hometown size, U.S. citizenship, and international experiences of UGs, scores on the ATITA scale showed, not surprisingly, that those who had not traveled or lived anywhere other than a small town or rural area in the Midwest did not have many positive feelings toward ITAs as UGs who had grown up in urban areas, had traveled outside the U.S., or were from the West or East Coast (Fox, 1991; Plakans, 1997).  Moreover, UGs who were non- U.S. citizens clearly had a more empathetic view of TAs from other cultures, possibly from having experiences with English as a foreign language.

One final non-language factor that some researchers studied impacting UGs perceptions of ITAs is the academic discipline they are pursuing. Since a disproportionate number of introductory courses in mathematics and natural sciences (which has the ill-reputation of being the most difficult of introductory courses among UGs) are assigned to ITAs (Constantinides, 1987) some researchers found it worthwhile to explore if norms of interaction and interpretation in the classroom between ITAs and UGs could differ according to academic discipline (Hoekje & Williams, 1992).  For example, in Fox’s (1991) study, the lowest ATITA scores were achieved by UGs from the School of Agriculture, with significant differences between their mean score and those of students from Schools of Sciences, Liberal Arts and Engineering. ATITA scores of UGs from School of Education were also significantly low than those of Science.  The comparison between the mean ATITA score for students from Liberal Arts also showed a statistically significant difference.  Plakans’ (1997) study, too, revealed similar trends.  Based on the ATITA composite score, UGs in Agriculture had the most negative attitude toward ITAs.  Business students were also significantly different from the most positive group, the UGs from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The scenario is further complicated when researchers explored the relationship between UGs’ perceptions of ITAs and the number of classes that UGs take in their major area of studies taught by ITAs.  On one hand, Bailey’s (1982 as cited in Bailey, 1983) study revealed that UGs who were not majoring in the same discipline as their TAs were significantly more critical of the non-native English speakers’ oral English than UGs who share a common academic major with their ITAs.  On the other hand, Fox’s (1991) hypothesis that a positive relationship would exist between ATITA scores and the proportion of classes with ITAs that had been in students’ major fields was not supported.

It is also surprising to find that the year of enrollment variable had a U-shaped curve based on how long the student had been studying (Plakans, 1997).  In this study, sophomores and juniors were more negative about ITAs than freshmen and seniors.  The classic research studies about student development, such as those by Astin (1977, 1993) and Pascarella and Terenzini (1991), have examined the outcomes of a baccalaureate education.  The findings suggest that freshmen may have high expectations about academic life; by the 2nd and 3rd year, after encountering some of the tough, required courses with large enrollments (where ITAs are likely to be lead teachers, laboratory assistant), they are disillusioned.  Finally in the 4th or 5th year, when graduation is in sight, UGs become more empathetic toward ITAs.  Several seniors in focus groups commented that if ITAs were given a chance, their students soon would get used to their accents and would find having an ITA not much different from having a domestic TA.  Moreover, Byrd and Constantinides (1988) pointed out that different disciplines have different preferred teaching styles as a caution for ESL professionals not to assume that the ESL style of teaching is appropriate in other contexts.  Rounds (1987) looked at a mathematics classroom and described its unique routines and lesson organization -the nature of the classroom, the assignments, and lessons affect the organization of talk.  Tanner (1991) also made an observational study to investigate student and TA questions in a chemistry laboratory pertaining to particular functions of that setting.

Thus, although some research has included UGs’ college and academic discipline as a variable in the study, it does not seem to be the focus of research in this area.  Further, research that has examined UGs’ perceptions has been predominately from an a priori model.  The proposed study aimed to contribute in this conversation in understanding the difference that exists between UGs’ perception of ITAs in terms of different colleges from their own perspectives, and in this way uniquely contribute to research on UGs’ perception of ITAs.

  1. Methodology

A mixed methods design (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2003) was used for this study, which involves the collection, analysis and mixing of both quantitative and qualitative data at various stages of the research process in order to understand a research problem more completely (Creswell, 2003).  The rationale behind mixing these two approaches is that when used in combination, quantitative and qualitative methods have the advantage of complementing each other and of allowing for a more complete analysis (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998).

3.1. Research Questions

The following research questions guided this study:

Quantitative Research Questions:

  • What courses do UG students most frequently report as taught by ITAs?
  • What differences exist among colleges in the number of courses UG students report are instructed by ITAs?

Qualitative Research Question:

  • What are UG students’ perceptions of ITAs’ instruction?

Mixed Research Question:

  • What relationships exist between UG students’ perceptions of ITAs and the colleges in which the students are from?

3.2. Setting

The setting for this study was Orangetown State University (pseudonym), which is located in the Midwest.  Orangetown State University is a Tier 1, doctoral granting research university.  In Fall 2010, student enrollment was approximately 20,000 students, with 75% UGs and 25% graduates.  Of these students, 46% were female and 54% were males.  The university consists of 11 Colleges, 8 of which offer UG degree programs.  These colleges house over 50 academic departments, ranging anywhere from two to fifteen departments per college.  In Fall 2010, the largest number of UG students (i.e., 3,000) was enrolled in Liberal Arts, followed by the Colleges of Education and Arts & Sciences, which enrolled approximately 2,500 student.  Student enrollment in Engineering and Agriculture was around 1,000 students, and just under 3,000 of the enrolled UGs had not declared their majors at the time of enrollment in fall 2010.

Orangetown State University seems to provide a good deal of financial support to graduate students, as 75% of full-time graduate students were awarded assistantships in fall 2010.  Interestingly, of the approximately 1,700 graduate assistants (GAs) in the university, 55% were TAs.  However, these percentages vary tremendously across colleges.  For example, Liberal Arts provides support to over 400 GAs, with 84% serving as TAs.  Similarly, in Science there were about 150 GAs with 80% serving as TAs.  Conversely, TAs represent smaller percentages in Education (37% of 230 total GAs), Business (32% of 60 total GAs), and Agriculture (21% of 65 total GAs).  Unfortunately, there is no record of how many of TAs are International.

The level of responsibility of TAs varies from being the primary course instructors, to lab instructors, to small group tutors, to only maintaining office hours and grading.  Their remuneration typically includes graduate tuition and a stipend.  Responsibility and stipend level also vary slightly among academic departments.  TAs are typically supported in the same academic department in which they are enrolled as graduate students.

3.3.Participants

The participants were selected through convenience sampling (Dillman, 2000) and included students who met the following criteria: (a) enrolled in UG programs at Orangetown State University, (b) had completed at least one semester of coursework, and (c) majoring in varied disciplines from different colleges.  To access, freshman students who have completed at least a semester of coursework, the survey was administered in eight sections to 124 students of an English core class.  This course is required for most majors, and is typically recommended to be taken the second semester of freshmen year.  A section of an English honors course with 14 students was also surveyed to access students who have been exempt from taking the English core class due to their high ACT scores.  In addition, the survey was administered in upper level UG classes, in order to access juniors and seniors from varied disciplines and colleges, who were likely to have decided on their majors.  For this purpose eleven courses with a total of twenty two sections were selected as per instructors’ permission from the eight colleges of Orangetown University. Two hundred and ninety eight students participated in this survey from these sections.

Initially, instructors of those courses which were requirements for programs conferring the highest number of degrees in Fall 2010 in each of the eight colleges were contacted for permission to administer the survey in their classes.  For example, in the college of business, the program that conferred the highest number of degrees in Fall 2010 was Bachelor of Science degree in management.  A course from this program was selected, which was required by all management majors, typically in junior or sophomore years.  However, it was not possible to get permission from many instructors and so those course instructors were contacted whose courses were required by the second or third highest popular programs in several colleges.

Since the open-ended surveys collected from these participants were analyzed first qualitatively and then quantitatively, this mixed sampling design can be characterized as identical (Onwuegbuzie & Collins, 2007), with the same participants included in both the qualitative and quantitative phases of the study.

3.4. Data Collection

A cross-sectional survey design was used, which implies that the data were collected at one point in time (McMillan, 2000).  The technique for collecting both the quantitative and qualitative data was a self-developed questionnaire, which consisted of 20 questions organized under two broad sections.  The first section of the survey asked questions related to the demographic, background and current educational information of the participants.  The second section of the survey consisted of open-ended questions seeking to understand the participants’ perceptions and experiences in coursework with ITAs.  The survey was finalized after pilot trials, which were conducted within the contexts of courses offered in the Fall of 2011.  The survey was first administered in two different sections of an UG class, consisting of predominantly junior and senior UG students.  After administering the survey, changes were made in the format to provide more clarity.  However, what surfaced in examining the responses was that some questions were too leading and did not seem to elicit true open-ended responses.  For example, the question: What difficulties, if any, did you face in these classes/labs taught by ITAs? Please describe in detail and provide an example, if possible, was changed to: Have you encountered any problems or difficulties in a class taught by ITA. If yes, please explain.  Thus, several questions were rephrased and/or revised to make the questions as neutral as possible.

The second version of the survey was administered to two sections of a different class, which consisted mostly of sophomore and junior UG students.  The student responses from this trial indicated that the questions were more neutral.  Based upon the feedback and responses from the second iteration, minor changes were made, particularly in the instructions to some of the questions and in providing extra space for responses.

In order to determine if the survey captured student perspectives of ITAs, the data were analyzed from all four classes using an analytic coding scheme, which is explained in detail in the data analysis section.  Although there were some minor inconsistencies in some of the responses, it was clear that students did indeed articulate their perceptions of ITAs in multiple ways throughout the different questions.  Yet, participants also did not always answer all questions, which supports the importance of retaining the range of open-ended questions.

One of the researchers conducted the survey, reading aloud a detailed instruction from a script   The survey was introduced as a survey that looks into how UGs feel about ITAs.  The acronym ITA was explained and a definition of what is meant by ITA was provided.

3.5. Data Analysis

The data collected from the survey were analyzed using sequential mixed analysis (SMA) (Onwuegbuzie & Teddlie, 2003; Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998) technique.  In this analysis both the qualitative and quantitative data analysis procedures were conducted in a sequential and iterative manner beginning with quantitative analyses, followed by qualitative analyses that built upon the quantitative analyses, followed by quantitative analyses of the qualitative data.

  1. Results

4.1. Demographics

A total of 436 students responded to the survey.  The participants comprised of a fairly good representation of UGs from all the colleges of Orangetown University.  The percentage of students from each college in the survey is fairly close to the actual percentage of students from each college in the university (Agriculture: 5 %, Applied Sciences and Arts: 16%, Business: 8%, Education: 19%, Engineering: 7%, Liberal arts: 20%, Mass Communication: 5%, Science: 9%, Premajor: 10%).  Similarly, the distribution of students surveyed in terms of class level is somewhat congruent compared to the actual enrollment of UG students in the semester (Freshman: 24%, Sophomore: 18%, Junior: 23%, Senior: 34%) as documented in the Orangetown University’s factbook. The GPA of the majority (76.1%) of students surveyed were in the range of 4.0 – 2.9 which is comparable to the average cumulative GPA of UGs in the university which is 2.79. Approximately 90% of UGs in the survey being under the age of 25 makes it a fair representation of the actual percentage of students in Orangetown University under the age of 25 (88%). The actual percentages of male and female UGs in Orangetown University is 56% and 44% respectively which is fairly close to the percentages of male and female in the survey (47% and 53% respectively). With minority enrollment being around 29 % in Orangetown University, the racial distribution of the students surveyed matches closely with the actual enrollment of students by ethnicity.  About 70 % of the students surveyed was Caucasian, the rest 30% being from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Approximately half of the students surveyed (42%) characterized the area that they grew up most of their lives as rural, the rest categorizing the area of their growing up as either urban (21%) or suburban (40%)

Only about 3% students had languages other than English as their first languages.

4.2.  Academic Studies

For question three of the survey, the participants were asked to indicate if they had determined their majors.  If they responded with “yes,” they were asked to identify their majors, and if they responded with “no,” they were asked to identify what majors they were considering.  Ninety-six percent of the participants indicated that they had decided on a major for their UG studies.  Among the remaining 17 students, 11 students identified the name of the programs in which they were considering, while the remaining 6 did not mention any preferences.  The participants represented a total of 66 majors from all eight colleges that offer UG degrees.

4.2.1. Courses Taught by ITAs

Eighty-five percent of students surveyed reported having one or more classes taught by ITAs.  In response to a closed-ended question (with the option of multiple responses) on how they determined whether the instructor was an ITA or not, a majority (96%) of the students selected, the ITAs’ accents.  In addition, just over half (52%) of the students chose, the instructors’ appearances, 21% selected, the instructors’ dress, and 11% of the students indicated that the ITAs told them that they were internationals.  Approximately, one fourth (27%) of the students surveyed indicated that they had ITAs as instructors in the area of their majors.

When asked to select and/or write down the names of the courses taken that they believed were taught by ITAs, 49 course subjects were reported by students.

The highest frequency of course taught by ITA as reported by the UGs surveyed was Math, as 40.5% of the students who reported having had ITAs as instructors, reported that they took classes in Math that were taught by ITAs.  The second highest course reported to be taught by ITAs was Chemistry, with 23.8% of the students reporting having ITAs; followed by Psychology with 13.8% of the students reporting having had ITAs).

Among the colleges which housed the most courses taught by ITAs as reported by UGs (see Figure 8), College of Liberal Arts (88.6 %) held the first position followed by Science (72.1 %) and Mass Communication (17.0 %).

In an attempt to compare data from the survey with that of the University related to ITAs across the colleges, it was found that there were a wide range of and percentages of graduate assistants and teaching assistants among the colleges.  Moreover, there is no fixed number of courses the UGs need to take in various colleges.  Therefore, it was not possible to compare the survey data with university data.

However, on comparing percentages of ITA taught courses taken by UGs in different colleges, some trends could be identified.  First of all, UGs in all the colleges took courses from the College of Science that they reported were taught by ITAs (ranging from 53 % to 100 %).  On the other hand, UGs comparatively took fewer courses from the College of Agriculture (ranging from 0% to 9%). Secondly, ITAs who taught in the college of Business and Engineering almost exclusively taught UGs from their own colleges (38% and 90% respectively). Finally, consistently high number of ITA taught courses from the Colleges of Science and Liberal Arts were taken by UGs from all the colleges.

Finally, even though relatively even number of UGs from all years, namely, freshman, sophomore, junior, senior had at least one course taught by ITA, the case was not so when UGs’ colleges were considered.  For example, UGs who have had ITA taught classes from the Colleges of Engineering and Business were mostly seniors.  On the other hand, UGs who have had ITA taught classes in the College of Mass Communication were mostly freshmen.

4.3. SMA Exploratory Meta-Themes Findings

A principal component analysis was conducted to determine the number of factors underlying six of the seven themes.  The language theme was excluded from the analysis because a majority of the students (94%) reported language to be a variable in their interaction with ITAs.  As established in the literature review, language is a common perceived barrier in UG-ITA interaction, and the focus of this study was to go more in depth by identifying what other aspects of UG perceptions were meaningful.

This analysis yielded three factors or meta-themes: (a) Perceptions as People, (b) Perceptions as Education, and (c) Perceptions as Relational.  This three-factor solution is presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Summary of Themes and Factor Pattern/Structure Coefficients from Principal Component Analysis (Varimax): Three-Factor Solution

Theme Factor Coefficients
1 2 3
Personal .825 -.163 -.180
My Culture .481 .172 .182
Pedagogy -.353 -.779 .018
Learn -.419 .768 .100
Communication .183 .111 .736
Language-Pedagogy -.159 -.043 .727
% Variance Explained 21.17 21.10 19.10

The themes personal and my culture loaded together creating the meta-theme Perceptions as People, which embodied the notion that UGs focused on personal characteristics as opposed to teaching and learning in their perceptions of ITAs.  In particular, the UGs focused on ITAs personal characteristics both positive and negative.  The focus was also on UGs perception of their own selves and their world, meaning how the UGs viewed their own culture as the norm and conveyed the necessity for ITAs to conform to the UGs American culture.  The second meta-theme, Perceptions as Education, included UGs focus on ITAs as teachers and themselves as learners about ITAs.  However, the two themes (i.e., pedagogy and learn) were negatively related, indicating that UGs who experienced pedagogical difficulties with ITAs were less likely to view themselves as learning about ITAs.  In other words, if students perceived that the difficulties that they faced in an ITA taught class was pedagogy related they tended not to perceive the class as a learning opportunity to learn about ITAs cultures and languages.  Finally, the meta-theme of Perceptions as Relational encompassed the themes language-pedagogy and communication, which are characterized by interactions.  The UGs explicitly established an interactional connection between ITAs linguistics abilities and their teaching abilities and then brought forth communication issues which are essentially comments about interactions between ITAs and UGs.

4.4. SMA Confirmatory Analysis Findings

The canonical discriminant analysis, conducted to determine which of the themes predicted perceptions of ITAs by UG students from different colleges, revealed that the canonical function was statistically significant (F [168, 6.324E4]), p=.023; Canonical Rc1= .265 (Cohen, 1988).  Data pertaining to the canonical root are presented in Table 2. The standardized canonical function coefficients and structure matrix revealed that the meta-themes pedagogical characteristics and communication discriminated UG students’ perception of ITA.

Table 2

Discriminant Analysis: Function 1: Standardized Canonical Discriminant Function and Structure Matrix for Meta-themes Predicted Perceptions of ITAs by UG Students from Different Colleges

Variables Standardized Coefficient Structure Coefficient
Perceptions as People .148 .000
Perceptions as Education .878* .845*
Perceptions as Relational .536* .482*

Note. *Coefficients with effect sizes larger than .3 (Lambert & Durand, 1975).

However, as evident in Table 3, canonical discriminant functions evaluated at group (college) means did not discriminate UGs’ perceptions of ITAs meaningfully among the colleges.  That is, although the College of Applied Sciences and Arts and Pre-majors both had coefficients of effect sizes larger than 0.3 (Lambert & Durand, 1975), these findings did not provide any meaningful ways to understand group membership (i.e., college) based on UGs’ perceptions of ITAs.  Moreover, only 16.0% of the original and cross-validated grouped cases were correctly classified.

Table 3

Function 1 at Group Centroids: Perceptions of ITAs by UG Students from Different Colleges

College Function 1
Agriculture .058
Applied Sciences and Arts .359*
Business -.209
Education .036
Engineering .212
Liberal Art -.108
Mass Communication .203
Science -.093
Pre-Major -.923*

Note. *Coefficients with effect sizes larger than .3 (Lambert & Durand, 1975).

Thus, a canonical correlation was conducted to determine which variables, if any, were important in understanding UGs’ perceptions of ITAs.  The results from this exploratory analysis revealed a statistically significant relationship between the grouping variables and the perception themes. However, within this multivariate relationship, the variable Problem with ITA demonstrated a large function and structure effect size.  Therefore, a canonical discriminant analysis was conducted to determine if the UGs’ perception themes discriminated group membership in UGs indicating a problem or not a problem with courses taught by ITAs.

Although the results indicated that UGs’ perceptions statistically significantly discriminated group membership, (Wilk’s Lambda = .700, df( 6), p <.001), the significant function only accounted for 30% of the between group variability.  However, the cross-validated classification showed that overall 74% of the students were correctly classified.

Analysis of the standardized canonical discriminant function coefficients and structure matrix (Table 4) revealed that Language-Pedagogy and Communication were the two significant predictor themes.

Table 4

Discriminant Analysis: Standardized Canonical Discriminant Function and Structure Matrix of Themes Predicting Perceptions of ITAs by Undergraduate Students who Had or Had Not Encountered Problems with ITAs

  Standardized Canonical Discriminant Function Coefficients Structure Matrix
Perception Theme
Language-Pedagogy .89* .91*
Communication .33* .39*
Learn .23 .19
My Culture .11 .12
Pedagogy .18 .03
Personal .16 -.01
Canonical Discriminant Function (Group Centroids)
No Problem with ITA -.74
Problem with ITA .54

As further demonstrated in the group centroids (and Figure 1), the function better discriminated students who did not indicate having a problem with ITAs than those who did, suggesting that students who did not indicate a problem in courses taught by ITAs, were less likely to articulate perceptions as relational (i.e., language-pedagogy and/or communication).  However, the cross-validated classification showed that overall 74% of the students were correctly classified.

Figure 1.Histogram of UG Students who Reported they Had or Had Not Encountered Problems with ITA.

  1. Discussion

This study offered a more holistic picture of UGs perceptions of ITAs by using the mixed method research. The findings of this study do indeed provide an in depth and unique understanding of UG students’ perceptions of ITAs in relation to previous studies, which can have both personal and institutional implications.

First of all, Constantinides (1987) found that a disproportionately high number of introductory courses in mathematics and natural sciences were assigned to ITAs.  The findings from this study indicate that UGs reported high numbers of courses in these areas, with 40.5% and 23.8% of the students who have had ITAs as instructors reporting that they have had Math and Chemistry courses respectively taught by ITAs.  Similarly, the differences among students in colleges in the number of courses undergraduates report are instructed by ITAs is comparable to previous research (Fox, 1991; Plakans, 1997) with the College of Liberal Arts having the highest percentage of ITAs as reported by students followed by the College of Science, and the College of Agriculture as one of the colleges in which the lowest number of ITAs were reported by students.

UGs’ perceptions of ITAs identified through the qualitative analysis are multi-faceted in nature.  Frequency of six out of seven themes identified indicated that these perceptions were prevalent among the UGs.  The finding that language has the highest frequency in terms of being addressed by students when it comes to perceiving ITAs is consistent with the findings of most existing studies on UGs perceptions of ITAs, which identified inadequate linguistic abilities of ITAs to be the primary reason for communication breakdown in ITA-UG interaction (Bresnahan & Kim, 1993; Hinofotis & Bailey, 1981; Tyler, Jefferie & Davies, 1988; Tyler, 1996).

The meta-theme of Perceptions as Education that was identified in this study is somewhat comparable to the results of some previous research (Bailey, 1984b; Rounds, 1987; Williams et al., 1987; Fox, 1991).  Fox (1991), for example, found that teaching skills is an important contributor to ITA-related concerns where, not only UGs but other stakeholders like course supervisors and native English speaking TAs emphasized such pedagogic issues as repeating and providing examples from daily life.  The pedagogic ideas that the UGs in this study discussed also stressed issues relating to ITAs’ ability to use teaching tools like Blackboard effectively and providing supplementary materials in addition to class lecture.  However, what sets the meta-theme apart from other findings in the literature reviewed so far is the notion that students who perceived pedagogy as a problematic area with ITAs tended not to view interaction with ITAs as a cultural, language and foreign English accent learning experience.  In other words, pedagogical problems were a turn off for UGs to be open to the possibility that UG-ITA interaction could be an intercultural learning experience.

The meta- theme of Perceptions as Relational also appeared to have come up in many previous studies (Fox, 1991; Plakans, 1997; Bailey, 1984b).  This notion, however, was framed quite differently in this study as it highlighted the UGs’ perception of connecting/linking pedagogic difficulty as a consequence of linguistic limitations resulting in communication breakdown.  Previous researchers seemed to have focused more on exploring UGs inclination to take personal responsibility in facilitating communication with ITA.  The notion that communication is related to language-pedagogic issues gets at the reason behind UGs disinterest in facilitating communication.

The meta-theme of Perceptions as People, which embodied the notion that UGs focused on issues outside of teaching and learning in their perceptions of ITAs is reflected in previous research which typically offered a priori perceptions of ITAs from which UGs selected their perceptions about ITAs (Fox, 1991). The brief intervention carried out by Kang et al. (2014) in their study also supports the idea that some perceptions of ITAs is not always related to their language proficiency, but is a reflection of intergroup prejudice and anxiety. But, this meta-theme expands this notion further by articulating what extra- pedagogical issues the UGs focus on when it comes to their perceptions of ITA.  It puts forth the idea that personal characteristics of ITAs and UGs’ selves and their world are crucial in their interaction with ITAs.

Secondly, researchers who found it worthwhile to explore if UGs students’ perceptions of ITAs could differ according to academic discipline and/ or college found that it did differ.  In Fox’s (1991) study, for example, it was found that UGs from the School of Agriculture scored lower in Attitude about ITA (ATITA) than those of students from Schools of Sciences, Liberal Arts and Engineering. ATITA scores of UGs from School of Education were also significantly low than those of Science.  The comparison between the mean ATITA score for students from Liberal Arts also showed a statistically significant difference.  Plakans’ (1997) study, too, revealed similar trends.  Based on the ATITA composite score, UGs in Agriculture had the most negative attitude toward ITAs.  Business students were also significantly different from the most positive group, the UGs from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  However, according to this study, the students’ perceptions of ITAs, though statistically significant in terms of the colleges, was discriminated among Pre-majors and College of Applied Sciences & Arts and the rest of the colleges.  In other words, the discriminant analysis did not yield any meaningful discrimination when it came to analyzing students’ perceptions of ITAs according to students’ colleges.

Further analysis, however, revealed that depending on whether students had experienced problem with ITAs or not, the Perception as Relational meta-theme discriminated UG students’ perceptions of ITA.  That is, if a student reported to have had problem with ITA, the student tended to perceive that language barrier effected pedagogy causing communication breakdown.  In other words, having problems with ITA inclined students to think deeply about why they were experiencing problem with ITA and consequently connecting language barrier to pedagogy and communication.  The literature review suggested that previous researchers considered UGs having problem with ITA as a given and conducted their studies by either providing a priori perceptions of ITAs from which UGs selected their perceptions about ITAs or by investigating kinds of problems UGs  had with ITAs, not exploring whether students indeed had or had not experienced problems with ITAs.  Thus, the finding of this study suggests that UGs perceptions of ITA tend to be more meaningful, if it is on the basis of UGs’ experience as opposed to which college the UGs are from.

  1. Implications

The current study thus confirms the need to focus on developing ITAs linguistic ability to improve ITA- UG interaction.  However, since the UGs who have had problems with ITA explicitly related language to pedagogy, ITA educators need to focus on pedagogic development of ITAs as well.  That is, in addition to screening ITAs solely on the basis of their language ability and providing only language development courses and workshops, ITA educators should equally focus on developing ITAs’ pedagogic and communication abilities.

First of all, the screening procedure should be expanded to include pedagogic and communicative abilities of ITAs in addition to test their speaking skills and presentation skills.  That is, the screening should test ITAs language abilities in relation to their communicative and pedagogic abilities. According to the legislation and university policy of Orangetown University as stated on the Graduate Catalog and International Admissions web pages, the ITAs like all international graduate students are required to have a certain minimum score in standardized tests like TOEFL and IELTS to get admitted to the university.  Additional testing is then conducted by the second language acquisition center if an international graduate assistant is assigned teaching responsibility.  The purpose of this test is to assess ITA’s oral proficiency. Although, there is no reference to assessing the teaching ability of the ITAs on the score sheet, members of the testing team often focus on teaching strategy (Ernst, 2008).  The university should revise its policy to integrate assessment of teaching abilities of ITAs with the assessment of their oral proficiency in a systematic and consistent manner.

Secondly, the ITA development courses or programs should also focus equally on linguistic, communicative and pedagogic skills of ITAs.  The graduate school at the Orangetown University typically holds a one-day orientation and sponsors a semester- long workshop and two-week intensive accent reduction class to support ITAs with their oral proficiency in their first semester (Ernst, 2008).  The graduate school should offer courses that are more integrated in helping ITAs develop both their oral and pedagogic skills.

Some departments in the Orangetown University supplement the graduate school ITA training program with in-house training (Ernst, 2008).  However, this study suggests that rather than having departmental or college level ITA training, a university wide ITA development program could prove more effective as long as the program places equal focus on oral proficiency and pedagogy.

Thirdly, since the UGs who have had problems with ITA tended to focus on communicative breakdown among UGs and ITAs, an effective step could be to involve UGs in the ITA development activities. As Staples et al. (2014) and Kang et al. (2015) confirmed UGs’ perceptions of ITAs’ speech and instructional competence could be improved through structured contact, the UGs could participate in workshops, and in programs which pair up UGs and ITAs for casual conversation (Fox, 1991).

Information about communicating with ITAs could also be provided into brochures for UGs and into freshman orientation programs (Abraham, et al., n.d.; vom Saal, n.d.). Since, UGs are the most direct stakeholders when it comes to ITAs’ performance, UGs could be involved in the assessment of ITAs as well. vom Saal (1987) suggests developing an instrument or technique for systematic assessment of ITAs by UGs a few weeks into the semester. This would enable the course supervisor to address any problematic situation early in the semester.

Finally, as the study finds that UGs perceptions are often based on non-pedagogical aspects of UG-ITA interaction, they need to explore intercultural issues more widely in the foundation courses that are requisite for all UGs. The three meta-themes of Perceptions as People, Perceptions as Education and Perceptions as Relational could be potential topics around which the curriculum could be developed.  Many UGs voiced their positive perceptions of ITAs and openness and willingness to learn about other cultures. The UGs acknowledged the scholarship and learning opportunity in being by ITAs. By providing UGs the opportunity to learn about and address and share their views on intercultural issues in those foundation courses, UGs could also become better prepared to attend and make full utilization of classes taught by ITAs.

Acknowledgements

I am deeply indebted to Dr. Marla Mallette and Dr. Anthony Onweubuzie for their assistance in analyzing the data.

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