Graduate Teaching Assistants Impact Student Motivation and Engagement in Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences

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Journal of Research in Science Teaching

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The drive to broaden equitable access to undergraduate research experiences has catalyzed the development and implementation of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). Biology education has prioritized embedding CUREs in introductory labs, which are frequently taught by graduate teaching assistants (GTAs). Thus, a CURE GTA is expected not only to teach but also to support novice student researchers. We know little about how GTAs perform as research mentors in a CURE, or how the quality of their mentorship and support impacts undergraduate students. To address this gap in knowledge, we conducted a phenomenological study of an introductory biology CURE, interviewing 25 undergraduate students taught by nine different GTAs at a single institution. We used self-determination theory to guide our exploration of how students' autonomous motivation to engage in a CURE is impacted by perceptions of GTA support. We found that highly motivated students were more likely to experience factors hypothesized to optimize motivation in the CURE, and to perceive that their GTA was highly supportive of these elements. Students with lower motivation were less likely to report engaging in fundamental elements of research offered in a CURE. Our findings suggest that GTAs directly impact students' motivation, which can, in turn, influence whether students perceive receiving the full research experience as intended in a CURE. We contend that practitioners who coordinate CUREs led by GTAs should therefore offer curated training that emphasizes supporting students' autonomous motivation in the course and engagement in the research. Our work suggests that GTAs may differ in their capacity to provide students with the support they need to receive and benefit from certain pedagogical practices. Future work assessing innovative approaches in undergraduate biology laboratory courses should continue to investigate potenital differential outcomes for students taught by GTAs.


© 2023 National Association for Research in Science Teaching

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