An exploratory study of teaching assistants’ motivation for inquiry-based teaching in an undergraduate laboratory context

Lindsay B. Wheeler *a, Jennifer L. Chiu a, Jennifer L. Maeng a and Randy L. Bell b
aUniversity of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. E-mail:
bOregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA

Received 27th June 2018 , Accepted 23rd July 2018

First published on 31st July 2018

Undergraduate science courses typically rely on teaching assistants (TAs) to teach introductory laboratory classes. However little research investigates how to support TAs to implement reform-based teaching in undergraduate settings, and in particular, what factors may influence TAs’ motivation to teach within reform-based instructional contexts. This qualitative study used an Expectancy-Value Theory (EVT) framework of motivation to explore: (1) TAs’ expectancy beliefs and subjective values of project-based inquiry laboratory contexts; (2) relationships among expectancy and subjective value of teaching and reported effort in teaching, and (3) factors (e.g., teaching beliefs, prior teaching and instructional experiences) that may relate to TAs’ motivation for teaching. Data sources included open-ended surveys and interviews of six purposefully selected TAs. Results revealed that TAs held varied views on their ability to be successful and their perceived value of teaching in an inquiry-based laboratory context. TAs’ beliefs and subjective value for teaching appeared to be informed by TAs’ prior experiences with inquiry and interactions with students. Results provide insight into what may motivate TAs to teach within inquiry-based undergraduate science settings. Results underscore the importance of reform-based instruction in undergraduate settings.

College science departments are beginning to integrate reform-based practices such as problem-based learning, cooperative learning, and inquiry instruction into the undergraduate science curriculum (National Research Council [NRC], 2000; Cooper, 2010). Reform-based science teaching is grounded in a constructivist framework, characterized by inquiry and discourse within a diverse and respectful community that encourages all students’ participation in the construction of knowledge (Piburn and Sawada, 2000; NGSS, 2013). Research illustrates reform-based laboratory curricula can improve students’ ability to engage in scientific practices and understanding of content knowledge (e.g., Suits, 2004; Lord and Orkwiszewski, 2006; Xu and Talanquer, 2012). Instructors for introductory science laboratory courses are often teaching assistants (TAs), typically first year graduate students with no previous teaching experience and are often required to teach as part of their graduate school experience (e.g., Kendall and Schussler, 2013). These TAs are responsible for implementing laboratory curricula and are integral to the success of student learning in these contexts. Thus, TAs are an essential component of reform efforts in higher education and have the potential to impact the quality of science education for undergraduate students (Gardner and Jones, 2011; Kendall and Schussler, 2013). A body of literature seeks to better understand TAs within inquiry-based laboratory contexts (e.g., Rushton et al., 2011; Sandi-Urena et al., 2011). However, few studies provide an in-depth examination of the factors that impact TAs’ motivation to teach. The purpose of this qualitative study is to characterize TAs’ motivation for teaching and understand factors that may influence the effort they put forth to teach in ways that align within a project-based, guided inquiry (PBGI) general chemistry laboratory curriculum.

Laboratory curriculum

Instead of deductive, traditional laboratory methods where students replicate existing theory or methods, reform-based approaches emphasize student-centered, inductive approaches (Prince and Felder, 2006). In reform-based curricula, the instructor takes on the role of facilitator of student learning rather than disseminator of information. Different successful reform-based instructional approaches to undergraduate laboratory courses include inquiry-based and project-based methods (Domin, 1999; Prince and Felder, 2006). Inquiry-based labs involve students drawing justifiable conclusions to answer a research question through the systematic analysis of data (e.g., Eastwell, 2009). The instructor supports students’ active involvement in learning through analyzing and drawing conclusions from data, typically with some agency over either the question, procedures, or solution (e.g., Herron, 1971). In a guided inquiry approach, the structure of the inquiry-based course that served as the context of the present study, students are provided a research question to study. The students then take on the responsibility for determining what and how to go about data collection, analysis, and drawing evidence-based conclusions (Bell et al., 2005). The instructor takes on a support role to help students meaningfully engage in the inquiry process. Similar to inquiry-based approaches, project-based approaches involve students actively working on a real-world challenge where they produce some kind of end product or presentation (e.g., Krajcik and Blumenfeld, 2006).

The research on both guided inquiry and project-based curricula in higher education demonstrate their effectiveness in supporting student outcomes (e.g., Díaz-Vázquez et al., 2012; Stefanou et al., 2013). For example, Díaz-Vázquez et al. (2012) found students enrolled in a guided inquiry introductory chemistry lab had significantly higher practical lab skill scores compared to students enrolled in a traditional lab. In another study, Stefanou and colleagues (2013) found that students enrolled in project-based engineering courses became more motivated, metacognitive, and autonomous across the semester. Thus, this study used a project-based, guided inquiry (PBGI) approach to reform-based laboratory instruction. In the PBGI curriculum, students were given an overall challenge to address by their instructors and had to generate the procedures and solutions to solve the challenge themselves. For example, in one project students were challenged to design soluble calcium supplements for the elderly and presented their designs to their instructors and peers. Students could use a variety of different methods and procedures, and each student group could come up with a unique solution to the challenge. TA instructors supported student development of procedures, data collection, analysis and interpretation, and connection to the chemistry concepts. Similar to the research on guided inquiry and project-based curricula, our prior research suggests that students have significant learning gains in a PBGI general chemistry laboratory course (Wheeler et al., 2017).

Factors influencing TAs’ teaching practice

Although research documents the benefits of guided inquiry, project-based, and PBGI approaches on student learning, research also highlights challenges and difficulties instructors face when trying to implement reform-based approaches. In particular, studies that specifically examine TAs’ laboratory teaching practices find that TAs’ teaching beliefs, prior teaching and research experience, and confidence influence their instruction (e.g., Golde and Dore, 2001; Volkmann and Zgagacz, 2004). For example, TAs may have beliefs that science is a body of knowledge to be transmitted to students (Volkmann and Zgagacz, 2004), or that the lab is a place for students to practice procedural skills and not explore scientific concepts (e.g., Luft et al., 2004). Even if TAs’ report teaching beliefs aligned with reform-based instruction, their beliefs about teaching may not align with their observed practice. TAs may state that instructors should facilitate or guide student-centered instruction, but their practice is largely instructor-led (e.g., Addy and Blanchard, 2010). These studies suggest that TAs’ beliefs can influence enactment of reform-based instruction.

TAs’ prior experiences with teaching, inquiry, and research may impact their beliefs and subsequently their performance (e.g., French and Russell, 2002; Wheeler et al., 2016; Wheeler et al., 2017). A study of chemistry TAs in an inquiry-based laboratory context demonstrated that TAs with more research experience held more traditional beliefs (Wheeler et al., 2016). In an inquiry-based biology laboratory context, TAs with more teaching experience held more reform-based teaching beliefs (French and Russell, 2002). Further, in a study of TAs in an inquiry-based general chemistry laboratory, TAs with inquiry-based prior experiences appeared to inform their teaching beliefs (Wheeler et al., 2017). Given the importance of beliefs on teaching practices, understanding TAs’ prior experiences may inform what and how they are supported in teaching within a reform-based context. Similarly, TAs’ confidence in their teaching can influence reform-based practice. Studies reveal that TAs’ confidence in their teaching may not align with their teaching ability (e.g., Cho et al., 2010). Studies also demonstrate that TAs with less confidence in their teaching are less likely to use inquiry-based practices (e.g., Golde and Dore, 2001; Bond-Robinson and Bernard Rodriques, 2006). Thus, confidence in teaching, particularly for reform-based contexts, may play an important role in their instructional practices.

TAs also face a multitude of constraints and barriers to developing as teachers. Challenges include: (1) TAs may not desire an academic career and do not see the importance of engaging in teaching, (2) TAs perceive a lack of power to impact teaching and student learning, and (3) TAs have limited time with the multiple responsibilities as a graduate student (e.g., Luft et al., 2004; Sandi-Urena and Gatlin, 2013). In addition, TAs must put forth effort in order to teach, particularly when they are teaching within a reform-based context. Considering the potential importance of TAs to student learning (e.g., Narayan, 2010) and the variation in instruction for TAs within a single laboratory course (Velasco et al., 2016), it is not enough to examine TAs’ teaching practice. We must also seek to understand how to motivate TAs to teach in ways that align with reform-based settings.

Motivation to teach

Although studies describe TAs’ learning to teach (Addy and Blanchard, 2010), how they learn to teach (Calkins and Kelley, 2005), and their development as they teach (Sandi-Urena et al., 2011), very few, if any studies assess TAs’ motivation to teach. Further, motivation has typically been assessed through Likert scale questionnaires (e.g., Pintrich et al., 1993), which limits the ability to explore in-depth the ways in which motivation may relate to other factors that influence teaching. This exploratory study investigates what factors may relate to TAs' motivation to teach in reform-based settings.

Motivation, or the “internal state that activates, guides, and maintains behavior” (Green, 2002, p. 989), is a key predictor of the effort individuals put forth to learn and the persistence to continue learning when faced with challenges (e.g., Wigfield and Eccles, 2000; Palmer, 2005). Thus, TAs’ motivation to teach is a key predictor of the effort they will put forth in teaching. This is particularly important given the context of graduate school in the sciences where TAs’ goals may be largely research-focused instead of teaching-focused. So what, if anything, can motivate TAs to teach in ways that align with reform-based methods?

This study uses an expectancy-value (EVT) framework to conceptualize TAs motivation to teach (Wigfield and Eccles, 2000). In EVT, there are two main motivation constructs: (1) expectancy – the belief in one's ability to be successful on a task, and (2) subjective value – the perceived importance of that task. According to Wigfield and Eccles (2000), subjective value can be separated into four different components; attainment (e.g., importance of doing well on task), intrinsic (e.g., enjoyment of doing task), utility (e.g., future usefulness of task), and cost (e.g., effort needed to complete task). It is important to note that in the EVT motivation framework, both expectancy and value components are requisite for effort. So if an individual does not believe they will be successful on a task, even if they see value in the task, they will not put forth effort on the task. Alternatively, if an individual finds value but does not believe they will be successful, they will not put forth effort. EVT also posits that previous achievement-related experiences can influence an individual's perception of the task, and thus can influence both the expectation of success and subjective task value of the task.

Using an EVT framework, for TAs to be motivated to teach in a PBGI laboratory curriculum, they must believe they can be successful in teaching within the context and they must find teaching through PBGI valuable. Without these two components, TAs may not put forth the effort to teach in ways that align with expectations of a PBGI laboratory. For example, from an EVT perspective, TAs may have high expectancy of their ability to teach in PBGI settings, but may have low attainment value or utility value of PBGI teaching due to research-focused career goals. This low attainment and/or utility value may lead to decreased motivation to teach with PBGI methods. In addition, prior experiences with teaching or reform-based instruction may influence TAs’ teaching beliefs, that can influence ability beliefs and/or utility value of PBGI instruction. For example, TAs who have prior experience with project-based or inquiry approaches as either a teacher or student may hold positive beliefs about reform-based teaching, and thus perceive that they can be successful in teaching through PBGI. Conversely, TAs who have not had reform-based teaching or instructional experiences may have more traditional beliefs about teaching. They may not be as confident in their ability to teach in PBGI settings and/or see the utility of PBGI teaching, and thus may not be as motivated to put forth effort in teaching.


In summary, the research literature suggests the relationship between the laboratory curriculum, factors impacting TAs’ teaching practice, and TAs’ teaching practice, is complex. TAs’ prior experiences, teaching beliefs, and teaching confidence can inform the ways in which they teach and prioritize teaching. We argue that investigating what motivates TAs to teach is especially important given that TAs have potentially competing goals for their educational experience that may or may not include teaching. This paper adds to the TA literature and extends research on motivation by using an EVT lens to understand TAs’ motivation to teach within reform-based contexts (Fig. 1). The research questions guiding this exploratory study were: (1) What were TAs’ expectancy beliefs and subjective value of teaching in a PBGI laboratory context? (2) How, if at all, did TAs’ expectancy and subjective value of teaching relate to their reported effort in teaching? and (3) What factors (e.g., prior teaching, teaching beliefs, instructional experiences) may relate to TAs’ motivation for teaching?
image file: c8rp00157j-f1.tif
Fig. 1 Relationship between EVT and TA characteristics adapted from Wigfield and Eccles (2000).



This study was part of a larger study on TAs within the PBGI general chemistry laboratory course (Wheeler et al., 2017). Each semester, approximately 1400 students enroll in the introductory laboratory course for engineers (n = ∼500) and non-engineers (n = ∼900). Around 30 TAs, split across the engineering and non-engineering courses, are the primary instructor for two to four laboratory sections, each section containing a maximum of 24 students. The faculty instructor for the course manages the laboratory and the TAs but does not directly teach the students.
Laboratory curriculum. In the PBGI general chemistry laboratory, students worked in collaborative groups to solve a real world problem over time by developing, implementing, and interpreting data. In the course, students participated in a 3.5 hour lab period once a week for twelve weeks with the same TA as their instructor. The TAs role was to facilitate student construction of knowledge and was defined as: (1) interacting with students as a facilitator, (2) supporting students acting as scientists, (3) maintaining safety in the lab, (4) helping students with lab techniques, (5) grading student work, (6) fostering student discussions through the use of questioning, and (7) encouraging students to try multiple experimental methods to solve each problem. Students completed a total of four projects with the support of their TA. For each project, students were provided an overarching scientific research question within a real world context. For example, in one project students developed a method for creating a soluble calcium supplement for the elderly and experimentally determined the concentration of calcium in that supplement.
TA professional development. As part of their teaching assignment, TAs participated in a professional development (PD) program to support their teaching within an PBGI context. The PD began with a week-long workshop (∼25 contact hours) followed by 14 weekly follow-up meetings (∼20 contact hours). The PD included the following components: TAs completing experiments, PD implementers modeling and debriefing about appropriate facilitative interactions, TA practice facilitating interactions, reading and discussing learning research, reflecting on teaching, observing peers teaching, and TAs leading discussions on lab scenarios (see Wheeler et al., 2015, 2016 for more details). Throughout the PD, TAs were asked to consider the importance of teaching and activities were structured in a way to help TAs feel successful in teaching through PBGI methods. For example, as part of the discussion on learning, TAs discussed the importance of their role as facilitator in students’ construction of knowledge. TAs were also asked to reflect on what they were most excited about in teaching. One objective of these two activities was to help TAs value reform-based teaching. The process of modeling and debriefing provided TAs with an idea of what facilitative interactions within a PBGI laboratory should look like. Additionally, TAs engaged in group discussions and peer observations during the semester to provide feedback and support as they were teaching. The modeling with debrief, group discussions, and peer observations aimed to create an environment in which TAs perceived they could be successful teaching with a PBGI approach.


Participants included six TAs from the larger sample of TAs teaching the introductory chemistry lab course for non-engineers (n = 16). We obtained IRB approval for the study, and TAs voluntarily consented to participate in the research. These six TAs were purposefully selected based on their previous teaching experiences, which prior research suggested was important in TAs’ perceptions of teaching and PD (Wheeler et al., 2015). Selected TAs included those with little/no teaching experience, extensive teaching experience, and TAs who had previously taught the general chemistry lab the previous year. All TAs were graduate students with prior bachelor's degrees in chemistry and were pursuing a PhD in chemistry (Table 1). The TAs were required to teach either as part of the first-year experience or as a second-year graduate student when their advisor did not have research funding.
Table 1 Overview of TA demographics
TA Age Ethnicity Year in school Prior teaching experience Prior research experience Self-reported motivation for PhD program (pre-survey) Self-reported career path (pre-survey)
Note: pseudonyms used for participants throughout.
Jack 23 Caucasian 1st year None 1 year undergrad “I slowly found myself more interested in solving new medical and scientific issues through research rather than simply being a clinician” Academic or industry research
Jeremy 22 Caucasian 1st year Undergrad TA 1 summer “I just liked chemistry” Academia
Ellen 25 Other 1st year Undergrad TA 2 year full-time lab tech “There's a lot of morons in the world, and being undeniably better-educated might get them to shut up” Non-academic research
Stephanie 23 Caucasian 2nd year PBGI TA 1 year graduate “Previous chemistry experiences throughout school” No response
Martha 25 Caucasian 2nd year PBGI TA 2 year full-time lab tech + 1 year graduate “I wanted to do chemistry research” Industry research
Lawrence 25 Caucasian 1st year Chem teacher 1 year undergrad + 1 summer “I love chemistry and its fundamental explanations of the world around us. I admire the utility of it in solving problems that have far reaching implications” Industry research, then teach

Data sources

Data sources included open-ended surveys and interviews that were collected as part of a larger study. The survey questions were developed and revised from a previous study on TAs (Harwood et al., 2006; Wheeler et al., 2016), and the purpose of the survey was to assess TAs' perception of teaching, confidence in teaching, and their experiences interacting with students. The survey included three open-ended questions about teaching beliefs and 10 questions about demographics and prior experiences (Appendix A, ESI). Prior experiences included prior teaching and research experience while demographic information included age, ethnicity, gender, prior degrees, and year in program. The survey was administered to all TAs after the week-long PD at the beginning and end of the semester.

TAs were interviewed at the beginning (interview 1) and end (interview 2) of the semester. The purpose of the ∼30 minute interview was to understand TAs’ teaching perceptions and confidence in teaching as well as probe further into prior experiences related to teaching, inquiry, and research (Appendix B, ESI). The interview questions originated from the Teaching Belief Instrument (TBI) developed by Luft and Roehrig (2007) for K-12 teachers, subsequently modified for use with TAs (Addy and Blanchard, 2010).

Data analysis

The open-ended survey responses and interview data were analyzed using analytic induction (Erickson, 1986). The inductive coding began with a holistic reading of the interview and survey data. As the data were read, recurring themes were identified and used as initial coding categories. From this initial reading and inductive coding of the data, themes emerged around motivation. Thus, we decided to apply an EVT framework (e.g., Palmer, 2005) to inform coding of the data in this study. After creating a new codebook using expanded and collapsed categories for each construct (e.g., expectancy beliefs, and subjective value), all data was recoded and reanalyzed. Below we describe the specific ways in which the data were analyzed related to TA motivation and TA beliefs.
Expectancy beliefs and subjective value coding. Inductive categories about TAs’ perceived ability to teach arose from the qualitative data and were developed into a coding rubric using confirming and disconfirming evidence (Appendix C, ESI). The three categories related to teaching ability beliefs included content, facilitation, and interacting with students. Inductive coding revealed three levels of confidence for each of these three categories: “confident,” “reservations,” and “not-confident.” For example, TAs received a “reservations” code for content if they revealed an area of content they were unsure about that appeared to influence their interactions with students. All data were coded for confidence using the rubric. After rereading the data, reviewing the motivation literature, memoing, and discussing the coding between researchers, confidence coding was collapsed into ‘high expectancy beliefs’ and ‘low expectancy beliefs’. This allowed for a clearer comparison of expectancy beliefs to teaching beliefs and value for this small sample. TAs whose interview and survey data were coded as confident were categorized as having high expectancy beliefs, while TAs whose data were coded as reservations or not confident were categorized as having low expectancy beliefs.

Inductive coding of the data revealed TAs only discussed intrinsic value (one of the four sub-components of the subjective value component of motivation) for teaching in a PBGI context. Thus, confirming and disconfirming evidence was used to define this category. The final decisions about individual TAs’ categorization into high subjective value were determined by the majority of an individual's survey and interview data emulating the category. Any data that may contradict a high subjective value moved the TA into a low subjective value category. For example, a TA statement of “I don't really like teaching that much so no. I mean there's a couple instances where I was happy doing that, but not really my thing”, demonstrated that they perceive some intrinsic value in teaching. However, the explicit statement that they don’t enjoy teaching moved this TA into a low intrinsic value category. Because no other value was discussed by this TA, they were categorized into low subjective value. Any discrepancies in or omissions from the TA's individual data are discussed in the Results section below.

Teaching beliefs coding.. Teaching beliefs were identified in the data set, leading to inductively developed teaching belief categories. These categories were then expanded and collapsed as more data were added. For example, a code for “reform-based teaching beliefs” was combined with “traditional teaching beliefs” and was termed “beliefs about teaching”. Teaching beliefs were then coded as passive, traditional, instructive, transitional, responsive, or reform-based by using a coding scheme modified from Luft and Roehrig (2007). To create the modified rubric, additional examples relevant to TA instruction and based on the inductive coding categories were added to Luft and Roehrig's (2007) beliefs rubric for clarity. For example, TAs’ beliefs that students learn best when applying lecture concepts to lab was not captured in the rubric. This belief was added to the rubric as a transitional belief about learning. The inductive coding also suggested some participants had negative/passive beliefs about teaching and learning, so an additional level of beliefs, termed ‘Passive’, was added to the five beliefs in the original rubric. Finally, beliefs about reform-based instruction were added to the rubric, and characteristics/examples from the initial coding scheme were included in the rubric for the six levels of beliefs (Appendix D, ESI). This rubric was used to code the entire data set, and participants could receive multiple codes for each category. For example, in the interview, TAs’ multiple discussions of their role may reveal both traditional and responsive beliefs. Rather than looking for an instructor teaching belief profile over time (Luft and Roehrig, 2007; Mattheis and Jensen, 2014) we were exploring beliefs as it related to motivation for teaching. Thus we averaged the belief codes for each participant and collapsed down the continuum for clarity into more traditional (including passive, transitional, and instructive averaged coding) and more reform-based (including transitional, responsive, and reform-based). This collapsing allowed for comparison of more traditional and more reform-based beliefs with participants high or low expectancy and value components of motivation.

Assertions were created by combining the memos and codes. Analysis ended when the larger themes fully represented the data and the assertions were unchanged as additional confirming/disconfirming evidence was added. A 33% subset of data was read by a second researcher and coded using the coding rubrics described below. The two researchers had 75% agreement, with all disagreements being resolved upon discussion. The assertions and supporting evidence were then reviewed by all researchers, with the final assertions being revised by the research team. There were no changes found in coding or themes by participants over time (before/after the semester teaching), thus we report on the data holistically.

Researcher as instrument

Implementation of the TA PD and data analysis was led by Researcher A, so an understanding of how these potentially conflicting positions were addressed is warranted. As the implementer, Researcher A was responsible for curriculum development and TA training and has a close working relationship with the course and participants. This relationship was beneficial to the study for two reasons. First, Researcher A was able to provide participants with a reform-based curriculum developed from the literature and had the experience and knowledge to effectively support them in implementing the curriculum. Second, Researcher A had valuable insight into participants’ experience during the training that ensured the meaning-making reported in this study reflected participants’ relative views. Due to Researcher A's role in development of the curriculum, Researcher A understood references made in audiotaped interviews that an outside researcher might not understand.

The dual role of Researcher A also had the potential to introduce bias into the study for two reasons. First, the participants may have behaved in ways they thought Researcher A wanted. Second, Researcher A may have interpreted data in ways that aligned with expectations. These potential biases were addressed in multiple ways throughout the study. To address potential bias in data collection, participants were recruited for participation and interviewed by Researcher C and other researchers not involved in the implementation. This ensured the TAs perceived participation as voluntary and the TA responses were representative of their actual experience. Potential bias in interpretation of the data was addressed by having the entire research team discuss the coding process. This improved the reliability of the conclusions drawn from the data and reduced the potential for bias in data interpretation. Researcher C coded a subset of the data, and researchers B, C, and D provided feedback on the assertions to ensure the assertions reflected the data. A TA also provided a member-check of interpretations of the data. This TA read over the results and discussed the accuracy of the researchers’ understanding of participants’ experiences. Finally, Researcher A also personally reflected on and discussed her role as implementer and researcher with other members of the research team, which facilitated awareness of her own bias.


RQ1: What were TAs’ expectancy beliefs and subjective value of teaching in a PBGI laboratory context?

Interview and survey data for the TAs revealed TAs held varied views on their ability to be a successful teacher (e.g., expectancy belief) and their perceived value of teaching (e.g., subjective value) in a PBGI context. TAs’ expectancy beliefs related to their perceived ability to: (1) support student learning within the process of inquiry and (2) teach students chemistry concepts. TAs’ subjective value of teaching focused on their perceptions of teaching as an enjoyable practice.
Expectancy beliefs. TAs’ expectancy beliefs related to perceptions of their ability to facilitate PBGI labs and effectively teach students content knowledge.
Facilitating student learning in PBGI labs. Ellen, Martha, and Jeremy had low expectancy beliefs related to facilitating student learning through the process of inquiry, particularly when faced with challenging situations. For example, Ellen described her lack of confidence in guiding students using questioning, “I'm worried about asking the questions and having them go off and use the ideal gas law to measure volume. It's just hard to get them to a reasonable point” (Interview 1). She did not feel confident that she could use questioning in a way that would help students and felt she might ask questions that would suggest to students that they use a conceptually inaccurate idea (i.e., measuring a liquid volume using gaseous properties) to develop a procedure. Martha similarly explained why she did not always feel confident when guiding students:

“I guess working with students that really have absolutely no idea what's going on and I exhaust myself with coming up with different ways to approach the problem for them and then they still don't get it. I really don't know what to do in that situation.” (Interview 1)

Martha's low expectancy beliefs were related to difficult situations where she did not feel she had the skills needed to guide students through inquiry practices. Jeremy similarly struggled with teaching when a challenging situation arose.

Conversely, Jack, Stephanie, Lawrence expressed high expectancy beliefs about teaching through inquiry. For example, Stephanie stated feeling confident in being able to facilitate student learning through inquiry:

“I'm more confident this year about not giving them the answer. I think I was pretty easy last year and sometimes I wouldn't know how to ask them many more questions to get them there, so I would just tell them the answer. This year, I'm a little tougher and I don't tell them the answers and I'll just yeah, I'll keep asking them questions.” (Interview 1)

Lawrence also had high expectancy beliefs related to facilitating student learning through PBGI, stating, “I feel pretty confident in formulating questions on my feet as we go round, despite not being able to necessarily anticipate them” (Interview 1).

Confidence with chemistry concepts. TAs’ expectancy beliefs also stemmed from their confidence in their own chemistry concepts and their perceptions of being able to teach students chemistry. Almost all of the TAs had high expectancy beliefs related to their own content knowledge as they perceived the topics to be basic and straightforward. When asked about what he was most confident about in his teaching, Jack indicated, “I feel pretty comfortable with the content knowledge. I don't feel too terribly concerned that they'll pop up with a question that I'm just completely lost on” (Interview 1). Stephanie similarly stated “I think I'm pretty confident with my content knowledge. We went through glassware, identifying an unknown, volatile liquid. Yeah, they're all … calcium supplement, solubility. They're all pretty basic content concepts” (Interview 2). Both Jack and Stephanie perceived they had more content knowledge than their students and felt confident that there was not a topic related to general chemistry that they would not have some understanding of. These views were mirrored by Jeremy, Lawrence, and Martha.

Ellen was the only TA who had lower expectancy beliefs related to teaching chemistry content. When asked what she was confident about at the end of the semester, Ellen indicated, “Content knowledge. It's gen chem. It made me feel smart and powerful” (Interview 2). However, she was least confident in translating her perceived extensive content knowledge into her teaching. When asked what she was least confident about, she stated:

“Explaining concepts. You learn it as a gen chem student, and then seven years later you know it backwards and forwards, and people you interact with on a daily basis know it backwards and forwards. You never have to explain it and you never have to dumb it down.” (Interview 2)

Her lack of confidence related to taking what she considered to be her extensive content knowledge and breaking it down into more simple components for students to learn the material.

Subjective value. TAs’ perception of the value of teaching students through PBGI focused on the enjoyment of teaching (e.g., intrinsic value). There was no indication that TAs valued teaching because they perceived it to be important in their future (e.g., utility value), they felt the time needed to learn how to teach was valuable (e.g., cost value), or they held a desire to do well in teaching (e.g., attainment value).
Intrinsic value of learning to teach. The intrinsic value of teaching related to TAs’ enjoyment in supporting students in their learning and enjoyment in interacting with students. Stephanie, Lawrence, Jack, Martha, and Ellen all had high intrinsic value for teaching. For example, Stephanie found value in teaching with PBGI, stating:

“I enjoy implementing [guided inquiry] in the lab because on top of some content that they pick up in the labs, I also think they pick up good problem solving skills and other skills that are going to be important to life and their success in the sciences. I don't think they get any less content from the labs than they would like a normal cookbook lab when they're just mindlessly going through it.” (Interview 2)

She perceived teaching as enjoyable because the structure of the course was conducive to facilitating student learning of content knowledge, problem solving, and other skills that she perceived as useful for students in the future. Similarly, Lawrence also valued teaching because he valued how it would help his students, indicating:

“I do enjoy coming up with question to ask and when you know that you have a good sense of exactly what they're struggling with, and you have a question that is going to hit right at the heart of that because you know that it's going to help them if they can get through the question.” (Interview 1)

He enjoyed being able to use his questioning skills to help students as they struggled in lab and perceived this as valuable in that it would benefit students.

Jack enjoyed teaching not only because it benefited the students but also because he appreciated the interactions he had with students. When asked what he liked most about teaching, Jack responded, “I liked having the productive conversations with the students and seeing as they kind of learned new things over the semester…I enjoyed building that relationship with all my students over time” (Interview 2). Ellen similarly valued teaching for the interactions with the students and particularly enjoyed student presentations, stating:

“Those were fun. They would come in, they would do their five minute presentation. Do you have questions? Nobody would ever have questions so I would ask questions just to be that kid. Ask questions, and then discussions afterwards actually went pretty well. It was very useful in seeing who got the concepts and who didn't, who understood what was going on.” (Interview 2).

She perceived value in teaching because it allowed her the opportunity to ask students challenging questions and gauge which students were understanding these ideas. It was through these interactions, similar to Jack, that Ellen found enjoyment in teaching.

Conversely Jeremy was the only TA who explicitly stated he did not enjoy teaching, commenting: “I don't really like teaching that much so no. I mean there's a couple instances where I was happy doing that, but not really my thing” (Interview 2). He clearly did not perceive intrinsic value in teaching, despite occasional enjoyable interactions with students. Martha was the only TA who did not explicitly discuss anything related to subjective value, or lack thereof, about teaching.

RQ2: How, if at all, did TAs’ expectancy and subjective value of teaching relate to their reported effort in learning how to teach?

TAs were split on the effort they put forth in their teaching as it related to interacting with students during the laboratory and time preparing for teaching outside of the laboratory. These efforts related to how much TAs indicated they interacted with students during the laboratory as well as the time they spent preparing for teaching. Further, the majority of the TAs’ reported effort in teaching that mapped directly on to their motivation as described by their expectancy beliefs and subjective value. In other words, TAs who indicated they felt they could be successful in teaching and found value in teaching also reported they put effort in to teaching (Table 2).
Table 2 Comparison of predicted and expected effort in teaching
TA Motivation Expected teaching effort Reported teaching effort
Note: bolded TAs do not have aligned predicted and reported teaching effort. — = missing data as TA did not discuss anything related to value in data. ‘Motivation’ column lists components of motivation that were identified as high for the TA. ‘Expected teaching effort’ coded based on the EVT assumption that high value and expectancy are needed for motivation. ‘Reported teaching effort’ was coded as ‘high’ if TA explicitly discussed teaching effort and ‘low’ if TA explicitly stated they did little or nothing to prepare.
Ellen Value Low Low
Jeremy Expectancy Low Low
Martha Expectancy, — ? High
Lawrence Expectancy, value High High
Stephanie Expectancy, value High Low
Jack Expectancy, value High High

Perceived effort for teaching. Ellen, Stephanie, and Jeremy all indicated they exerted little effort in teaching. For example, when asked about her role in teaching students, Ellen stated she was a “Babysitter” and called teaching in an inquiry-based laboratory “Easy. I just had to ask them questions. I didn't even have to know what was going on. Just let them figure it out” (Interview 2). She did not see a need to put forth effort to interact with students to engage them in the inquiry process in any way in lab, a view that was mirrored by Jeremy, who stated his role was “Pretty much there to make sure they don't hurt themselves” (Interview 2). Both Ellen and Jeremy reported out-of-laboratory preparation for teaching consisting of grading student work and looking over the provided materials. Stephanie similarly describe teaching as easy, stating:

“The experimentation phase is pretty easy. A lot of times, their plans are really thought-out. We've already discussed them. They get in lab and just do it. Until they start stumbling into problems, I don't really need to interact with them much.” (Interview 2).

She went on to state she “I think [planning] is my least favorite part of the lab…I might have to lead them there a little more, because they're just frustrated” (Interview 2). Stephanie appeared to appreciate the aspects of lab that required little effort on her part and did not value opportunities that required more engagement in teaching for her. Further, Stephanie valued her status as a returning TA in that she perceived this meant she needed to do no outside preparation for teaching.

On the other hand, Jack, Martha, and Lawrence all indicated they put forth effort required to teach within an inquiry-based laboratory and took additional time outside of lab to prepare. When describing their roles in lab, these TAs discussed how they would engage with students to facilitate their learning. For example, Martha stated during lab she would be: “Asking them a lot of questions, trying to answer questions that I feel aren't giving them too many answers. I think basic questions of how to do certain techniques or clarify questions” (Interview 1). Martha indicated she took the time to engage students through the use of questioning rather than taking a more passive role in the laboratory. When asked how she prepared for teaching, Martha indicated she would “make sure I understand the material and think of how I would do the experiment… and try to look up anything that I don't really understand” (Interview 2). Martha's actions suggested she valued the effort needed to engage students in learning.

Similar to Martha, Jack and Lawrence viewed their roles as active facilitators of student learning and also took time to consider teaching outside of the laboratory. When asked what his role was in lab, Jack stated “To help to facilitate discussions between them, so like if somebody doesn't know an answer once they're working as a group, being able to get them as a group to discuss what they know and help them reach the right conclusion without telling it to them” (Interview 2). He understood the importance of spending time both inside and outside of lab to not only engage students with himself but to find ways to promote peer-to-peer interactions.

Motivation and teaching effort. According to an EVT motivation framework, TAs will put forth the effort to learn how to teach only when they perceive they can be successful in teaching (e.g., expectancy beliefs) and see the importance of teaching (e.g., subjective value). Based on TAs’ expectancy beliefs and subjective value describe above, expected effort in teaching was determined for each TA and compared to their reported teaching effort (Table 2). The expected and reported teaching effort was consistent for all TAs except Stephanie and Martha.
Table 3 Comparison of participants’ beliefs, motivation, and experiences
TA Teaching/learning beliefs Inquiry expectancy beliefs Content expectancy beliefs Intrinsic value Prior teaching experience Prior gen chem experience
Note: teaching/learning beliefs coded on a scale from more ‘traditional’ to more ‘reform-based’. Inquiry and content expectancy beliefs coded as ‘high’ if TA was confident about inquiry or content, and ‘low’ if any reservations about inquiry or content. Intrinsic value coded as ‘high’ if TA discussed enjoyment of teaching and ‘low’ if explicitly discussed not enjoying teaching. Prior teaching experience coded by ‘TA’ experience (undergrad or grad) and as a chemistry teacher, with inquiry experiences as teacher being noted. Experience in general chemistry as a student was coded based on whether it was ‘traditional’ (non-inquiry-based) or ‘inquiry-based’ and TAs’ explicit indication of a positive experience in the lab as a student was noted.
Ellen Traditional Low Low High Undergrad TA Traditional-positive
Jeremy Traditional Low High Low Undergrad TA Traditional
Martha Traditional Low High Grad inquiry TA Traditional
Lawrence Reform-based High High High Chem inquiry teacher Traditional
Stephanie Reform-based High High High Grad inquiry TA Inquiry-based – positive
Jack Reform-based High High High None Inquiry-based – positive

For Stephanie, she grappled with her research and her teaching responsibilities. When discussing the weekly follow up meetings for TAs, she stated:

“I think I have a bias here because I am a second year and doing the labs and research and the TA meetings weren't as beneficial to me as maybe some of the other students. I had a high expectation of myself in my research group.” (Interview 2)

It appeared Stephanie struggled with seeing value in the support provided to TAs through the weekly TA meetings because she was a returning TA and she felt pressure in her research. Given that Stephanie did not report expending effort on teaching, despite her perceived value and expectancy, may suggest her motivation for research outweighed her motivation for teaching.

For Martha, there was no explicit indication of what she valued most about teaching, thus no predicted effort for teaching could be determined. For example, when discussing how she maximized student learning, Martha responded, “I think just being excited about chemistry helps, trying to make real world connections for them whenever possible. They tend to like that if they don't like science” (Interview 1). While not an explicit statement of enjoyment of teaching, Martha integrates her own excitement for chemistry in her teaching. Thus, Martha may have valued teaching as a way to help other students also enjoy and value chemistry.

RQ3: What factors (e.g., prior teaching, teaching beliefs, instructional experiences) may relate to TAs’ motivation for teaching?

Interview data suggested possible relationships among TAs’ prior experiences, teaching beliefs, expectancy beliefs and subjective value (Table 3).
Prior experiences. Overall, TAs who held high expectancy and high subjective value for teaching all had experience with reform-based instruction either as a student or as an instructor. For example, Jack stated:

“The fact that I had a little bit of experience with guided inquiry, I felt pretty good about that because I'd kind of seen the way guided inquiry was done when I had done it…Because I had a general idea of what was going to happen, I didn't feel quite as uncomfortable during the guided inquiry.” (Interview 2)

Having been a student in an inquiry-based chemistry course provided him some context of how he might teach within PBGI contexts. As seen in Stephanie's quote above, her prior teaching experience in an inquiry-based laboratory gave her confidence in being able to push her students further in learning through the inquiry process.

Teaching and learning beliefs. The TAs had varying beliefs about teaching and learning, from more ‘traditional’ to more ‘reform-based’. Ellen, Martha, and Jeremy, who held more traditional teaching and learning beliefs, believed students learned best through a combination of passive receipt of information and active participation in learning activities. Stephanie, Jack, and Lawrence, who held more reform-based beliefs, understood teaching and learning in constructivist terms. They defined the laboratory as a venue for students to be actively involved in process of gaining knowledge with the TA as a facilitator of this process.
Traditional beliefs. Ellen described student learning from her own experiences: “I learned best was the hands-on stuff, so this stuff we did in lab really reinforced what I learned in lecture” (Interview 1). Ellen's views on learning were quite cynical, stating, “If they want to learn, they will. If they don't, they will memorize enough to pass or just fail” (Post-survey). Ellen did not view student motivation as an important factor in the learning process, nor did she perceive herself as an important component of facilitating learning. When Martha was asked how she thought students learn best, she indicated, “I would think a combination of lecturing and having them try things on their own” (Interview 1). Martha believed a more direct instruction teaching approach was a pre-requisite for constructing knowledge on their own. This viewpoint aligned with a more traditional teaching approach. On his initial survey Jeremy indicated, “The best way to learn, in my opinion, is to have a guide teach the student, and then the student will use what the guide taught him or her to perform a similar task” (Pre-survey). Similar to Martha, Jeremy believed of the purpose of lab as a venue for applying previously learned material, a belief that aligned with more traditional approaches to teaching and learning.
Reform-based beliefs. When asked how students learn best, Stephanie stated “Students learn best through their own hands-on experiences, and reinforcing topics using different techniques (hands-on, reading it, writing it, talking about it, explaining it etc.)” (Pre-survey). She understood the benefit of providing a variety of different methods for students to be involved in constructing ideas, an approach that can improve student motivation. Similarly, Jack believed he could promote student learning by “Facilitating discussions between them, so like if somebody doesn't know an answer once they're working as a group, being able to get them as a group to discuss what they know” (Interview 2). He held the view that students themselves could share information and that he did not have to disseminate information to students. Jack also described how struggling with information could benefit students:

“I think the best way to learn is in a way where one must struggle to understand a concept and why it is true rather than being told facts to memorize. This both makes it more likely that a student will remember the concept and more sets a framework to where students gain an understanding of the topic and can infer new results rather than simply needing to hear more facts.” (Post-survey).

He believed retention of conceptual understanding occurred when students grappled with information and this benefited their learning process in the long run. These beliefs were well-aligned with a more reform-based approach to teaching and learning.

Similar to Jack, Lawrence also perceived benefits in knowledge-as-a-struggle approach to student learning. At the end of the semester he explained his beliefs:

“[Students] learn through seeing the end result. Getting their data back after lab and looking at it and then analyzing it and figuring out that, in a real sense, there's not necessarily a right answer. There're the answers you get and then you have to assess it and make determinations from, and they've learned that a lot. They learn that by taking what they did in lab, taking their data for better or worse and using it.” (Interview 2)

Not only did Lawrence believe students should grapple with information, he believed students could learn new concepts through lab rather than lab being a place to apply knowledge. This viewpoint aligned with a reform-based learning approach, which contrasted the more traditional teaching beliefs of lab-as-application of knowledge held by Ellen, Martha, and Jeremy.

Instructional experiences. TAs’ experiences interacting with students in the PBGI laboratory was interpreted in different ways, particularly when students struggled through the process of learning. These interactions appeared to be interpreted positively or negatively, which appear to be related to TAs' beliefs and prior experiences.
Negative interpretations of student struggle. Ellen, Martha, and Jeremy all had positive experiences with traditional instruction, held more traditional teaching beliefs, and had lower expectancy beliefs related to facilitating student learning through inquiry. These TAs also tended to interpret TA–student and student–student interactions negatively, confirming their beliefs. For example, when asked about inquiry-based teaching Ellen responded, “I see my kids getting frustrated a lot, and not a single one of them at this point I think would tell you they like this class… they get confused easily and then they just get worked up about it, and so at that point they just like give up on life” (Interview 1). Student difficulty for Ellen was not a positive experience for the students, and there was no indication she attempted to change students’ views on inquiry. This lack of support for students during frustrating instances was evidenced in her view of the role of the TA, stating:

“Ideally, the kids would be on their own and this particular TA would be somewhere else. A more realistic ideal lab would still involve the TA doing nothing. The children would collect their own data, troubleshoot, and interpret data all on their lonesome.” (Post-survey)

Ellen clearly believed the TAs role was to be doing as little as possible, thus she did not take the opportunity to address student frustration. This traditional view of teaching may have been related to her more traditional beliefs about learning and may have informed her motivation for teaching. Ellen believed students should apply concepts previously learned, as illustrated in her response about helping students understand concepts in lab:

“If they had understood [equilibrium] and then tried the labs it would have been much easier to connect concepts. Rather than having them try the lab, explain equilibrium to them, and have them apply it backwards to the lab.” (Interview 2)

Ellen's beliefs aligned with using the laboratory context as a place for students to apply lecture concepts, and she felt that this approach was much easier than the inquiry-based approach utilized in the course. Ellen believed students should be learning concepts prior to coming into lab, they should apply them in lab with little frustration, and her job was to sit back and observe them. So when students struggled when constructing knowledge in lab, Ellen did not believe, nor did she perceive she could be successful, in supporting students when they became frustrated. Her reaction to and negative interpretation of these disputations further confirmed her beliefs that traditional teaching in lab was best.

This confirmation of her traditional beliefs was illustrated in Ellen's description of her own general chemistry laboratory experience as an undergraduate, “Comparing [inquiry] to what I had as an undergrad, like the traditional gen chem lab, I think I probably learned more as far as in terms of chemistry” (Interview 2). Thus, Ellen viewed traditional teaching as more beneficial to students than guided inquiry, a belief that may have been skewed her interpretation of student struggle as a negative experience within the learning process. These interpretations, along with her prior experiences and beliefs may have decreased her motivation to teach in ways that aligned with the PBGI approach.

Positive interpretations of student struggle. Conversely, Stephanie, Jack, and Lawrence had positive past inquiry-based experiences, held more reform-based beliefs about teaching and learning, and had high inquiry expectancy beliefs. These TAs tended to interpret TA–student and student–student interactions more positively, which also confirmed their beliefs. These TAs realized the end learning goal for students was more important than student frustration. For example, Lawrence had positive interactions with students and also realized the benefits to student learning through inquiry-based laboratory instruction outweighed students initial frustration with the process:

“I think it's fun to implement because students see what you're doing, and despite getting frustrated they know that it's making them do it for themselves, and process things individually, rather than taking an idea or procedure that was just given to them.” (Interview 1)

Lawrence enjoyed implementing PBGI, and this appeared to translate to his students who were frustrated but, according to Lawrence, were understanding that inquiry allowed them to be more involved in the process rather than following a pre-written procedure.

TAs who had positive experiences with student struggle and more reform-based beliefs appeared to also have positive previous experiences with inquiry instruction. Jack had never taught before, but he was the only participant who had experienced inquiry as a student. He described his experience: “You remembered them a lot better because you had to struggle through the process of learning them. I think as a general teaching method, pretty effective” (Interview 2). Jack's experience with inquiry-based instruction was positive, and this experience helped shape his belief on teaching and learning in an inquiry-based laboratory context as well as his interpretation of student struggle. Jack describes a specific example within his teaching:

“When you've got to figure something out for yourself it's more memorable. They have to approach it in a way that an actual scientist does. They can't just take it at face value…they have to figure out how to accommodate incorrect or kind of unexpected results without just saying, “Oh, that was the wrong answer.” By not giving them a straight-up approach to that, it makes them both have to read through the concepts but also kind of learn how to approach complex problems without knowing the answer.” (Interview 2)

Jack believed that students should grapple with information, particularly in situations where results are incorrect or unexpected. Rather than use these as negative experiences, as Ellen did, Jack saw value in having students deal with incorrect data to really understand what they were doing. He also recognized that he played an integral part in creating learning opportunities from these situations. Both Lawrence and Jack's interpretation of student struggle as a positive learning experience was in stark contrast to Ellen. These different interpretations may be related to the differences in their beliefs, inquiry experiences, and expectancy beliefs.

Overall, TAs’ ability beliefs and beliefs about teaching and learning appeared to inform how TAs interpreted student interactions in the PBGI laboratory. TAs with more traditional beliefs and lower inquiry expectancy beliefs interpreted student struggle negatively. Conversely, TAs with more reform-based beliefs and higher inquiry expectancy beliefs interpreted student struggle positively. Both of these interpretations were used by TAs to confirm their teaching beliefs.


Science educators have called for additional research on TAs and TA training programs (e.g., Luft et al., 2004; Gardner and Jones, 2011), and the present study contributes to our understanding of TAs’ motivation to teach within a PBGI laboratory context. This study used EVT as a framework to explore TA motivation to teach through expectancy beliefs and subjective value. Results point to the utility of extending an EVT framework to understand how TAs are or are not motivated to teach in reform-based contexts through constructs of expectancy beliefs and subjective value in these settings. Although other studies have explored aspects of expectancy beliefs (e.g.Poore et al., 2014), or subjective value and feedback (e.g., Rodgers et al., 2014), this study highlights the potential benefit of using expectancy and value to paint a more holistic picture of what may motivate TAs to teach in undergraduate science courses. We provide an update to Fig. 1 based on our findings below to guide our discussion (Fig. 2).
image file: c8rp00157j-f2.tif
Fig. 2 Updated relationship between EVT and TA characteristics adapted from Wigfield and Eccles (2000).

TAs motivation to teach

Results found TAs had varying expectancy beliefs and subjective values related to teaching. Three of the TAs were categorized as having high expectancy beliefs and three were categorized as low. The qualitative data revealed TAs’ beliefs about their success in teaching were largely based on their perceived ability to facilitate student learning through inquiry as well as confidence in knowing or teaching chemistry concepts. TAs with lower expectancy beliefs reported having difficulty in situations such as supporting struggling or frustrated students or finding ways to break down difficult concepts for students in meaningful ways. For subjective value, only intrinsic value (enjoyment of teaching) was reported in our sample. TAs either enjoyed teaching because of how they perceived inquiry-based teaching benefiting students or enjoyed the interactions and relationships formed with students. All TAs in the present study except one found enjoyment in teaching, which may have contributed to effort in teaching. Given that enjoyment of doing a task predicts high performance (e.g., Cerasoli et al., 2014), and other studies have found that TAs with intrinsic motivation give better instructional feedback (Rodgers et al., 2014), further research to investigate how subjective value relates to TA effort in teaching is warranted.

Motivation and effort in teaching

In a meta-analysis of motivation and performance, Cerasoli et al. (2014) conclude that individuals who are intrinsically motivated are highly unlikely to perform poorly. This suggests that individuals who are intrinsically motivated put forth the effort needed to perform. In the present study, TAs reported effort in teaching which largely aligned with predicted effort based on EVT subjective value and expectancy beliefs. The TAs with high expectancy and subjective value, particularly intrinsic value, reported interacting with students during lab and took time to prepare for teaching outside of lab. While not directly measured, the TAs who were motivated to teach in the PBGI labs may have indeed been more effective in their teaching. Prior research suggest there may be latent variables about TAs and/or students that play a role in understanding the relationship between TAs and student outcomes (e.g., Hazari et al., 2003; Wheeler et al., 2017), and our present study may elucidate the importance of TA motivation on teaching effort and potentially performance. Future research can explore how expectancy beliefs and subjective value relates to TAs’ teaching performance and student outcomes.

Factors influencing motivation

For the TAs in this study, prior experience with inquiry, either as a teacher or a student, appeared to be an important factor that related to expectancy beliefs in the PBGI setting. TAs that had prior experience with inquiry had higher expectancy beliefs that they could be successful teaching in PBGI contexts. Moreover, results also found that TAs’ beliefs about teaching related to TAs’ motivation to teach, extending prior work on motivation (e.g., Wigfield and Eccles, 2000). In the present study, TAs’ teaching and learning beliefs appeared to inform their interpretation of interactions with students and further confirmed their beliefs. TAs with positive inquiry-based experiences, reform-based teaching beliefs, and high expectancy beliefs interpreted student struggle as a positive and necessary component of learning. Conversely, TAs with positive traditional experiences, traditional teaching beliefs, and low expectancy beliefs perceived student frustration as a negative product of inquiry-based instruction, which confirmed their traditional beliefs. Results suggest that TAs’ beliefs and prior experiences may serve as a lens for interpreting their teaching experience, a finding that extends the K-12 research suggesting teacher beliefs are difficult to change (e.g., Kagan, 1992; Kane et al., 2002), and counter to other research that postulates that TAs can modify their views by engaging TAs in dissimilar learning environments (Sandi-Urena and Gatlin, 2013). In the present study, the experiences of TAs as general chemistry lab students appeared to inform the ways in which these TAs interpreted their own student frustrations, which further confirmed their beliefs. We hypothesize that reflection on teaching is interpreted through beliefs and experiences, which may then inform the effort to teach in PBGI contexts. This was evidenced by Ellen's comments, for example, whose negative interpretation of student struggle, further confirmed, rather than modified, her beliefs. Further research examining the relationship between and directionality of TA teaching beliefs, varying prior experiences, and expectancy is warranted.


While these results add to the literature on TAs in undergraduate inquiry-based laboratories, the context-specific examination of TAs in this study as well as the qualitative nature of the research limit the generalizability of these results beyond the present general chemistry laboratory course. Given that the data are self-reported, TAs may have over- or under-reported their confidence or effort. They may have also discussed beliefs that they thought the researchers wanted to hear. As indicated in the researcher as instrument statement, every effort was made to reduce any potential biases in the data collection and analysis and properly interpret the data. Further, given that the EVT framework was used in the interpretation of existing data, we may not have fully captured TAs’ motivation and effort related to teaching. The self-reported nature the data, the small sample size, and the context-dependence of the study should be considered when interpreting the study.


TAs are a unique set of teachers who enter into teaching with little or no experience beyond their own undergraduate experience as students. Many of them, including those in the present study, do not come to graduate school to teach and are instead motivated by their interest in chemistry and research. Further, the emphasis in graduate school, particularly in research-intensive universities, is not on teaching (e.g., Luft et al., 2004). Yet half of the TAs in the present study were motivated to teach in a PBGI laboratory context and translated this motivation into effort for teaching. This suggests the experiences TAs have in teaching and PD may be vital to promoting subjective value and expectancy for TAs. Longitudinal research understanding TAs’ career choices and future motivation for learning to teach after an inquiry-based teaching experience would help understand the long-term impact of these experiences on TAs.

Given the importance of TAs’ experiences with inquiry on their motivation for teaching in a reform-based context, using an EVT survey instrument to quickly assess TAs’ motivation could potentially benefit chemistry departments. EVT data could then be used to inform how graduate programs use and support TAs, which may be impactful in three ways. First, assigning TAs to teaching positions may be important for faculty implementing reform-based instruction. Providing faculty with TAs who have had positive experiences with inquiry and are motivated to teach may provide students with a more positive inquiry experience, improve student learning outcomes, and subsequently improve the overall success of the course. Second, while prior research suggests that TAs with reform-based beliefs struggle to use reform-based practices in traditional labs (Addy and Blanchard, 2010), motivated TAs with positive inquiry experiences could be used in traditional laboratory contexts to initiate change. When TAs’ motivation and inquiry experiences are elucidated and communicated to faculty, these TAs may embolden faculty to shift laboratory curriculum from traditional to inquiry-based. Third, differentiating PD based on TAs’ prior inquiry experiences and motivation may make the teaching and learning about teaching positive for more TAs. For example, pairing TAs as ‘mentors’ (i.e., TAs with prior inquiry experiences) and ‘mentees’ (i.e., TAs with no prior inquiry experience) may help more TAs be motivated to teach a reform-based laboratory context. Exploring ways to integrate formal mentoring relationships into TA PD and its impact on TAs’ motivation and teaching may provide additional insight into ways in which TAs can be supported in teaching in reform-based ways.

Our data also suggests that commitments of graduate school may create a disconnect between motivation and effort for teaching. Multiple prior studies suggest a change in graduate school culture to emphasize teaching as a profession may support changes in TAs’ beliefs and practices (e.g., Luft et al., 2004; Marbach-Ad et al., 2012; Wheeler et al., 2016). However, we hypothesize these cultural changes may not occur unless we better understand the beliefs of faculty for whom the TAs teach. Based on the research on faculty adoption of reform-based practices, we suggest the following strategies to shift the teaching culture: (1) acknowledge and address faculty concerns with implementing reform-based practices, (2) provide support for faculty to shift their instruction and incentivize innovation in teaching, (3) create ways for faculty to conduct scholarship in their classrooms and reward it accordingly, (4) create more systematic and embedded opportunities for graduate students to formally learn about pedagogy and reform-based instructional methods (e.g., Walczyk et al., 2007; Turpen et al., 2016). Future studies should seek to better understand the ways in which faculty and TAs, in combination, can promote or impede departmental and institutional change in the teaching culture.

TAs’ teaching beliefs were an important factor that related to expectancy beliefs and appeared to be confirmed by TAs’ interactions with students. This may be considered a positive outcome for TAs who already held reform-based beliefs; however, it suggests that TAs with more traditional beliefs may be resistant to change. This is concerning given the importance of TAs’ beliefs on motivation. One way to promote change and shift beliefs to more closely align with constructivist teaching and learning may be the use of a conceptual change approach to create cognitive dissonance between TAs’ traditional beliefs and the evidence on the positive impact of active learning on student outcomes (e.g., Freeman et al., 2014). This could be done by using video observations along with explicit discussion of the purpose of struggle in learning to help TAs reflect on, and potentially change, their negative beliefs and actions around student struggle. Future studies that focus on how to help TAs shift from traditional to reform-based beliefs, particularly for those with negative inquiry and positive traditional classroom experiences, will add to the literature on TAs in teaching.

One promising piece of evidence from this study was that a TA's positive experiences with inquiry as a student related to motivation for and effort in teaching through inquiry. These TAs also reported facilitating and encouraging students to persevere through the frustrations and challenges of learning brought on by the PBGI curriculum. Undergraduate students taught by this type of TA may one day become graduate students and possibly TAs for undergraduate laboratories, and those with positive inquiry experiences as students may also be motivated to teach within an inquiry-based context and perceive student frustration as an important part of the learning process. In order to change the inquiry teaching culture, it is not enough to just focus on faculty and TAs. It is also vital that students experience inquiry with a TA who has reform-based beliefs and motivation for teaching through inquiry so they are open to teaching within inquiry contexts in the future. Changes in laboratory course curricula and supporting TAs’ implementation of inquiry is one small step in changing the state of undergraduate science education. This may help break the cycle of traditional beliefs and practice to make reform-based instruction the norm rather than the exception.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts to declare.


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