University of Vermont

College of Medicine

Office of Medical Communications

“Learning to Ask Valuable Questions:” The College of Medicine’s Teaching Assistants

Teaching Assistant
College of Medicine Teaching Assistant Jerry Lee, center, answers questions during a small group meeting for CRR. (Photo by Erin Post)

Fourth-year University of Vermont medical student Alyson Guillet draws looping lines on the whiteboard, pointing out how the kidney functions when a patient is hypovolemic, or volume depleted. A small group of second-year students gathered around the table type at their laptops and scribble notes, pausing to ask questions or add their own drawings.

For students embarking on the second-year course called Cardiovascular, Respiratory and Renal Systems (CRR), it’s well-known that the kidney can be confusing. As a teaching assistant for the course, Guillet is there to help reinforce students’ understanding of what they’re learning in lectures and labs. On this day, she conducted a review session with fellow TAs and held late office hours to provide additional time to answer students’ questions. After all, she was in their shoes just a couple of years ago, and can help them focus on what they need to know at this point in their education.

"TAs are another resource for students to ask questions,” she says. “We have a different perspective after a few more years of experience, and can help bring classroom learning to a clinical context.”

The UVM College of Medicine is one of only a few schools in the country that require fourth-year students to do either a teaching month or a research project, says Eileen CichoskiKelly, Ph.D., associate professor of family medicine and director of educational instruction and scholarship and the fourth year teaching and scholarly project requirement. Generally, about 80 percent of students in a given class choose the teaching month. The number of TAs varies over the academic year, but by mid-fall, the College usually has up to nine or 10 working in first- and second-year courses, conducting everything from review sessions and small-group meetings to informal office hours and online discussions boards through COMET. Students choose the course they want to TA, which offers them a chance to re-engage with material they may have enjoyed earlier in the curriculum.  During their month they work with CichoskiKelly to learn teaching methods and techniques, which serves them well for residency and beyond.

“[The teaching month] makes our students nicely competitive when they go to residencies,” says CichoskiKelly. “The ACGME competencies include teaching as a goal for residency training, and our students come with the competitive edge of already having these skills.”

As the College continues to incorporate active learning into the curriculum – a new Team-Based Learning Classroom is expected to open in May of 2014 – TAs are soaking up as many of these techniques as they can. In active learning, students define their own goals and objectives, and contribute to the learning of the group by asking questions and participating in activities.

Joe Foley, a fourth-year student who served as a TA for the first-year Cell and Molecular Biology course, engaged students in review sessions through the use of iClickers, devices that allow students to submit answers from their seats. A wide disagreement from across the group for one particular question can serve as the jumping off point for further discussion. It also allows the whole class to engage with the material. Foley says he now looks for opportunities to make sure all students are getting what they need out of an experience.

“No matter what my role is, I’m going to be learning and teaching,” he says. “Medicine is a life-long learning experience.”

Jerry Lee and Bianca Yoo, also TAs for CRR, echo how valuable the teaching experience can be.

“I’m learning how to break down and explain difficult concepts,” Yoo says.

Often, the lessons for TAs come when the questions get difficult. This is when it’s best to circle back to the student, and encourage them to dig deeper. “I’m learning how to interact with a group,” Guillet says. ““I’m learning to ask valuable questions of students so it makes them think.”