Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Major Professor

Elisabeth E. Schussler

Committee Members

Randall Small, Aimee Classen, Kristin Rearden


Undergraduate students entering the higher education system are often unaware of the diverse teaching and learning community they will encounter, including the different instructor types who will teach their classes. In order to accommodate the growing numbers of enrolled students, the higher education system is increasingly reliant on contingent instructors such as non-tenure track faculty members and graduate teaching assistants (GTAs). This dissertation explores undergraduate student perspective of the different instructor types who teach introductory biology courses, with a focus on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK). The goal of this work is to provide insight regarding how perceived differences between GTAs and professors impact teaching effectiveness and student learning in order to make recommendations for professional development. Chapter one outlines a study that utilized qualitative and quantitative research methodologies to explore undergraduate perception of hypothetical GTAs versus professors to determine if students perceive differences that are independent of classroom setting. The second chapter describes a follow up study to further explore instructor type differences by having undergraduates rate their actual biology instructors (faculty members and GTAs). Concurrently, interviews were conducted to gain perspective about the instructional behaviors students perceived to be associated with words used to describe higher education instructors; results from this study can be found in chapter three. Chapter four reports on a quantitative study to identify the instructional behaviors which best predict teaching effectiveness of GTAs. Collectively, these studies provide critical insight into the impact of instructor type on instruction, and student learning, in introductory biology courses. The results of this work are thereby used to make recommendations for GTA professional development, given that many GTAs are current instructors and could be future faculty, to promote and enhance student learning in the biological sciences.

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