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Signature Course Teaching Assistant Reflects on Lessons Learned

As a graduate student in the LBJ School, Emily Kao Kopfensteiner had never been a TA; teaching 18-year-olds from diverse educational backgrounds was a new experience. Her advisor asked her to TA her Signature Course, Global Inequalities and Health. Emily jumped at the chance: this might be her only chance to gain experience teaching undergraduates, as her advisor’s other courses all require graduate student standing. In Emily’s own words:

As a second year Ph.D. student, I have been interested in pursuing a second career as a professor at the undergraduate level, specifically at the junior or senior level. Prior to this fall, I had not had experience teaching or leading regular discussions, so I was very excited for the opportunity to TA an undergraduate level course. It was an incredible learning experience for which I really enjoyed.

Welcome to College

Emily Kao KopfensteinerEvery undergraduate who enters UT Austin as a first-year student takes a Signature Course, ideally in the first semester. The idea behind the courses is to teach college-level thinking and learning. Emily’s task was to assist the course’s professor in bringing her students up to speed, making sure they were able to write, research, and discuss at a college level. Emily found her teaching style changing and evolving as the semester progressed, thanks to her supportive TA cohort group.

Fortunately, my TA cohort group offered some really great suggestions about dividing the class so students were forced to talk to each other if not me, trying a different classroom venue, and creating group activities to cover the material. I started to shift…to group activities to review the lecture and reading material…. One class in particular became so engaged in the activity, I had to cut them off before we ran out of time to complete the exercise. That was very exciting, and demonstrated I was moving in the right direction.


At the start of the semester, I would stand at the blackboard and ask one of the students to come up and, with the help of his classmates, write the answers to my questions. I would ask, “What are the three components that define epidemiology?” The response was silence and blank stares.

Mid-semester feedback, required in all Signature Courses, brought honest responses from Emily’s students about what worked well and what didn’t.

Students were eager to learn the lecture material and review the assigned reading, but they did not want to be “lectured to.” Instead, they really enjoyed the two group activities I devised.


Emily says she now wants to teach undergraduates: this class was a “huge learning experience.” After feedback from students, she recalled that as students participated more and more, they started to have more confidence in themselves, and were willing to put more on the table. One student came back from a weekend at home proud that she now knew more about the fiscal cliff than her parents.

On her very first day of being a TA, Emily noticed that one of her students tried not to look at her, avoiding answering her questions. By the end of the semester, “he was jumping up for answers,” she remembers with a smile. “He started to care and to try.”

More About Emily

Emily Kao Kopfensteiner holds a Master of Public Administration from Syracuse University and her Bachelor of Science degree in Public Policy and Management with a minor in Business Administration from the University of Southern California. Prior to attending the LBJ School for Public Affairs, Emily worked for the Greater Houston Partnership in different capacities ranging from the aerospace and aviation economic development manager to the health care policy manager. Her key accomplishments included successfully advocating for the preservation of NASA’s Constellation Program and working with health care industry leaders in Houston to address the health care challenges the Houston regional community faces. While the GHP Director of Public Policy, Emily was responsible for leading state and federal advocacy efforts and developing legislative strategies for business and social policies related to health care, transportation and education. Emily is a graduate research assistant for Dr. Carolyn Heinrich on her multi-site Supplemental Education Services project with the Center for Health and Social Policy. She also serves as an Undergraduate Studies Signature Course teaching assistant for Dr. Jacqueline Angel. Emily’s research focus is on health policy, she is specifically interested in regional healthcare delivery models and the efficient delivery of quality emergency and trauma care services.

Research Interests: Health policy, specifically the efficient delivery of quality emergency care and trauma care services.

More about Signature Courses

Signature Courses (UGS 302 and 303) introduce students to the university’s academic community, helping them explore new interests and broaden horizons. The Signature Courses give all students the skills to engage in college-level thinking and learning. Classes range from the arts and humanities to the hard sciences, but every class has unique components that will help students through college and beyond. The Signature Course: