Thursday, December 17, 2009

What To Do?

Doctoral students work hard for a few to >> a few years, focusing intently on research and, at many US universities, on taking classes for the first few years. It is an intense time, and for many it is a very stressful time, in part because there may be uncertainty as to whether there will be (appealing) job opportunities at the end of all the years of graduate study.

Graduate students and postdocs in science, engineering, and math have an array of possible career paths, and sometimes it takes a while to figure out what is the best option. Although some doctoral students know from the beginning that they want an academic career, some are less sure about this. Those who are uncertain are not necessarily less dedicated to education and are not destined to be lousy teachers.

Whether or not a grad student's career goal involves academia, many graduate students are teaching assistants for some or all of their time in graduate school. In the sciences, this typically means teaching labs or leading discussion sections. Being a TA is an introduction to teaching, but it isn't sufficient preparation for many who later become professors.

Some universities offer courses or workshops for graduate students and postdocs who are considering an academic career. Some of these courses also discuss aspects of acquiring a job, and some are devoted to teaching preparation (writing a syllabus, the mechanics of teaching). These courses are useful, but, again, are not sufficient preparation for teaching an entire class as a professor.

Considering these constraints and issues -- that doctoral students do need to focus quite a lot on research during their graduate studies and do not necessarily know that they want a career involving teaching -- is there a better way to prepare doctoral students and postdocs to be professors who both teach and do research? Being better prepared to teach would benefit both professors and students.

For now, let’s not worry about money or institutional resistance to dramatic changes or other major obstacles to reforming the system and consider whether there are ways in which we can reform graduate education to better prepare future faculty for the teaching component of their jobs. The money aspect is of course important because time = money, and adding teaching training would add time. Who would pay for this? How much would it cost? Let us ignore those questions for now.

If time/money were not issues, graduate students who wanted to prepare for academic positions could get more teaching experience, not just as teaching assistants in labs, but also as student-teachers responsible for the lecture component of a course (with close mentoring by an experienced faculty member), and eventually as instructors of a course (with some but less intense mentoring by a faculty member).

This would not be mandated, but it would need to be made clear that participating in such training is important for those considering an academic career. There would need to be a well-developed program of graduate advising that provided students with the information they needed to make informed decisions about this, and there would need to be departmental oversight so that advisors did not get to decide whether or not their advisees participated in such a system. There would need to be higher-level oversight of departments to make sure that grad students weren't simply being used as cheap teaching labor but were participating in a carefully organized career development program.

To learn to teach, you have to teach. I personally do not believe that courses that focus on pedagogical techniques are particularly useful. I have participated in teaching workshops and have found them to be quite useless, perhaps because these particular workshops were led by people who had absolutely no experience teaching the kinds of courses I teach in the type of environment in which I teach them and who were willing to toss out most course content in order to “teach students to think”. I'm all for teaching students to think, but I would also like to give them interesting things to think about.

But this is not a teaching workshop rant. I mention it here to explain why I am not proposing that grad students rush over to the education department/college and start taking courses there. And I hasten to add that I have colleagues in the education department, that I have worked with them on developing teaching modules, and that I am not totally against education specialists. I have, however, had some bad teaching workshop experiences.

In any case, in this unrealistic no-money-worries system, the teaching component would be an integrated aspect of graduate school, not something tacked on at the end. Professors have to balance their time between research and teaching (and other things), and it is important to learn some successful strategies for doing this. The current sink-or-swim approach of seeing which new professors will make it through tenure with their sanity, health, and families intact is not a great one. An integrated research-teaching experience in grad school or during a postdoc would also emphasize that teaching is not an afterthought or just something else we professors have to do so that we can focus on something more important.

This system would not be easy to implement because an instructor needs to convey confidence and must have the respect of the students, so the faculty mentors would have to be selected carefully and would have to know when to intervene and when to hold back, both for the good of the proto-professor’s training and for the good of the students in the class. The educational needs of the undergraduates in these classes are paramount, otherwise we are not replacing our current flawed system of letting inexperienced professors loose on undergrads with a better system.

I once offered to team-teach with, or somehow mentor, an assistant professor who was struggling with teaching. When I discussed this with the Chair, he said "If you have time to do that, you have time to teach the entire class yourself." He assigned the (large intro) class to me and gave the struggling assistant professor a break from teaching. This made me reluctant to volunteer to do such things in the future. In my hypothetical new system, mentoring activities would be factored into a senior professor's work load and would be valued by the department and the university.

I also think that such a system could be implemented without adding a substantial amount of time to a typical graduate program, but it would add some time. To pay for that time, funding agencies and universities would need to put more money behind so-called "broader impacts" involving graduate training.

- The importance of teaching, even at a research university, must be conveyed to graduate students and postdocs considering an academic career and must be emphasized during the faculty hiring process;

- Careful mentoring of professor in their first year, including peer evaluation of teaching, involvement in any on-campus teaching training that is deemed useful by the department, and possibly team-teaching with a sympathetic and helpful senior professor

- New professors should not be hurled into large introductory level courses unless they already have some experience with such courses.

Please evaluate this post by placing a check mark in one of the spaces below with a No. 2 pencil. Do not make stray marks.

The writer of this post seems like a person who might give me an A if I took a course from her.

_ Fervently agree because I am an A student and I would deserve that A.
_ Agree to some extent but I don't really want to commit other than being mildly positive.
_ Don't really have an opinion even though that indicates that I am a lame, spineless person.
_ Rabidly disagree because she is clearly an unhinged hysteric who hates snakes.


Anonymous said...

what about if the teaching training comes not during grad school but once the new assistant prof has been hired? e.g. upon being hired into a TT position, the new prof ddoes not get unleashed solo on a class their first year. Instead they spend the first year getting trained to teach - whether by apprenticing with the more experienced faculty, team-teaching with the experienced faculty (and thus relieving some TA's!!) or undergoing other training similar to high school teachers (who have to be CERTIFIED as teachers before they can teach solo).

In other words, upon being hired, the new assistant prof spends their first year or first semester being trained rather than being 'put to work' immediately.

Anonymous said...

in the UK, there is no obligation to do any teaching during grad school, which is much shorter. Instead, teaching opportunities start to appear during post-doc years. At least one university has mandated that all post-docs must teach X hours per year, normally leading small groups of students or supervising undergrad projects (not big 1st year classes). I think this makes sense because (in the UK) grad students are often very young. A few more years of maturity and life experience can make you much more confident about standing up in front of a class and getting the students to respect you. Also, this doesn't take time out of the PhD years (only 3 years in the UK).

Anonymous said...

Actually, due to one of our professors leaving I received this kind of training. It was very interesting to be able to think along with what should be in the syllabus, the teach several of the lectures on my own and to have the joint responsibility for class-discussions.

Unknown said...

I'm actually very lucky in this regard. I'm a first year PhD student who is currently lecturing a first year course over the Christmas holidays (as our university runs some selected courses over the break) with some mentoring/guidance provided by established faculty. I have also lectured several times during the semester to replace a faculty member who has gone on leave for a week or two.

My department seems to recognise that when we enter the (academic) job market, teaching experience like this is extremely valuable and not always provided by other universities.

This is also in addition to regular TA duties that are offered to students in the department from their 2nd year of undergraduate. Generally all TA's who reach the PhD level that display some aptitude for teaching are offered the opportunity to get some lecturing experience.

HGGirl said...

Maybe good teaching *should* be more of a priority (open for debate), but I don't think that the current system values it that much. I know several profs who didn't get tenure because they "spent too much time with students" and not enough time on grants. In this context, it doesn't make a lot of sense to focus training resources on improving teaching skills. (Again, this might be different in an ideal world, but this is what I've seen from my experience.)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The current sink-or-swim approach of seeing which new professors will make it through tenure with their sanity, health, and families intact is not a great one.

People say this as if it is an obvious truth. What's the evidence that this is, indeed, the case? Is there really any evidence at all that there is some sort of systematic deficiency in the quality of teaching at the university level, other than the whiny-ass titty-baby complaining of undergraduates?

plam said...

Anonymous@12:26, I think that grad school is a better time to learn how to teach, because there are generally fewer time demands during grad school. Having said that, having more teaching training in the first semester might be more feasible in practice.

Rachel said...

If universities placed more priority on hiring good teachers perhaps the need to learn to teach would trickle down to grad school / postdoc training. As long as universities hire researchers who have no idea how to teach, learning to teach is not a worthwhile investment. Even if universities invested in workshops and training for their new profs, most new profs will treat this as an annoying requirement and not really get into it (this is the attitude of most new profs I know who have been to workshops). A lot of workshops are rather unhelpful - as FSP says they can be too general to help in a specific field.

What surprises me is that anyone who has had students in more than one class will discover those students remember almost nothing from the previous course. How depressing is that? You'd think it would make anyone think about their teaching approach. Then again, I'm one of the teach-students-to-think teachers. Try it some time - since students are thinking about something you'd be surprised how much content they learn and remember.

Recommendation - find the best middle/high school science teachers who are really innovative and make learning fun for students. Grad students spend time in the classroom learning to teach and teaching; K-12 teachers spend a part of the summer doing research. Use GK-12 program money for this. That way grad students only use the time the would have spend TAing anyway.

I mostly agree with your recommendations, except there are very few profs who are good enough educators to mentor all the new profs. Teaming up with the education dept for training might be best.

You wouldn't give me an A. I never spent the necessary time memorizing the info to get an A, since I was just going to forget it anyway.

Doctor Pion said...

I would say that most R1s do a good job of conveying how much they value teaching. I'll also say, based on a fair bit of experience, that it is very hard to identify good teaching during a job search interview process even when that is your sole objective (as at my CC).

I share your view of pedagogical programs that come out of the ed world. There are a few things that can be learned from those folks, but their offerings are limited by the fact that they don't do what they are teaching you to do. El ed instructors do not teach K-8, and science ed instructors have never taught a science class -- let alone actually done any science.

The program that provided my initial (and only) training (as an undergrad) included all of the above. We had a week of specific training and practice, plus we had faculty and senior student mentors. Training included how to grade as well as what to do in the classroom. Video review was most valuable.

One thing I would add to your list might be described inverse peer observations, which might be the part of team teaching you have in mind. Watching someone teach who you know is good, with sole focus on the process rather than the content, is a great way to learn. Some of us did that while grad TAs when we were working with a really great lecturer.

Pagan Topologist said...

When I was a TA, I taught a few courses on my own. This is common at quite a few schools, I think.

Unknown said...

Coordinated courses are a nice way for inexperienced grad students and postdocs to get experience with lecturing and interacting with students, without the stress of planning the course and writing exams.

(Here I'm thinking of say, calculus courses where there are many sections, and they all take the same exams. One or two experienced course coordinators set the schedule and write the major exams, and the instructors are just responsible for keeping up.)

Personally, I have found various teacher training programs (high school teaching certification, a week-long teacher training workshop as a grad student, etc.) to be a complete waste of my time. However, I'm sort of a natural when it comes to teaching, so of course this colors my perception.

What has been useful to me is having personal discussions about teaching with mentors that I think are really good teachers.

Anonymous said...

I'm torn. I have many thoughts on this issue, but I'm not sure that they lead to any definite conclusion.

- I totally agree that team-teaching or student teaching is really the best way to train excellent teachers.

- Currently, some lecturers are terrible. Having these profs mentor a student-teacher would probably do more harm than good.

- Learning how to teach effectively is essentially the same as learning how to communicate science effectively. Communicating science effectively determines a large chunk of future research success. Therefore learning how to teach is a good idea for students going into academy or industry.

- It might be more efficient to completely separate the instructing from the research class in academic institutions.

- Yet, unless researchers teach, any connection between "classwork" and "labwork" will be remain mysterious to students until graduate school.

- As long as some students want to go the "teaching" route and some want to go the "research" route, the research students will be favored over those who take time to teach. I think the system would have to be required for all students to work well. Require that all students TA 1 semester, and this TA must be an intensive shadowing/student teaching experience with a good instructor rather than just grading exams or leading a lab section. Later TA's by the same student could be these lab sections.

Anonymous said...

In our department (R1 university, large department, popular undergrad major), first year faculty have to teach their smaller classes solo, but the first time they teach one of the big, required for the major, 300 student classes (that honestly, no one really wants to teach), its done as team teaching with one of the faculty who has taught it many times. I think this system prevents the new faculty from being completely overwhelmed, as just the red tape alone is hard to figure out, and helps them do a good job teaching the large amount of material and understand in what should be covered- it also saves students who might actually need this material as a prerequisite or background for later things from getting a bad version of the class just because the had the luck to be the professors first time.

Anonymous said...

Who cares if professors are good or bad?...(as long as they produce grants and graduate their students)

Don't be naive, there will always be good professors and bad ones. Let's focus on making professors better advisers, not better lecturers.

It is a waste of time making professors better teachers when students are becoming more lazy every year.

STP said...

In my experience, a lot of whether grad students have opportunities to teach comes down to their advisor's/department's attitude about teaching. When my fellow grad students and I were being "trained" to TA the major course in the department, we were explicitly told not to let it "distract us from what is important." I did get many other teaching opportunities during grad school, but I had to make sure that I would be able to hide them from my advisor--nothing that would conflict with scheduled lab meetings and such. Luckily, he was out-of-touch enough that he never caught on. He was shocked when I started applying for teaching jobs at SLACs and I got several pep talks about how I "shouldn't give up on science and my education."

I think these kinds of attitudes need to be dealt with before *any* kind of structured program will do any good.

I also think that grad students/post docs that are interested in primarily teaching jobs should seriously look at getting an adjunct position (or 1 year visiting position) before going on the market for tenure track jobs. This is what I did, and the two people we've hired in our department since me have also done this. The best way to learn how to teach is to do it. It also takes the pressure of the tenure clock off because you know it's a temporary position.

Nicholas Condon said...

While we're cavorting in the Land of the Spherical Cow...

Perhaps, instead of the proposed, we shoud replace the system, where undergraduates are instructed in a classroom by people selected primarily for their skills as researchers and mentors to younger researchers. Teaching lecture classes and managing a graduate research program are not skill sets that necessarily overlap; seperating the two would allow major research universities to get teachers committed totally to undergraduate instruction (who are currently only welcome at schools without graduate programs) to complement their researchers and grad student mentors.

Anonymous said...

I recently spoke with a friend who is finishing up a PhD in a humanities field at a large state school. He mentioned that after graduating, the school gives PhD students in his department the option of staying on for up to three years as an instructor, i.e., teaching 3 sections instead of 1 at a time. I don't know how common this is. Maybe this is just the humanities equivalent of a postdoc or cheap labor, but it seems like a great way to increase teaching competency!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first Anonymous post.

Anonymous said...

Univ. of Wisc. Madison had (has?) a program on training grad students and postdocs to teach biology to undergrads through the HHMI. Jo Handelsman, a HHMI teaching professor and plant pathologist professor runs it. I took it several years ago and thought it was a great mix of learning teaching theory (which, at least if you are going to a small college to teach is VERY useful, since much professional development and college service deals with theory/assessment/etc.) and practical teaching experience to our peers and real students - with expert advice, assistance and evaluation from Jo and her co-teachers - all excellent teachers AND very knowledgable about the subject matter, too (biology).

It was ~2 credits for one semester and 1 credit for the second semester. Yes, I got less work done those semester in lab, but it was definitely worth it. My grad program didn't have TA jobs, but I still beat out 125 other people for the small college asst professor job I have now and transitioned into it fairly smoothly, actually, straight out of grad school. Surprisingly, my evaluations for my first year were pretty good - despite never having taught a full class before ever. And I know I couldn't have done it without the HHMI teaching fellowship program.

Bottom line: I do think teaching theory stuff can be useful - if it is specifically about your discipline and taught by professors in your discipline who are also excellent teachers. Would I have learned as much from a prof in the education deptartment who hasn't taught college undergrad bio courses for 20 years? I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

The highest achievement for K-12 teachers is board certification. The one teacher I know who is board certified is genuinely fabulous. Maybe we can ask some of these teachers to mentor grad students, new profs, etc? They seem better credentialed as mentors than other profs.

Harvestar said...

One thing that helped me greatly was lots of experience doing outreach - in particular presentations to the public in various settings. This helped me to learn how to think on my feet and answer questions for non-experts in my field.

Also, I happened to be the TA for two very good teachers in my department. This gave me the opportunity to see how large lecture hall classes were done right. They both had different styles, so I've been able to incorporate both types into my classes. Also, being forced to attend every lecture (since I had to help with lecture tutorials) and take notes like a student would, helped me to see how a class was taught and how I might do it.

Also, having my first totally solo teaching experience be a small class (~30) really helped as well.

I will say, though, that I feel very weird since I am one of few who actually cares about teaching and improving my teaching. However, this does mean that I'm seen as an "expert" in my research group.

Hope said...

Nothing wrong with thinking about spherical cows….

I agree with those that say that until universities that take teaching seriously in hiring/tenure decisions become the norm rather than the exception, little progress will be made, as people will always see the teaching component of being a prof as just not that important.

I also think that there may be something to the idea of having a system that allows people to focus primarily on teaching or on research, depending on their desires and talents. This division of labor already exists in many R&D companies, where experienced scientists rising through the ranks at some point must choose to go the “corporate scientist” route (i.e., focus on doing the science, generating ideas for proposals, publishing) or into management. I know a number of people who have chosen the former, even though the pay is less, because they have no interest in telling others what to do, or in planning, budgeting, or chatting up sponsors. It might be something worth considering in the academic world.

Ms.PhD said...

I will read the comments thoroughly some other time. Having just read the blog post, I have to say, anything that makes grad school longer is a BAD IDEA.

In my field, grad school is 5-7 years on average; postdoc is about the same length. By the time we get out, we are mid to late thirties in the ideal scenario. Particularly bad for anyone who wants to have a family and any kind of job security prior to having a family. Anything that makes this time drag out longer is a big NO in my book.

Having said that, I love the idea of teaching faculty to teach. We should do more of it. But I think by the time a person is hired, it's too late. Being a TA is not the same as teaching. Maybe we should replace some of the TA-ing with actual teaching. Maybe we should include amongst the postdoctoral "training" an option to get teaching experience for those who have none. The problem is getting PIs to buy in.

The current system is predicated not on training but on using grad students and postdocs as slave labor (granted, grad students don't really become productive until the last year or two; postdocs are slaves the entire time). Until there is some incentive for PIs to train mentees, it won't happen.

In other words, unless you PAY THE PIs based on the success of their trainees, I don't see how this could work. But in your imaginary world with endless funding, maybe you could do it.

Let me know when I can hop a tornado to this place over the rainbow.

Kim said...

A number of large research university geoscience departments have hired teaching specialists for their intro classes. The positions aren't tenure-track, though they are longterm. I'm curious what other people think of them. On the one hand, teaching a 300-student class is a skill that's different from teaching a graduate seminar or a small class for science majors. On the other hand, I wonder if the teaching faculty become 2nd class citizens. (I wonder especially because I've noticed a relatively large number of women in these roles, and because a friend suggested that I apply for one when I was feeling frustrated with my job.)

Anonymous said...

to Ms. PhD - there are several of these joint research/teaching fellowships available, usually they are institution specific. The amount of research vs. teaching you do varies between the programs.

And the entire list:

Anonymous said...

In my department, summer introductory courses are taught by graduate students (usually in the middle of their grad school years, after some TA experience and quals but before the dissertation crunch). These are small courses (20-50 students), so they provide a fairly gentle introduction to teaching. Course materials are passed down from professors and other students who've taught the course before, so we are not designing lectures and labs from scratch. Not all grad students do this, but it's a wonderful opportunity for those of us who are motivated to gain teaching experience beyond the required year of TAing.

Anonymous said...

I like one of the earlier suggestions about newly hired faculty spending the first semester or two being trained to teach rather than being expected to teach " for real" starting on their first day on the job.

The job of a grad student is different from the job of a postdoc. And both are vastly different from the job of a professor. So, for grad students and postdocs to get teaching training is sort of redundant, it is not somethign that is part of their immediate job. Plus, with the current model of grad students and postdocs being evaluated by and their futures hinging almost exclusively on their research accomplishments, and then only a few of them actually succeeding in getting a future faculty job, it seems counterproductive to expect teaching training to be done during the grad and postdoctoral years. Why should grad students and postdocs who already are under so much pressure to produce research results, be subjected to more pressure to get teaching training especially since MOST of these people are going to drop out of the pipeline and not become faculty in the end.

Why not wait until someone has been hired as a new faculty and then have THEM undergo teaching training then. It will be immediately relevant to their job anyway. This seems to be the easiest solution to getting new faculty the teaching training they need, without completely overhauling the entire system of how science is done in this country.

Anonymous said...

"Being a TA is not the same as teaching."

Hmm, seems to me I am developing a lot of teaching skills TAing. Labs need introductions, even developing our own Powerpoints or handouts. Smaller upper-division classes require lots of interactions with professors. Lots of standing in front of a room, thinking on our feet...are TA's paper-grading robots in your view/field?