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Tips for postgraduate students to improve their teaching (opinion)

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The first time Maria (pseudonym) taught at a college as a graduate student, the experience was so demoralizing that after the semester ended, she no longer wanted to be a professor. She was assigned an introductory anthropology course just three weeks before the semester began. Her department chair’s only advice was to look at another teacher’s program.

“No one talked to me about pedagogy, no one shared teaching resources or adult learning resources, and certainly no one taught me how to create a curriculum or structure a classroom around specific learning outcomes,” she recalls. And no one taught her the techniques of attracting students.

When it didn’t work out, Maria blamed herself. She assumed that her students’ apathy meant that she simply couldn’t teach: “As someone who unconsciously struggled with impostor syndrome, I accepted what I believed to be my inability to teach until it damaged my well-being. At the time, I thought, “If I can’t teach the basic principles of my discipline, I have no business being a teacher,” she told us.

Teaching graduate school, even under the best of circumstances, is very challenging. You are not yet an expert in the field, you may not be much older than the students in front of you, and you are struggling with all the challenges of starting a teaching career along with the intense pressures of graduate school. Additionally, you can receive messages from your program to put teaching last and prioritize research. Even something as simple as something you added to your schedule at the last minute can feel like a signal that your educational contribution is an afterthought.

However, graduate students teach introductory courses that can determine a student’s future success in college. You often teach courses that allow students to further their major or fulfill major requirements. Some evidence suggests that students may even be more likely to major if a graduate student, rather than a faculty member, directs their initial coursework.

So, if you’re a graduate student starting to teach next semester and you’ve received little (or no) instruction, how can you prepare quickly so that your experience isn’t as demoralizing as Maria’s?

We suggest you take an approach that focuses on what we believe to be the most important aspect of teaching (and, frankly, what decades of research supports): forming connections. Spending time getting to know your students, developing ways for them to connect with each other, and thinking carefully about how you are going to help students make personal connections with the course material will give you the best chance of creating a course that you and your students look forward to it.

Connecting to you. Let’s start with the first week. On the first day — or the first module of an online course — consider opening with an overview of why you’re passionate about the course topics, or sharing a little about your educational journey and how it got you to where you are now you are

If you have no experience teaching this course, you do not need to share it. Instead, tell them about your knowledge of the material, the number of years you’ve studied, and any field or professional experience you’ve had. If you feel comfortable, talk about some of the difficulties you faced as a student. The details of what you share are not as important as establishing a rapport with students and communicating that you believe they can succeed in your course.

Communication with other students. After you’ve given your students a chance to get to know you and the course topics, spend some time in an activity that allows students to get to know their classmates and addresses their expectations and concerns about the class. A solid activity to achieve both goals is for students to come to a consensus around a set of expectations for your and their participation. Think of it as co-creating course objectives on day one.

First, make it clear to students that you want their input to create a productive learning community in the classroom. Then divide the students into groups of four or five; it can be done face to face or online, in large lecture courses or small workshops. Ask them to make a list of five expectations for classroom behavior or, alternatively, suggestions for how you can best help them learn in the classroom. One of us, Aeron, often starts work by mentioning that in past classes she has been asked to return papers/tests within a certain time period, or that students arrive on time and wait to enter the room when another student is speaking, etc.

After the student groups have formed their five suggestions, ask a volunteer from each group to present the group’s suggestions while you write them down. You can respond in real time to some of their offers. For example, if students ask for their work to be returned within a week, you can let them know that due to your teaching load, you will not be able to return the work within one week, but you will promise to return it in two. Or you can collect the suggestions from all the groups, thank them, and then use a few minutes of the next class to summarize their ideas and respond.

This activity can be done in online classrooms on a discussion board or on the fly, where the group leader summarizes the ideas of his group. Such activities allow students to authentically interact with each other as informed participants who can contribute to the collaborative learning of the course on the first day. By conducting them, you signal to students that you are open to their opinions, and you also ask them to share responsibility for the success of the course. During your first interaction with students, you can help them better understand you and who you are as a teacher, as well as who else is in the class with them.

Connecting to the material. Finally, take time during the first week to allow students to familiarize themselves with the course material. This can be an individual reflection in which students share their previous experiences with the topic, express fears or concerns they have about the course, or anticipate how the course will benefit them in life.

In an introductory writing course, the other of us, Stephanie, often asked students to tell us a little bit about the most significant piece they had ever written. Students described writing letters to loved ones, obituaries, or essays that earned them recognition. This helped anchor the rest of the semester because the students had already established how meaningful the writing could be.

After the first week, the first time you teach a class, you’ll probably plan one week at a time, and that’s okay. Just keep asking yourself, “How can I help students connect with the course, with each other, and with me as a teacher?”

If you feel unsure, look for resources. Ask to sit in on a class taught by a graduate student, find a teaching and learning center on campus (if you have one), or read one article about teaching in your discipline. Try to find a “teaching buddy”—a fellow student with whom you can share strategies, failures, and successes. This can be helpful and save partnership time if you choose to share materials and resources.

Keep in touch

Finally, schedule a time during the semester when you will collect anonymous feedback from students. We recommend somewhere between the third and a half of the semester, but it can be done earlier. Consider asking your campus learning center to hold a mid-semester feedback session with students or create an anonymous online survey for them. After gathering feedback, you’ll want to use the time in the next class to review their feedback and explain any changes you plan to make in response to their feedback.

Asking your students for their opinions on your teaching when you’re already anxious and unsure can seem daunting, but it can pay big dividends. If students are frustrated with an aspect of the course, identifying this early in the semester gives you an opportunity to address the issue and perhaps change some things.

In addition to asking students what you do that helps or doesn’t help their learning, consider including questions that ask students to reflect on their own classroom habits, such as “What do you do in this course to help your learning? ” or “What could you start doing to be more successful in this course?” This encourages students to see the course as a joint venture with responsibility on both sides. Student feedback can also reassure you; students often give new instructors more grace than expected.

Finally, remember that even if your teaching isn’t perfect this semester, you belong here. No one is able to teach immediately. Teaching is practice and it will take practice to be successful at it.

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