By: Kirk S. Robinson
My right front tooth has a small chip in it! I pull back from the mirror, lean with my back against the open bathroom door, and fold my arms. How did I not notice this before? I start to mentally make a list of the possible reasons for how this unsightly chip came to be. As I stand there, an unpleasant thought pops into my head. This thought connects to other thoughts: the strange numb feeling in my jaw; the clicking sounds I hear before waking up; and finally, my lack of confidence and anxiety over planning to teach in spring. I am grinding my teeth at night! Worse, I think I am grinding them in anticipation of planning and teaching my first college courses.
Preparing to Teach a Collegiate Course as a Graduate Student
As a graduate student, the act of teaching one’s first collegiate course can be daunting. However, preparing to teach can be just as stressful. There is much to consider, such as development of some or all of the following: a philosophy guiding instructional practice, course learning goals, general course policies (i.e., for attendance, course grading, participation, etc.), readings, assignments/assessments, rubrics for assignments/assessments, a course schedule, and more. Written explanation of these items typically appear on a syllabus, which serves as a comprehensive outline of a course for students. To say the least, this is a lot on top of the typical graduate student activities of taking coursework, conducting research, and writing.
In this blog post, I share my experiences preparing to teach my first collegiate courses as a graduate student in my higher education program. Based on my experiences, I provide strategies and resources for other graduate students embarking on the journey of teaching. My hope is these strategies and resources can help reduce any lack of confidence and anxiety within my graduate student colleagues preparing to teach.
Resources I Found Helpful in my Preparation
As part of my assistantship duties, my task was to prepare to (and eventually) teach, as the solo instructor of record, two sections of a graduate seminar on student affairs practicum experiences for our program’s master’s students. I only had one semester’s worth of time to prepare for the seminars, as I was slated to begin teaching the seminars in my first spring semester. The recurring theme of these seminar courses was the notion of exploration. Students were to work in practicum positions on campus to explore which student affairs functional areas fit their professional preferences best. The primary purpose of the seminars was to have students connect their practicum experiences to relevant theories in student affairs and higher education. Ph.D. students in our program typically taught the seminars in one of three formats: solo, as co-teachers with each other, or as co-teachers with a faculty member. The relatively long history of past instructors of this seminar provided me with my first tangible resource to aid my preparation: the syllabi and experiences of past instructors.
I collected three different syllabi from Ph.D. students and faculty who previously taught the seminar and studied them closely to see what readings, assignments, and policies they implemented. I subsequently scheduled meetings with these instructors to get a sense of what worked well for them and what did not. From there, I considered their perspectives and experiences with my own to determine how I wanted to shape the seminars. A second resource that emerged from my meetings with past instructors was the opportunity to shadow them. An advanced Ph.D. student teaching a practicum seminar during my first semester offered to allow me to shadow hir course. This experience was invaluable because it gave me a front-row seat to observe how the seminar worked, and how students interacted, with this instructor. In other words, I had one example of how the seminar could function. A third resource I utilized in my preparation was the Learning Partnerships Model (LPM) (Baxter Magolda, 2004a). This model posits the following assumptions:
- Knowledge is socially constructed and complex.
- How individuals view themselves plays an important role in their knowledge construction.
- Mutual knowledge construction requires sharing of authority.
Additionally, the model suggests the following principles:
- Learners are capable of knowing.
- Learners’ pre-existing knowledge should serve as a foundation upon which new knowledge develops.
- Connections between one’s own knowledge and learners’ knowledge is vital when developing understanding of a concept or problem
I learned about this model in a doctoral seminar I took during my first semester. The assumptions and principles of the model made sense to me and fit with my notions of how a graduate seminar could run. For example, my sections of the seminars contained between 10 and 15 students each; this permitted me to allow students to choose how they wanted to distribute their grading percentages for their assignments (e.g., distribute 100% of a grade between four assignments however they wanted). Implementing this policy provided an opportunity for students to see how they were capable of knowing, which can cultivate growth of internally defined developmental perspectives (Baxter Magolda, 2004b). In more recent classes I have taught, I have referred to other theories and perspectives in addition to the LPM to help shape my instructional approaches, such as Paulo Freire’s (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed and bell hooks’ (1994) Teaching to Transgress.
What I Wish I Knew Ahead of my Preparation
Although reviewing past syllabi, meeting with instructors, shadowing, and having knowledge of the LPM were all helpful in my preparation, I still felt underprepared to teach two sections of a graduate seminar by myself as the instructor of record. Looking back, I wish I had access to, and knowledge of, additional preparation opportunities and resources. For example, I wish I had participated in a formal graduate student teaching assistant preparation program. My institution offered such programs, one of which was a credit bearing, semester-long series of pedagogy seminars. Scholars of teaching and learning have found programs like this increase graduate students’ self-efficacy toward teaching (Boman, 2013; Dimitrov et al., 2013) and lessen graduate students’ anxiety communicating with their students in the classroom (Boman, 2013; Roach, 2003). Thus, participating in a preparation program could have helped me work through my challenges with self-efficacy and anxiety in regard to teaching preparation. However, due to the busyness of my first semester as a Ph.D. student, I could not work a preparation program into my schedule. I knew the program existed, but decided not to enroll because my schedule as a brand new doctoral student felt too daunting. In retrospect, I should have enrolled because the program would have likely saved me from future stress.
Since I did not enroll in the preparation program, I was left without sufficient guidance from which to draw upon to help my preparation. It was not until a few years after my first teaching preparation experience that I discovered McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014), a theory and research-based handbook for collegiate instruction. Now in its 14th edition, McKeachie’s is a longstanding and comprehensive text about college teaching, covering topics such as preparing for the first class session, facilitation of student learning, assessment strategies, grading, working with diverse student populations, and active learning (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014). Although nothing can replace the benefits of completing a formal teaching preparation program, use of McKeachie’s to guide collegiate teaching preparation works in a pinch. I wish I knew about it earlier.
Summary of Strategies and Resources
Below is a list of strategies and resources to consider when preparing to teach a collegiate course as a graduate student. Some resources may be institution or department specific. It is a good idea to consult with faculty advisors or more advanced teaching associates at your institution to inquire about what resources are currently available or accessible.
- First and most importantly, seek out and attempt to enroll in some kind of formal teaching preparation program intended for graduate students. My institution’s teaching and learning center offers such programming for graduate students from all disciplines; however, many individual academic departments also offer discipline-specific coursework on collegiate pedagogy.
- Acquire and study the syllabi of past instructors of the course to be taught; integrate policies, readings, and assignments that seem useful and relevant. Be sure to trust and rely on your own previous experiences as a student.
- Meet face-to-face with previous instructors of the course to be taught and use their past experiences as a guide when necessary.
- Shadow instructors currently teaching the course to be taught to gauge how teaching can occur in that setting. I emphasize the word can because courses vary depending on the style of the instructor and dispositions of the students.
- Read and integrate a philosophical approach to instruction; I personally enjoy the LPM (Baxter Magolda, 2004a) and the works of Freire (1970) and hooks (1994).
- Use McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014) as a guide for preparation.
I hope this blog post serves as a helpful guide for graduate students’ teaching preparation. If nothing else, I hope reading it prevents graduate students from future unanticipated trips to the dentist to fix previously nice looking teeth.
Kirk S. Robinson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He has taught and co-taught several graduate seminars in the program. His research interests include graduate student development and teaching preparation.
Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004a). Learning partnerships model: A framework for promoting self-authorship. In M. B. Baxter Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning partnerships: Theory and models for practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. 37-62). Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004b). Self-authorship as the common goal for 21st century education. In M. B. Baxter Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning partnerships: Theory and models for practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. 1-35). Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Boman, J. S. (2013). Graduate student teaching development: Evaluating the effectiveness of training in relation to graduate student characteristics. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 43(1), 100-114.
Dimitrov, N., Meadows, K., Kustra, E., Ackerson, T., Prada, L., Baker, N., Boulos, P., McIntyre, G., & Potter, M. K. (2013). Assessing graduate teaching development programs for impact on future faculty. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.
Roach, K. D. (2003). Teaching assistant anxiety and coping strategies in the classroom. Communication Research Reports, 20, 81–89.
Svinicki, M. D., & McKeachie, W. J. (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.