Moderation in All Things: Developing Good Teaching Skills During Graduate School

22 Jan 2018 10:11 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., Moravian College

During graduate school, some students get the regrettable message from their mentors—sometimes implicit, often explicit—that seeking teaching experience is an unwanted distraction from research and publishing or finishing the dissertation. Unfortunately, such advice does not help students who follow it; they can struggle when it’s time to enter the academic job market. Although research-intensive universities may hire promising ABDs or Ph.D.s with little or no teaching experience, jobs at such places are scarce and highly competitive. Most available academic jobs, whether tenure track or visiting positions, require a fair amount of teaching (think 3 or more courses per term). Liberal arts colleges and less research-focused universities post jobs and can expect that their most competitive applicants will have had teaching experiences.

At the other extreme are graduate students who are told by their mentors from the get-go that teaching is a way to finance their way through graduate school. These students often teach a lot, adjunct teaching hither and yon, so much so that they take longer to do research, publish little, and may spend beyond the usual 5 to 7 years or so in graduate school. Although they may like, even love, teaching, they are less competitive on the crowded job market because their CVs have few to no publications and they look like slow starters.

My message is to avoid these extremes by seeking a middle path: moderation. Be judicious when accepting teaching assignments (I am referring largely to instances where you become the instructor of record—not when serving as a teaching assistant—“TA”—a discussion leader, or the similar—those are important but less demanding roles). Teaching well takes time, so you should teach a few classes during graduate school, but not too many or your progress to your degree will suffer.

What sorts of classes should you teach as a graduate student? Introductory psychology is a good choice, as it is the most popular class in the psychology curriculum and the one for which adjuncts are most often hired. Beyond that, research methods and statistics can serve you well. But both classes are demanding in terms of time and preparation and delivery, and both are easy to teach badly. However, they are often in demand—good statistics instructors, in particular, are hard to find.

How far ahead should you be where lectures are concerned? First, don’t lecture all the time—make sure that you carve out time in each class for some discussion. When it comes to class preparation, try to stay two weeks ahead as you craft lecture notes the first time. This “cushion” will serve you well when unexpected demands on your time appear; you won’t have to stay up all night to read a chapter and write a lecture.

Avoid teaching too much about your area(s) of expertise. Yes, you love neuroscience or social or health psychology—but such knowledge is often too detailed for a lower level course. Save your expertise for the seminars you will teach when you land a tenure track job. For now, be a thoughtful generalist—teachers who only teach about their research topic are boring. Your goal is to meaningfully reach and connect with the non-psychology majors as well as the undergraduate psychology majors in the diverse audience found in most introductory psychology courses.

Craft a solid but doable syllabus. First time teachers are often like first time cooks; they go for the elaborate. Learning to make spaghetti and meatballs is tough enough the first time—starting out in the kitchen trying to make lasagna is stressful and a (pardon me) recipe for disaster. Again, moderation: Two or three exams, not six; one or two short papers, not four; weekly quizzes seem like a good idea, but only if you have a teaching assistant. Remember, moderation is key.

Stand on the shoulders of giants and crib from them. If you had an excellent undergrad psychology teacher, can you remember what she did to make her classes so memorable? Borrow her technique or her activities! Read the journals Teaching of Psychology, Scholarship of Teaching & Learning in Psychology, Psychology Learning and Teaching, and so on. But, once more, be selective—don’t try every activity or technique—pick one or two, not 10 or 12. The moderate teacher doesn’t schedule a demonstration for every class—50 minutes goes fast! Once a week or once every two weeks is sufficient.

Assess how you are doing. Around mid-term, pass out a short survey (1 side of 1 page—no more!) where you ask students to let you know how the class is going (you can usually just use the end-of-term form, as it will have questions about the class structure and your teaching style). Don’t let the one or two nasty comments (we all get them and, yes, they grate on our egos, but teaching is not for the faint of heart) distract you from the actually helpful suggestions, such as “don’t talk with your back to the class” and “rely on PowerPoint less.”

Invite a trusted soul to observe your work. Don’t ask Mom or Dad or you best friend or life partner. Ask a faculty member (sometimes your advisor is a good choice, sometimes not) who is regarded as a skilled teacher to attend one class. Listen to his or her suggestions without being defensive or explaining why you did something such and such a way. The writer-ly maxim that “readers are almost always right, but editors always are” fits well here. If a trusted teacher sees something that can be changed in your developing style, change it.

Other closing thoughts. Should you tell jokes? Yes, but only if they come naturally, you have a good (not acerbic) sense of humor, and you pace them—you are teaching, not doing stand up. Avoid politics at all costs. Always define terms, including heavy-duty vocabulary words that are grad school vernacular but will be unfamiliar to undergraduates. Be friendly with students, but not friends. Never present personal details about your life in class unless they illustrate a concept perfectly—maybe do so once or twice a semester. Take roll and track absences. Enforce deadlines by reminding students (and yourself) that the syllabus is both a roadmap and a contract. And remember, moderation in all things.


Dana S. Dunn is professor and chair of the psychology department of Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA.

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