Advice for New Graduate Student Instructors

04 Mar 2020 8:35 PM | Anonymous

by Sam Sommers, Ph.D., and Lisa Shin, Ph.D., Tufts University

We’ve been there. Even though we’re old enough that our students may assume we’ve been professors forever (literally so, in some of their minds), we still remember vividly the anxieties and uncertainties of teaching for the very first time, as graduate student instructors. Some of those original worries and challenges never go away! Others we have found ways to manage over time.

So now that we are — let’s go with — experienced instructors, we sometimes get asked to offer advice to those who are embarking on their own teaching careers. One common question is how to balance the various responsibilities of graduate school once you add teaching to the mix. What do we say in response? Well, there’s good news and bad news when it comes to time management in graduate school. 

First, the good news. There’s an easy formula you can follow, which varies by institution and discipline, but typically looks something like this: you should be spending 75% of your time and effort on your research, 50% on your teaching, and another 40% on your classes.

The bad news, of course, is that the math doesn’t add up. In graduate school, not to mention faculty positions, no matter how much work you get done, there is always more work waiting. Given that you won’t be able to muster 165% of your time and effort most days, you must figure out ways to wear all these proverbial hats at one time. So, below are a few specific strategies we’ve developed for fudging the numbers in this formula — ways you can game the system, so to speak.

1) Make these categories less mutually exclusive. Your allocation of time to research, teaching, and coursework can exceed a sum of 100% if you allow these endeavors to overlap. Incorporate your newest research project into your teaching. Use your teaching as a time to develop new research ideas. Take your graduate seminar writing assignments as the opportunity to design new research programs or explore new literature that broaden your scholarship. 

We have also found that that research and teaching include crossover skills. Teaching well will make you a stronger researcher: talking in front of your students is an experience that will leave you far better at presenting your research at departmental colloquia and national conferences. Answering students’ questions will help you do the same in your academic talks. Devising and implementing strategies for explaining technical concepts to classes with different skill sets will serve you well when you present your work across disciplines or to lay audiences.

2) Learn low-investment, high-reward tricks to successful teaching. You can cheat the time management percentages by learning that the little things mean a lot when you’re a teacher. A surprising number of positive teaching evaluations read something as follows: “The professor was so enthusiastic about the material,” or, “It was an excellent course that was very well organized,” or even, “It meant a lot that the instructor learned all our names.” It’s amazing how far you get as a teacher by simply paying attention to being enthusiastic, organized, and interpersonally accessible. Accomplish all three, and your teaching ratings (and more importantly, effectiveness) soar. 

We’ve learned that so much of what makes you an effective teacher are the same characteristics that make you the type of person with whom others enjoy having a conversation. Being present and engaged. Being a good listener. Respecting others’ opinions but having something interesting to say. Being able to sense how your audience is responding (or not responding). No one likes a conversation with someone who can’t pick up on how bored you are, who can’t tell that you’re composing a grocery list in your head while they prattle on. Imagine how students feel when this happens in class.  Effective teachers can tell when their students are struggling and need a concept explained in a different way. They can sense when they’re losing the class and need to break things up with an activity or small group discussion.

There are straightforward ways to develop and foster these skills. Remember what it is about your discipline that excited you in the first place and share it with your students.  Set up a clear plan for the structure of the course and stick to it — when modifications are necessary, explain why. And make the effort to learn your students’ names! Being enthusiastic, organized, and accessible are goals we can all accomplish without a huge amount of effort. 

3) Be disciplined. One of the best aspects of a career in academia is that, for the most part, you’re an independent contractor who sets many of your own priorities. You must be disciplined to make it work. If you set up expectations with your students regarding how quickly you’ll respond to their emails, or regarding what type of questions you will and won’t answer over email, be sure you stick to those rules. If you must grade 40 papers in 7 days, set aside time each day for 6 papers.  It’s much less daunting than pulling a marathon session the night before they need to be done, and we’ve found that it also helps us do a better job of evaluating assignments.

And what about when you give a lecture and realize it was a few slides too short, a few slides too long, or needs work in the middle third?  As soon as the lecture ends, make those changes to your lesson plan and/or slides so they’re ready to go for next time. Or, if you can’t pull that off, at the very least, immediately write yourself a detailed memo outlining the needed changes for the next time around. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve felt a debt of gratitude to past Sam and past Lisa for their conscientiousness from semesters prior.

Do all these strategies work all the time? Of course not! Perhaps, more so than any other aspect of academia, teaching is all about trial and error. So, don’t be afraid to experiment.  And make sure to keep a list of what has worked well, what hasn’t, and why: believe it or not, before you know it, new instructors are going to be coming to you for advice, and you may very well start off your response with something like, we’ve been there; it feels like just yesterday that we were new instructors…

Sam Sommers and Lisa Shin are Professors of Psychology at Tufts University, where they co-teach Introduction to Psychology.  Along with Carole Wade and Carol Tavris, they are co-authors of Psychology and Invitation to Psychology.  In addition to research programs in social psychology (Sommers) and clinical neuroscience (Shin), they collaborate on research examining the influence of textbook modality on student reading tendencies and learning outcomes, with a particular focus on how students use and learn from electronic textbooks.

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