Graduate Students as Teachers

Author: Mary Hendriksen

Many graduate students contribute to the University’s goal to “offer an unsurpassed undergraduate education” by serving as teaching assistants and instructors of record. Teaching is both a critical component of professional development for many graduate students and an important part of undergraduates’ learning experiences. Often, undergraduates forge a strong connection with their graduate student instructors and teaching assistants.

Every year, the Graduate School and the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning honor graduate students who have demonstrated outstanding proficiency in the classroom and laboratory.

As part of Graduate Student Appreciation week, we highlight below three of the 2012 graduate student teaching award winners: John Engbers (Department of Mathematics), Sara Fulmer (Department of Psychology), and Carolyn Rodak (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences).

The three students share their teaching philosophies — accompanied by sample comments from their grateful students.

John Engbers (Department of Mathematics)

John Engbers, a graduate student who teaches in the Department of Mathematics

John believes that learning itself is so individualized that he strives to motivate students through teaching interactively — whether, he says, “that is through direct coaching, gentle prodding, exploring an interesting problem, observing someone passionate about the material, or seeing how all the concepts fit together in one big picture.” He may use lectures, exploratory projects, or student-led modules for his teaching — “In fact, I might use several of these in a single classroom.”

A sampling of comments from John’s students:

“John was always available for questions, and had an answer to basically every question anyone asked. I felt completely engaged in the class, and the business aspect that John brought into the class was great. Fantastic instructor. . ."

“I wasn’t very confident in my math abilities before this course; now I’m considering becoming a math major.”

Sara Fulmer (Department of Psychology)

Sara Fulmer, a graduate student who teaches in the Department of Psychology

Sara says that her teaching philosophy has three components:

  • At any age, in any context, learning is constructed during reachable challenges.
  • Regardless of age, students learn best in a collaborative and caring environment.
  • The most important part of my role as a teacher, in any context, is to motivate.

A technique she has found useful is asking students at the beginning of a class to complete an Anticipation Guide, in which they record their opinions about several statements on a new topic. At the end of the lecture, students return to their Guide and record their responses to the statements again, based on what they have learned.

“I then ask students to reflect about whether and why their beliefs have changed,” she explains. “By checking their current understanding against their previous beliefs (even over the span of a one-hour class), students recognize changes in their thinking — changes that are not always obvious to learners in the moment.”

A sample comment from Sara’s students:

“Sara is an excellent instructor who genuinely cares about her students and their understanding of not only class material, but developmental psychology as a whole. It is evident that she wants her students to succeed in her class and genuinely cares that they do.”

Carolyn Rodak (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences)

Carolyn Rodak, a graduate student who teaches in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences

The most memorable learning experiences of her own life, says Carolyn, have been active, hands-on experiences. That realization has been the starting point for her own approach to teaching.

“While tactile learners are estimated to make up only 5% of the population,” she notes, “all students are likely to benefit from the reinforcement of concepts through thoughtful laboratory design tied to class concepts and a more active classroom atmosphere.”

With this as her guiding philosophy, Carolyn works with students so that they understand fundamental concepts and relationships and then transfer that knowledge into the ability to solve real-world problems.

A sample comment from Carolyn’s students:

“Carrie was very available and approachable. . . [A] great teaching assistant . . . shows lots of interest in the class and the material and went above the call of duty. She was very helpful and knowledgeable. . ."

A new cohort of graduate student teaching award winners will be honored at a celebratory dinner on April 16th. Nomination materials are sent to departments late February.