Teaching Development For All Doctoral Students | It’s Time

Development as a teacher should be part of every doctoral student’s program and every graduate student should expect to become a proficient teacher. Doctoral students are usually obliged to focus on their research at the expense of broader career preparation. As a result, it is difficult for doctoral students to learn about the science of effective college teaching.

A newly released report, from a groundbreaking seven-year longitudinal research study, provides evidence of the value of teaching development (TD) for doctoral students. It provides ammunition for those (like me) who want to put teaching-preparation front and center in doctoral studies.

My three take-aways from the report are:

  • Teaching Development (TD) is happening! It is widely used and widely available.
  • It matters. TD has a positive impact on students’ teaching ability and confidence.
  • It’s time to integrate TD into doctoral programs.

The Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars was conducted by a team led by Dr. Mark Connolly at the University of Wisconsin. It examined the effects of teaching-focused professional development programs used by STEM doctoral students with academic aspirations (future STEM faculty). Over 2,000 doctoral students from three research universities (ASU, UW, UW), were surveyed 3 times over 5 years.

The study was limited to science students, but the findings, I believe, are equally applicable to students in all fields.

The top three take-aways are:

Teaching Development Is Widely Used and Widely Available

Teaching development (TD) is no longer invisible. Most students (85%) participate in at least one type of formal TD activity during their doctoral programs. Most study subjects participated because it was required (72%). And, encouragingly, over half of the students surveyed also participated out of genuine interest (57%) and a desire to improve (53%).

Students spent an average of 33 hours in TD activities during their doctoral programs, and two of every five students (42.7%) had high-moderate or high levels of TD engagement1.

LSFSS Fig 7

 

TD activities are widely available, but are rarely a formally required component of doctoral training. The research team did an intensive landscape scan, and discovered the many forms of TD. So you can immerse yourself as deeply as you desire.

Arrayed from less intensive to more intensive:

  • One-day, compulsory workshops for teaching assistants (TA)
  • Short workshops
  • Conferences and in-depth workshops
  • Webinars and Podcasts
  • One- to two-week long summer institutes
  • Formal for-credit courses in teaching
  • A series of formal courses arranged in a sequence intended to create a sustained professional development experience
  • A certificate program, that includes a series of courses and a capstone project. Formally recognized with an institutional Certificate in College Teaching

LSFSS Fig 6

If you want to improve your pedagogical skills and knowledge: look around. Many units on same campus sponsor TD activities; including Centers for Teaching and Learning, the graduate school, provost’s office, and individual academic departments.

TD Has Positive Short- and Long-Term Benefits

There are demonstrable immediate and career-long payoffs to participating in TD. New faculty members get off to a faster start when they have already developed competence in teaching. (Nevertheless, formal training is not required of aspiring faculty members, although teaching-intensive institutions expect it.)

This is an important counter-argument to those who are not sure that TD is worth-while for students. Benefits include:

Increased competence. Teaching is not a simple activity. The research team identified six specific pedagogy-related knowledge and skill areas:

  • Course Design
  • Classroom Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Diversity in Learning
  • Teacher-student Relationships
  • Teaching in General

Participation in TD was associated with significantly increased self-reports of competence in all six of these areas. And more intensive TD activities, particularly formal courses, resulted in significantly higher scores for each skill area.

Chris K at chalkboard explaining geology

Chris K at chalkboard explaining geology

Increased Self-Efficacy. Future faculty members must develop confidence in their abilities to be college instructors—called their “college teaching self-efficacy beliefs.” More than 30 years of research has shown that self-efficacy beliefs are one of the most reliable predictors of a person’s performance.

Higher TD engagement increased college teaching self-efficacy beliefs. In other words, confidence matters and participating in TD gives prospective college teachers confidence in their abilities.

Connection with Colleagues. Another benefit of participating in TD activities is connecting with like-minded peers. Those with strong interest and commitment to teaching found community with like-minded faculty and student colleagues, both inside and outside of their departments.

Job Placement and Career Discernment. Job seekers found that TD provided a competitive advantage in their application packages.

Not all doctoral students will become faculty members, and a recent emphasis on the diversity of career paths is a very positive development (see this 3 Keys interview). Most non-faculty careers will expect the ability to explain complex ideas, persuade and mentor others. That is teaching! So I believe that pedagogical preparation is valuable for all doctoral students.

You should pursue career paths that align with your knowledge, skills, and values. Teaching experience helped the students in the study examine their interest in teaching and its place in their professional lives. Reflection helps you discern your values and make better choices.

Long-Term Effects. Some of the study participants moved into faculty careers over the course of the study. The more frequently these young professors had participated in TD, the more likely they were to use proven teaching practices. Providing future faculty members with training pays off, even several years later. In particular, formal courses proved to have lasting impact on the young scholars’ work in the classroom.

Time to Build TD Into Doctoral Programs

These two findings—TD is already widespread, and it has broad impact—leads me to conclude that TD should be integrated into all doctoral programs and required of all students. Every student should have access to a range of TD, at different levels of intensity, depending on their interest and career goals.

One common objection to new requirements is the fear that it will take too much time. One of the most important findings of the study was that TD participation does not lengthen time to degree.

Chemistry Bachelor students lab assignments. Department of Chemistry, NTNU. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU, Creative Commons license

Learning Chemistry. (Photo: Per Henning, Faculty of Natural Sciences and Technology, NTNU, Creative Commons license)

Many programs already require that students serve as teaching assistants. These requirements are defended as having educational value for students’ career development, but pedagogical preparation is not yet available to every student. One-day TA training often emphasizes procedural and bureaucratic activities, rather than delving into proven pedagogical practices. The next step is to integrate teaching development into doctoral programs.

The chief culprit is the culture of academia in research-intensive universities, which rewards research over teaching in faculty work, and prioritizes research-training over teaching-training. Teaching development is not yet embraced by all faculty.

This argument is compelling: TD benefits grad students’ careers, and, in turn, has positive impact on their future students. It is time to give teaching development its due place.


 [1] The researchers calculated the time-intensity of various TD activities, and then, based on surveys, learned how many activities of which kind students participated in over the course of their graduate studies. This allowed them to create a scale of levels of engagements from none to high (more than 55 hours).

Full disclosure: I had the privilege of serving on the advisory committee for the study.

The featured image at the top of the post, “Teacher at Chalkboard,” is used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Cybrarian77.

This post was published April 19, 2016.

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