Midway through the 2022 spring semester, I walked into my classroom and was greeted by one of my students giving her classmates an impromptu presentation on educational best practices, punctuated with examples of work I’d been doing in her classroom. Despite the student’s praise and the fact that she was connecting claims and evidence (a skill I’d been preaching since day one), I was immediately uncomfortable and embarrassed. The student responded quickly, explaining that she was learning about lesson planning and classroom management in her education classes; she was fascinated at how much work went into a course “behind the scenes,” and the small group was “decoding” my class. This rational explanation did little to alleviate my horror at having my teaching practices dissected by 19-year-olds on tiny moveable desks in Ballantine Hall.
I think a lot of my embarrassment came from my own uncertainties as a graduate instructor. Course design is challenging, whether you are adapting department-supplied materials or stringing together big ideas into a coherent class scheme. It is even more challenging when you are balancing coursework, qualifying exams, or a dissertation. Some departments offer graduate students training or, even better, a practicum on teaching, but opportunities to practice course design are, overall, limited. This absence comes to the forefront when graduate students take to the job market and are confronted with pitching their “dream course.” So, how can graduate students practice designing courses while also keeping up with their many other responsibilities?
Brainstorm course ideas before the job market.
Not sure about that dream course? Consider your research interests, whether that is the topic of your graduate study, or just something you are fascinated with. Ask yourself questions about the topic: Who is the intended audience? Why might this interest them? What questions might they have? What experience, or lack thereof, will they have when they enter your course? Use your questions as a starting point; if you have answers ready, you might even find your course a home here at IU.
Think about the purpose of your courses.
Starting with final outcomes helps you, as instructor, understand the goals of your course. It provides a strong basis for the arc of your course, and it will help you explain the purpose of the course to both students and other faculty. This model, called backwards course design, builds on learning processes (such as recalling information, applying information, or evaluating resources) and is a great place to translate ideas into teaching practices. It’s a good idea to practice it whether you are teaching department-assigned introductory courses, or that dream course you brainstormed.
Know your resources.
We at CITL are here to help! This fall, we have two workshops on designing courses. The first provides some basics on course design and provides a chance to connect with graduate instructors who have successfully designed and implemented courses. The second allows you to bring your ideas and workshop them into pitches. These will be offered on 9/27/2022 and 10/4/2022, respectively. You can also visit our website to schedule an appointment with one of our instructional consultants to talk course design and learn about options for proposing courses at IU.
Be generous with yourself.
It’s all too easy to start criticizing yourself before you’ve even begun designing a course. Remember that as a graduate instructor, you are still learning about teaching and yourself as a teacher. It’s also important to know that your impact on students is significant: studies show students respond positively to graduate students’ teaching presence and methods, and some researchers have declared a link between graduate student-led classes and students declaring majors.
In addition to these tips, I’d encourage you to be open with your students about developing your teaching practices. If you provide a few targeted questions and a space for collaborative discussions, they’ll have comments (but hopefully not an unsolicited presentation).
Resources and references:
Ahmed, Shazia. “Graduate Instructors: Present Instructors and Future Faculty.” Faculty Focus. 17 September 2018.
Flaherty, Colleen. “The Power of Grad Student Teaching.” Inside Higher Ed. 8 March 2016.
Kennison, Sheila M., Rachel H. Messer, and C. Daniel Hornyik. “Tips for the First-Time Graduate Instructor.” Association for Psychological Sciences. 7 March 2013.
Shortlidge, Erin E., Sarah L. Eddy. “The trade-off between graduate student research and teaching: A myth?” PLoS One. 25 June 2018.