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New course helps graduate students
develop teaching skills
November 16, 1998

It's near the end of a cold, dark late October Wednesday and graduate students in DRM 216 are debating the merits of exams and grades and other ways to evaluate students.

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They're taking part in a new course designed to teach graduate students how to teach undergraduates - now as teaching assistants or later after they've earned their degrees.

This particular class, taught by Jonna Kulikowich, associate professor of educational psychology, was one of 14 sessions of EDCI 326 - Teaching and Learning Fundamentals - which was offered this fall for the first time by the Institute for Teaching and Learning. Thirteen professors volunteered to teach at least one class.

Two sections of the course will be offered during spring semester.

The course was developed by Keith Barker, a professor of computer science and engineering and director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning. Twenty students in disciplines ranging from engineering to neurobiology to music are enrolled in this fall's class.

"We (who teach the course) have a lot of experience in teaching and now we're sharing our ideas and experiences with a group of students who are trying to learn these things in a short period of time," Barker said. "I hope they will see a lot of skills being demonstrated by the faculty and then will take those ideas and develop them themselves and become better teachers."

Part of the motivation behind the course is to help graduate students when they enter the teaching job market, which is very competitive, he said. Assembling a teaching portfolio, for example, one of the topics covered in the course, will help.

"They still have no credentials to say they've gone through a process of learning how to teach," Barker said. "It is important for graduate students to have something on their transcript that said, 'Yes, I am a researcher, but I've also been involved in curriculum work.' They may get letters of recommendation as a teaching assistant, but this would be another asset they could take with them."

He also said he had received requests from graduate students who wanted to learn more about being a teaching assistant beyond the orientation that is offered at the beginning of the school year.

"I would like to see all graduate students who are participating in direct instructional responsibilities go through significant training before they actually get into the classroom," he said. "That might not always be possible, but we could give them concurrent education. 'Here are some things you need to get started. We'll help with other things as we go along.' It makes sense. They don't put teachers into the public schools without teaching qualifications."

Barker said some parts of the University may soon require graduate students to take a teaching skills class. That would require additional staff resources, however.

"Volunteers do a great job, but there's a point I won't ask them any more because it's not fair," he said.

Hawley Montgomery-Downs, a Ph.D. candidate in biobehavioral sciences, is one of the students in EDCI 326.

"I don't teach here, because we have no undergraduate program in my field," she said during a break in John Bennett's session on student-centered learning, another of the classes in the course. "I do have a graduate assistantship to do research, but that doesn't make me a well- rounded job candidate. This course is helping me, especially with theoretical issues."

Montgomery-Downs, who earned a Bachelor's degree in experimental psychology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., was interested in Bennett's topic.

She said the student-centered learning approach gives students the responsibility for their own learning.

"There's a lot of emphasis on teachers being responsible for students' learning," she said. "I'm a little uncomfortable with that method."

Alice Zawacki, a Ph.D. candidate in economics, said she's learning strategies in EDCI 326 that she will be able to apply in the classroom. She said Kulikowich's session on evaluation, testing and grading was a good blend of theory and application.

Zawacki, who earned a Bachelor's degree in psychology and a Masters in Businsss Administration at UConn, is a teaching assistant for a graduate course this semester, although she taught a 200-level economics course last summer. She also has put together two teaching manuals for teaching assistants.

"There's a lot of responsibility involved in undergraduate teaching," she said. "I take it seriously."

Kulikowich said she enjoyed the level of interaction with graduate students during the two-hour class. Her approach was to mix a presentation format with some lecture-based information, followed by a student-centered discussion. "That mix seemed to work very well," she said. "I would introduce a topic, such as suggestions for building multiple-choice and essay exams, and my audience would raise many issues concerning assessment and grading practices."

She also noted the debate over the best ways to manage measurement and evaluation.

"I think it was valuable to hear the multiple perspectives we shared. I learned much. I hope our students found it beneficial, too."

Ken Ross