Learning how to teach is an important process of academic life. But when should it begin? How does it happen? Who should be involved? Who is responsible?
Higher education should involve a high quality of instruction, yet most faculty are initially unqualified in teaching practice. Earning an advanced degree in a discipline does not, by proxy, equate to an ability to teach. Thus, learning how to teach becomes an important process of academic life. But when does (should) that process begin? Who is involved? How does it happen? Who is responsible?
There are many models for learning how to teach: trial and error, formal training, and mentorship, to name just a few. For the most part, trial and error tends to be the first mode in which most faculty start teaching, often followed by a chosen mentorship from a more experienced colleague. The lack of teaching experience that new faculty possess, however, ultimately results in a four-to-five-year time lag before institutional teaching standards are met or exceeded (Boice 1992). However, a persistent lack of experience is not necessarily owing to a lack of accessible, effective teacher-training offerings at institutions. Severe time constraints over a widespread and demanding distribution of effort is the usual suspect causing faculty to limit their focus on instructional development, regardless of their motivation and enthusiasm for teaching. For this reason, developing teaching skills in a small number of budding graduate students (when they have the time and interest) can circumvent the lack of time for training when such students then become new faculty. Not all graduate students have the opportunity to teach, and not all that have such an opportunity to do so go on to teach.
Motivation for learning how to teach can hold positive and negative origins. There are born teachers who are drawn to teaching and who require no external motivation . Others are strongly encouraged by their department head to improve their teaching in order to retain their position. But at some point, whether consciously or not, faculty seek advice with regard to teaching. Sources of advice can, of course, vary in helpfulness, but in order to accommodate fast starts of new faculty we promote the idea of teaching fellowships/mentorships between enthusiastic graduate students who are thinking about academic careers and enthusiastic faculty. As Bullard and Felder note, working with a good mentor can knock years off the learning curve in developing teaching skills (Bullard and Felder 2003). Our department has developed a portfolio of non-mandatory, instructional training support, including: workshops with international higher-education speakers, teaching triads (a peer-based classroom-visit program), and participation in our institutional festival of teaching and learning, along with faculty/graduate student mentorship. We feel that starting the learning process of teaching earlier can make life easier down the line.
If we posit that mentorship is useful and rewarding, then we must ask: should academic institutions spend their efforts and resources teaching graduate students how to teach or teach only their new faculty members? In reality both these groups are central to the undergraduate learning experience, but a common problem is a shortage of sufficient resources available for educational instruction of the graduate student population and faculty. Sadly, the financial burden to support and retain faculty usually outweighs the philanthropic ideal to offer instructional training for all those involved in the learning process of the student body. Because many graduate students relocate and are no longer a resource at their alma mater, some feel that graduate students are a less valuable investment. However, when higher-education institutions contribute to peoples’ education, they fulfill their mission, increase awareness in the community, and create a loyal alumni. Loyal alumni, as is the case of the teaching fellowship discussed here, will often reinvest in the institution to better the experience for others. To echo such altruism and pro-social behaviour, faculty members who are motivated to be involved with teaching mentorship of graduate students often do so outside the mandate of the organization (Allen 2003). Alternatively, duty-motivated mentorship seems to be more often associated with research mentorship, as it is a distinct requirement of faculty for fulfillment of their duties as graduate student advisors and principal investigators for extramural funding. Institutional support for the teaching mentorship of graduate students tends to be minimal, and teaching mentorships are much less formal or common compared with research mentorships, because the former are based on the pro-social tendency of the mentors.
In our department, we are very fortunate to have a teaching fellowship that allows enthusiastic graduate students to teach a course with a teaching mentor. In 2005, University of Alberta alumnus and University of Delaware Professor of Chemical Engineering, Dr. T.W. Fraser Russell established the Fraser and Shirley Russell Teaching Fellowship at the University of Alberta. The goal was simple: to provide eager graduate students an opportunity to teach a course with the guidance of a faculty mentor. To date, there have been five fellows at the University of Alberta and more at the University of Delaware, where Dr. Russell is professor emeritus. Here we present a summary of one of our mentorship experiences, discuss our own model for mentorship, and why we think teaching mentorships matter, with the help of comments from former recipients of the Fraser and Shirley Russell Teaching Fellowship.We adopt a similar narrative style to Bullard and Felder’s paper in College Teaching (Bullard and Felder 2003) and discuss our findings of faculty-based teaching mentorships.
The two of us — Nem, the graduate student mentee nearing the end of his PhD program in materials engineering, and his mentor John, an assistant professor and course co-coordinator for a multiple-section introductory course — knew one another for some time prior to the mentorship.
Prior Teaching Experience
Nem: My only formal teaching experience is as a teaching assistant for the introduction to materials engineering lab, which I did for five semesters. The format of the lab allowed me to lecture to the students briefly but at the same time interact with them one-on-one. It was those experiences that made me want to teach a full course. Additionally, I participated in the department’s teaching triads (as an observer) and various teaching workshops.
John: I got the teaching bug early on in my career. As a graduate student I had a real interest in teaching, and I had the motivation to seek avenues to develop skills. I was also fortunate that my supervisors acknowledged my aspirations to become a professor and that they allowed me to pursue such aspirations. I was the teaching assistant for five separate courses (some courses multiple times). I volunteered to run a laboratory session for an industrial certificate course. I was a mentor to an undergraduate student and a high school student. I have been actively involved in outreach activities for K to 12 education for over 10 years. I took a course as a PhD student entitled “Preparation for Faculty Roles in Higher Education”. As a post-doc I was searching for a faculty position and when I landed one, my advisor invested in my future by suggesting that I forgo my remaining post-doc duties in lieu of getting some teaching experience as a sole instructor for a summer session course before I left. I managed to get the course materials from a former instructor of the course, and I made it my own over the session. As it turned out, when I started on the faculty, my first teaching assignment was a similar course to that I had taught the preceding summer! This was a critical step to increase my confidence level and has allowed me to trust myself to experiment in the nine courses I have taught in my four years as a professor.
We team taught an introductory course in materials engineering, the mandatory second-year materials course for engineering students. The class of 182 students was primarily second year students and all were non-materials majors. We met for a 50-minute lecture Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. John covered the introduction ( six lectures) and Nem covered about 20 lectures from mid January to mid-March. John then finished off the course (13 lectures). We were both involved in preparing homework assignments, and existing lecture notes were made available to Nem.
Nem prepared a first draft of the midterm, and, after revisions, he administered the midterm and graded it according to the rubric that was developed as a team. Because graduate students cannot officially grade exams, John re-graded the midterm with minor adjustments here and there.
Nem: Without the burden of preparing teaching material for a full course and having access to an official mentor, took a lot of the burden off for a first timer. To prepare for my teaching term, I attended classes of several different lecturers in the department, including John’s intro materials engineering class the previous semester. This helped me get a feel for different teaching styles and approaches. I enjoyed John’s approach, which was focused towards physical demonstrations of the materials behavior that we talk about in the lectures. These were used in conjunction with formative assessments to engage the students and to get them to actively participate in the class in addition to lecture material. We had several meetings to discuss the general nature of the course and how it should be taught prior to the start of the semester. This built up an atmosphere and relationship of trust between us, one in which we could both give and receive criticism(Lee et al. 2007). We also discussed how we wanted the criticism to be delivered: I wanted it all, and John usually didn’t hold back. Each of us attended most of the others’ lectures, and we met before and after class to discuss demonstrations and topics covered, to assess performance, determine what was successful and why, and talk about how to improve upon delivery or explanation. This allowed me to progress much faster than if left to reading teaching evaluations six months after the end of the course! It was a critical feedback tool!
John: Having had benefitted from using existing lecture notes multiple times I found it paramount to give Nem the same opportunity as a starting point – and we discussed this at length prior to starting the course. I passed along files, and another instructor’s set of notes. I wanted Nem to get the full experience. I felt it was important that he learn how to do everything associated with teaching: lecturing, designing assignments and exams, holding office hours, and marking. It was important to me that he felt that I wasn’t just going to take a break from lecturing, so I ensured that I went to all his lectures, took notes, and discussed the lectures afterward, in a similar manner as described in Bullard and Felder (2003). It was also important that I didn’t withhold any comments about what was going on in the lecture theater – positive or negative. As hard as it is to hear someone comment on your lecture style, it is important to receive and give constructive criticism early on in one’s teaching development in order to correct troublesome behaviour. For example, Nem, like me when I was starting to teach, was too nice to disruptive students at first – but I quickly let him know that he had to be firm and act more authoritatively, but in a respectful manner. I also made sure Nem felt comfortable giving me feedback about my lectures, and after some coaxing he was confident in analyzing the merits and shortcomings of my teaching style!
The extra time commitment on the part of [me as] the faculty mentor, was about the same as preparation time for [a] lecture, except for the midterm exam grading. However, I found it important to see the midterm exam in order to assess the students, and Nem.
The social aspect of the mentor-mentee relationship is often overlooked, so I thought it important that, instead of pretending to be colleagues, we act like colleagues. Hence, we went for lunch together, talked about non-work related topics, and had a beverage every once in a while at the faculty club (especially at the end!).
Expectations (what we thought would matter)
Nem: From having talked to previous student teachers (both mentored and not), I understood that lecturing was a difficult time and time-consuming job. However, all participants found it overwhelmingly rewarding. Some have gone on to become faculty themselves or have gained confidence to aspire to [that status]. I foolishly thought that if I was able to organize my time and workload, I would be able to juggle some lab work in addition to teaching. The course had previously been taught by PowerPoint, so I expected that my presentation skills using PowerPoint would be a good fallback during lectures. From my experience with introductory materials science courses, I knew that engaging the students and making the materials relevant to them through applications and demonstrations would be important. I had previously learned about active learning exercises [ALE’s] and the value of formative assessments when our department hosted Professor Richard Felder [North Carolina State University] for a teaching workshop for faculty and graduate students. Ever since attending the workshop I was eager to utilize them in my lectures. I did not expect John to provide me with 24/7 support. I thought that it would be a trial-by-fire experience.
John: From working with undergraduate and high school research mentees and other graduate students in a research and teaching mentoring capacity, I expected that we would need a fair amount of time for reflection about the lecture process, and so I committed to having at least an extra hour per lecture day set aside.
I was a little concerned with the large class size for a first-lecture experience, but we didn’t have much choice. Looking back on it now I would advise against a class size greater than 60 in order to take some of the stress away from Nem and allow him to get more personal with the students.
I expected Nem to have a period of time when he would struggle, but I vowed not to interrupt him during his lecture. This is a similar agreement [to what] we have in our teaching triads, where we act only as observers when in another’s classroom. Obviously, by remaining silent we do not undermine the instructors’ authority, nor do we distract the students’ attention.
I hoped to learn some different techniques from Nem. I don’t pretend to know all the techniques, and I was happy to learn about teaching and learning in his lecture.
What we learned about teaching
Nem: Taking numerous classes through my eight years of university did not give me a clue of how much work is required to deliver three hours of lecture a week, provide office hours, and prepare assessments. It was overwhelming, to say the least. I had minimal time for any non-course related work. I have a newfound respect for all educators now!
In the first week of the course we polled the students through a formative survey about the type of lecture delivery in which they best learned. Overwhelmingly, two-thirds of the students preferred whiteboard and overhead lectures. Therefore, we made the decision to deliver the lectures by this method. I found this especially distressing, as none of my presentation experience had prepared me for the whiteboard! A major learning element for me was using the whiteboard effectively, talking while writing, using appropriate markers and drawing diagrams (correcting mistakes)! I call these the hard skills, the mechanics of teaching.
After I learned the mechanics of talking and writing and turning to the class to address questions, I had to learn the softer skills of lecturing. I found that it was almost like a stage production, where I had to get myself away from the board and walk towards the class up the aisles to engage the students. This would help in developing a relationship with them, [so] I wouldn’t be just a talking head at the front of the class. This was extremely hard to do, especially due to the size of the class (and classroom layout). ALE’s were very useful in engaging more of the class. The two that I used most was to poll the audience and to have them work on problems or make lists in groups of two to three for a few minutes.
As seen through ours and others’ online learning styles questionnaires, there is a high tendency for visual learning in the engineering student body (Soloman and Felder 2003). So, in addition to the ALE’s, I tried to incorporate as many demonstrations as I could to give the students a 3-D perspective or a different point of view on the material, which frequently requires visualization of atomic phenomena.
Throughout this experience, it was through Dr. Nychka’s constant feedback, criticism, and encouragement that I was able to overcome the technical problems in my teaching and proceed to achieving my own style and become comfortable in front of the audience. I was reluctant to try some demonstrations where the whole class would essentially be involved in an experiment using paperclips, but, as I grew more confident, I pulled off a group exercise in building atomic models using foam balls and toothpicks. But this process took some time, and I had to master the hard and soft skills to proceed to the next step. If Dr. Nychka hadn’t been present during the lectures, I would not have progressed at the pace I did. I would have had to rely on student evaluations or midterm evaluations, if I had chosen to administer them. Having a mentor was especially helpful as Dr. Nychka had many demos prepared, which made them much easier for me to incorporate into lectures. And with his experience, I was able to develop new ideas alongside him then deliver them in class with more confidence.
John: I learned about teaching, learning, and about some of my own teaching techniques that Nem was using. Moreover, I even learned some materials engineering! Forcing myself to pay attention to the teaching rather than content allowed me to watch the student reactions more carefully. I sat in different locations for each lecture and arrived well in advance or just after the bell. We tend to think that students are always listening, hanging on every word, and have fully prepared for lecture, but in a 200-seat lecture theater I was reminded how invisible the students can be to the instructor, in that I see a forest rather than each individual tree at times. I was also reminded of all the distractions: students surfing the net, texting, listening to music, doing homework for other classes, reading the paper, sleeping, and realized how mentally difficult it is to concentrate for 50 minutes! This is not to discredit Nem. I see [this] behaviour from the front of the class as well, but as the instructor I cannot watch students the entire time. Perhaps the most exciting reminder was seeing how engaged the students were when they were challenged and activated by Nem, at which point the distractions stopped.
Nem presented some neat videos about atomic scale phenomena from the internet in class. This is something I don’t often do, but the students absolutely loved the videos, especially because they had funny music! The element of humour, which I also use relentlessly, was great for morale and general interest.
I also got a chance to see Nem perform some of my demonstrations and some that he developed. Watching someone else cover the same concept with the same materials in a slightly different way really made me think about how different people get a different experience from the same performance. I now more fully realize that a formal summary of the demonstration was an important follow up to the actual performance.
Nem also helped me to realize some of my bad habits, such as not writing down everything I say! Discussions with Nem reinforced the idea that undergraduate students, especially sequential learners (such as the majority of our class), tend to like every detail written down in a very organized manner for later reference. Even though it should be obvious, our discussions reminded me that I need to write more ideas down in a more sequential manner, which is a trick for me because I am a global learner! (sequential learners tend to follow a discrete path to learning, with logical steps, whereas global learners tend to be able to gather information and assimilate it all at once when they grasp the big picture). However, we also discussed the merits of forcing students to pay attention and not merely be scribes. The pedagogical argument here is the time at which learning occurs. If a student hears something but does not write it down, does that delay their learning? Of course that depends on the student and their frame of mind at the time, but it should be the instructors’ responsibility to reinforce the main concepts which we expect the students to learn and to give them as many opportunities as possible to achieve such learning.
Nem: During the course there were no obvious problems from the students. The class had midterm and final grade averages in the B’s. Assignment and lab performance was exceptional. The student feedback forms at the end of the semester told a slightly different story. There was a resistance to having two teachers during the course due to style differences:
Switching prof’s midway disrupted the learning flow. I understand TA’s need to learn to teach but maybe only one lecture a week.
I really did not enjoy having the course taught by two different instructors. I would really prefer one prof. teaching for the entire term.
A more concerning comment was that the mentee was perceived to be a poor teacher because he was learning how to teach. Nonetheless, the overall majority of responses contained positive criticism and encouragement, offering suggestions for improvement (mechanics, timing, and writing):
Nem’s verbal explanations were excellent, but the notes he wrote down were not detailed enough.
Nem, you are not Dr. Nychka, and as such, his teaching style does NOT suit you. If you find your own style, you will become an amazing prof.
I think after he’s taught this class a couple more times he will be much better. Seemed to breeze over more difficult concepts, shorthand and handwriting were messy.
John: I had heard, prior to this experience, that there might be some student resistance to the team-teaching approach. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, independently, highly rated teachers will not be rated as high by the students once they are team teaching. I would say that is true in this experience as well. My overall teaching ratings were slightly less than the previous semester for the same course, but the student population and attitude was very different, so there are no conclusions to be made here. Regardless of student ratings of instruction, it is more important to assess if learning actually occurred as a direct result of the instructor, which is not commonly included on student ratings surveys (or at least interpreted for such purpose in a proper manner). In retrospect, I would have liked to include questions to assess what contributed to students’ learning process.
Having a mentor present during the necessary learning curve of the first two weeks of teaching was of immense value. The feedback loops allowed the mentee to progress very fast. Nem was able to make adjustments to his lecturing style and avoid the common pitfalls. At the same time Nem properly prepared and introduced concepts and included demos and ALE’s. There was great value in having the mentor attend all lectures (at least in the beginning to allow for rapid improvement as needed). The support, encouragement, and practical experience provided by the mentor were very important. Overall, the dedication to frequent communication improved the mentee experience, and the students’ learning experience. We highly recommend a formal mentor-mentee approach, similar to what we have outlined be adopted by universities nationwide, for new and aspiring faculty. An informal mentor-mentee relationship, devised to develop effective instructors at the university level, would likely not accomplish as much in so little time as a well-structured mentorship. A formal process contributes to the establishment of a culture of mentorship in the mentor, the mentee, and the academic department.
Based on our experience, a more mature student group (higher level, not first- or second- year students) is more suited for this exercise. It seemed that some of the students were not able to comprehend what the team-teaching exercise was about. Perhaps this was poor explanation on our part, even though we explained the purpose of the fellowship. One idea we hatched was that a higher administrative authority (e.g., department chair) could introduce the fellow, rather than the main instructor, in order to set a slightly different attitude for the lower-division classes, but, ultimately, we felt that the course selection was critical. Introductory courses or mandatory courses should, in most cases, be avoided. The mentee’s role and purpose should be made clear to the students early and reinforced. Without role definition, students may develop unsubstantiated misconceptions. The importance of training for teaching should be reinforced to the class, especially in light of the fact that most PhD students are not trained in teaching.
A better approach would have the mentee be solely responsible for a class section, which would eliminate the mentor-mentee (teacher-student teacher) power relationship where there is team teaching. University policy may or may not universally allow for implementation of this approach if the mentee is a graduate student, but the sole-instructor approach limits the stress on the students to adapt to a different teaching style.
Some further suggestions arising from our experiences in mentoring graduate studentsfollows.
Consider class size when choosing a course. Smaller classes tend to be easier for learning how to teach (small meaning up to about 60 students).
Ensure the mentor has provided the mentee with full access to a detailed course outline and a set of course notes and materials. Having to reinvent the wheel, while part of teaching, should not be the mentee’s focus during their first lecturing experience.
Ensure that enough time is planned for reflection and discussion and schedule it so that it happens!
Talk about the nature of the feedback before beginning so that you know what to expect. Different personalities give and receive feedback differently, so discuss specific areas in which the mentee wants feedback.
At the end of the course, ensure that you debrief yourself by writing about the experience. Be sure to address what worked well, what didn’t, and what you would do to make the course run better next time. For example, preparing this article was an ideal way for us both to think about how teaching mentorship matters in our lives, and in higher education.
The authors would like to acknowledge Professor T.W. Fraser Russell for his generous support in establishing the T.W. Fraser and Shirley Russell Teaching Fellowship at the Univeristy of Alberta. Additionally, we thank fellows Greg Dechaine, Saeid Amiri, Dr. Veeramani Chidambaranathan, Dr. Misha Monder, and Dr. Heather Kaminsky (graduate student instructor) for sharing their experiences. Special thanks to past fellowship mentors Professors Suzanne Kresta, Alan Mather, Murray Gray, and Kumar Nandakumar. Nem wishes to thank his advisor, Professor Jingli Luo, for supporting him with the opportunity to devote time to the teaching mentorship.
Both Nemanja Danilovic (a Ph.D candidate) and John A. Nychka (an Assistant Professor) are in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta.
T.D. Allen (2003) “Mentoring others: A dispositional and motivational approach” J. Vocational Behav., 62, pp.134-154.
R. Boice (2003) “The New Faculty Member”, San Francisco: Jossey Bass (1992).
L.G. Bullard and R.M. Felder, “Mentoring: A Personal Perspective”, College Teaching, 51(2), pp. 66-69.
A. Lee, C. Dennis, P. Campbell (2007) “Nature’s guide for mentors” Nature, 447(14), pp. 791-797.
B.A. Soloman and R.M. Felder (2003) “Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire”, http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html, accessed July 2009.
Appendix A: Survey of teaching fellows and graduate student instructors’ teaching experiences
1. Was the teaching experience good?
Yes! Unanimously a valuable experience.
2. Why was it good/bad?
“..my mentor had a good set of notes and lecture plan to follow so I could spend time to innovate [a] newer style of teaching…” C.V.
“I enjoyed it because I enjoyed interacting with the students and seeing them learn the concepts I was teaching” H.K.
“Observing the students’ learning experience and the realization that I had helped their learning [was] invaluable.” M.M.
“I have since realized that the maturity of the students play a large role in student feedback. I was lucky in that I co-taught a 4th year core subject (Separation Processes) during my fellowship.” C.V.
“My mentorship experience was very helpful in showing me how to effectively craft evaluation materials that achieved the desired goals while still being of a reasonable level of difficulty…as well, my mentor also showed me the value of using assignments as a teaching tool, not just an evaluation tool.” G.D.
“I feel very much rewarded that I had a contribution, however small, to their progress as the dreamers of our future.” S.A.
“…between myself and my mentor, due to vast difference between our teaching styles, students found it hard to follow…” C.V.
3. What would you do (what did you do) next time to improve your experience?
“[Give] the mentor full responsibility for the course” C.V.
“Spend more time getting more in depth knowledge of the material so that I could more easily challenge the brighter students.” H.K.
“I need to work harder on planning and preparing the course material before classes start” M.M.
“Would setup a facebook group.” S.A.
4. What did you learn about teaching that was unexpected?
“General lack of interest in students to learn something that is new and they don’t see the future implications of the novel things unless they are shown the practical applications in the present.” C.V.
“How much time and effort goes into good teaching vs. the common perception that teaching is easy.” M.M.
“… I didn’t expect to develop such a close rapport between my students and myself, so that was unexpected and gratifying.” H.K.
“Its a lot of work! Particularly if you want the lectures and assignments to be interesting and of value rather than just the same old stuff.” G.D.
“…relationships I developed with students and my mentors. As for students, our relationship and interactions were delightful, especially since the age difference between us wasn’t much and we could relate very well. I actually knew some of the students personally, as friends…” S.A.
5. How/what did your mentor contribute to your learning? (What was the value of that relationship?)
“My mentor was invaluable to my teaching and learning…his enthusiasm while teaching was very contagious… his encouragement of my teaching and endorsement of my teaching style…whenever I needed help with new material or had questions about delivery, he made sure he was available and gave insightful advice. “ M.M.
“The mentor was valuable in organization of the course and the freedom to choose a teaching style that best suits a person. No two teachers can teach the same material the same way, just like no two persons read the same book. So having the constant part of teaching enforced and variable part of the teaching lenient is a good thing.” C.V.
“I didn’t have a structured mentoring relationship in my teaching. The others that I drew support from helped contribute different ways of explaining problems, as well as helped deepen my understanding of the subject. I also enjoyed working with others to develop the exams as I think it was easier to draw upon their expertise than to make up all the questions myself. It was nice to have someone to check reactions/understanding with.” H.K.
“Knowing that there is someone there with you who has done it before makes it easier to not only do it effectively, but it also allows you to try a few different techniques/approaches and get feedback on which ones work and which ones don’t.” G.D.
“The fact that she trusted my capability and enthusiasm in the first place was a huge factor for me to feel confident and see myself pulling the job together.” S.A.
 The relative incidence of graduate students as instructors varies drastically between the physical sciences and engineering and the arts, and seems to track funding levels for graduate students – students in the arts generally need to teach in order to be financially solvent students, whereas graduate students in engineering tend to perform research for externally sponsored programs in order to be financially solvent, and duties may or may not include teaching activities. One of course argues that no graduate student is fully financially solvent!