P691G – Graduate Student Professional Development Seminar

Why a Graduate-Student Professional Development Seminar?

Graduate students are facing an important transition from undergraduate students to budding researchers and faculty colleagues. This transition requires both a change in personal identity, from student to colleague, as well as the development of certain professional skills. Our course looks to use training for our graduate students’ roles as teaching assistants to facilitate this change and identity and to help develop skills helpful both as graduate student research colleagues and in their subsequent careers including:

  • Conveying information effectively
  • Understanding issues of identity and diversity
  • Developing literature research skills
  • Time management

This 1-credit course was offered for the first time in the Fall 0f 2017 as a required course for all incoming graduate students and will be offered again in the Fall 2018 semester.

While this course is still in an intermediate stage of development, we are providing access to the materials due to request. To get access to our materials, please fill out this form. Given this course’s intermediate stage of development, we welcome any feedback you may have. As such, in addition to the content, you will receive a form through which you can provide feedback.

This course arises from our attendance at the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative National TA Workshop at Georgia Institute of Technology from 5-7 June 2017. At the workshop, we had an opportunity to work with other chemistry and physics departments under the tutelage of experts in developing effective programs for graduate teaching assistant (GTA) training.

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Motivation: Why use teaching as a vehicle for developing graduate-student identity and professional development?

One important role for new graduate students in our department at UMass-Amherst is as graduate-student teaching assistants (GTAs). Graduate students are responsible for teaching undergraduate laboratory sections, serve as in-classroom assistants in the team-based-learning courses, and work as graders. Moreover, few, if any, incoming graduate students have significant teaching experience. Therefore, some degree of training is critical to set them up for success in the classroom.

In addition to serving a critical need of providing important training, we believe that GTA training can serve many of the professional development goals listed above. Teaching clearly involves developing presentation skills and graduate students need to develop time management skills to balance their GTA responsibilities, their coursework, and their initial forays into research. Furthermore, by teaching literature research and management within the context of the physics education literature, we can achieve two goals simultaneously: developing literature research skills while simultaneously exposing our students to the vast resources in the physics education literature. Many incoming physics graduates are unfamiliar with this literature and hopefully exposure will allow it to serve as a useful resource to the significant fraction of our students for whom teaching will be part of their intended careers.

Finally, teaching provides an excellent background to discuss issues of identity and attitudes. While a person’s positionality clearly has important implications in teaching, many incoming physics students have not really taken the opportunity to think about their own identities and reasons for coming to graduate school. Furthermore, a significant fraction of physics graduate students are international students and an overview of some of the issues of identity in the context of the American University can be important.

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Goals of the Seminar

  1. Most of what our TAs do is facilitation of groups working in teams (Team-Based Courses, Labs, Office Hours). Thus, we want our TAs to be effective in facilitating students working in teams to solve problems.
  2. We want a “professionalization” of our GTA program which includes (but is not limited to) an improvement of GTA self identity and a development of an explicit awareness of the transferable skills that being a GTA provides. Furthermore, we feel that the GTA seminar would provide an excellent context for the exposure to issues of diversity.
  3. Improve faculty support for a robust GTA program (as opposed to disparate TAs assigned to faculty) for stability of the program over time.

By addressing these goals in the seminar, we will allow the weekly TA meetings for the various courses to be more productive and focused on the specific challenges associated with each course.

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Structure of the Seminar

The course meets once a week during the semester for one hour. In addition, there are two additional sessions during our three-day graduate orientation program which takes place before the semester starts. The out-of-class component of the course is intentionally kept rather small in recognition of the other demands on graduate students’ time.

The seminar sessions during the semester are run in a very workshop-like fashion with students actively involved during the class sessions. We want our GTAs to teach in a student-centered active manner and feel it is important to model this behavior in the seminar as much as possible.

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During Orientation

One-Hour Graduate Student Identity Activity during Orientation

This activity is at the beginning of the day on the second day of our three-day graduate student orientation and focuses on

  • What is a graduate student?
  • Reflecting on the many facets of graduate student self-identity
  • Reflect on their current reasons for coming to graduate school

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Ninety-Minute Introduction to Being a Graduate Teaching Assistant

This session is at the very end of our three-day graduate student orientation and takes place in one of the Team-Based-Learning classrooms. The focus of this session is to provide graduate students the bare minimum needed so that they can hit the ground running in their classrooms on the first week. By the end of this session, we expect that the incoming graduate students will be able to:

  • List some reasonable expectations of what US undergraduates do and do not know
  • Describe the roles of GTAs and their relationship to the instructor of record
  • List the steps that GTAs are empowered to take to help their own classrooms
  • Describe the difference between an exercise and a problem
  • List some skills in helping students solve problems
  • Develop practice with some skills to help students solve problems

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Week-by-Week Plan During the Semester

Our semesters have 13 weeks

  1. What is a GTA? Reflecting on identity as graduate-student facilitators.
  2. How can you be an effective GTA? Skills for GTAs in the classroom and office hours.
  3. More on how to be an effective GTA: additional practice and case studies
  4. The importance of grading, and how to do it accurately, consistently, and quickly.
  5. Writing presentations.
  6. Giving presentations.
  7. How do I become a better teacher? Observing teaching.
  8. “Student reviews are like Amazon reviews for toasters.” Thinking about and interpreting evaluations.
  9. What evaluations are good for and how identity manifests itself in your classes. Who you are impacts how you relate to others.
  10. “What are you?”
  11. How to manage the literature.
  12. So much to do! How to manage time effectively.
  13. Reflect on the semester. What do you want us the faculty to know?

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Project Leaders

Brokk Toggerson

Jake ShechterJake Shechter

With financial support from the UMass Physics Department and the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative