what do you wish you had learned about teaching in grad school?

I’m putting the finishing touches on my syllabus and assignments for my History 511: Teaching World History course for the Spring semester. I wrote about this class back in October, when I was conceptualizing its organization. This is the one seminar in our curriculum dedicated specifically to teaching. Formally, I need to prepare the students to teach a survey class on world history, in this case the modern half of that survey. But, given that it is the one class these grad students will have in which pedagogical discussion takes a prime place, I want to include as much information as I can on the mechanics of college teaching. So, each week we will be touching some aspect of the process of teaching as well as content specific to a world survey.

I’d really like to hear, for those of you with experience in the college classroom, what you’d wished you’d learned before taking on your own courses. On any topic–> managing students, lecture pitfalls, course design, effective uses of technology, managing expectations, grading, assignments, etc. In the comments below, please share something that you wish you’d learned about teaching before you took to the classroom.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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17 comments on “what do you wish you had learned about teaching in grad school?
  1. Natalia says:

    One thing that I think is really under-taught and is crucial in humanities teaching is how to praise students honestly and effectively. Especially for a first-time grad teacher, it can be difficult to believe that anyone even really wants your praise.

    This post reminds me of a handout on constructive feedback that I made for a teaching workshop in grad school, which I’ve just now posted for anyone interested.

  2. tedunderwood says:

    Know what you need to say well enough that you can say it *while sustaining eye contact with the class the whole time*.

    Simple, but imho, that is about 60% of what matters in the classroom — at least for someone like myself who is physiologically inclined to look up, down, or to the side while thinking.

  3. ctb says:

    Thanks Ted. You’re right about eye contact, which is particularly challenging in large classrooms. New teachers especially can hide in plain site, as it were, by focusing on their notes or slides or anything but the people in front of them.

  4. ctb says:

    Thanks for sharing, Natalia. We’ll definitely put this topic on the agenda.

  5. PhDeviate says:

    Evaluation and assessment. I was just reading over a handout that I routinely gave to first-years at one institution where I taught, and I recognize that the vocabulary is so far above even the upper-level students at another institution that this handout would instantly alienate them. How do we assess what students come into the classroom with and evaluate them in ways that aren’t simply evaluating their previous teachers?

    Additionally, for discussion-based classrooms, how to do classroom management regarding students who will NEVER speak if not specifically directed to (if then!) or students who interrupt and talk over other students.

  6. Mike says:

    We need more of these kinds of discussions, so I’m glad I saw your post. First, I think we all need to do a periodic, quick and dirty, review of cognitive research. Some of the newer research reminds us we can’t parallel process worth a damn, and we lose attention very quickly. We can’t really fight these laws of human psychology/physiology, so we need to tailor our pedagogical approaches around this. The other thing I think is critical is to teach ‘from macro to micro’–make sure they get the big picture theories before diving into details.

  7. ctb says:

    Thanks, Mike.

    Any cognitive research to recommend?

  8. bronironi says:

    1) How to actually create a schedule for the semester, and one that I can stick to – i had a habit of breaking the schedule down into way too many small pieces and then if i got behind schedule it was impossible to keep up.
    2) How to determine what types of evaluation are best for the class.
    3) How to be prepared for plagiarism (i.e. figuring out the school’s policy, your dept’s support, who you need to talk to when, etc…) and role-playing those awkward conversations with students.
    4) Figuring out what type of classroom atmosphere you want to have for your course, and how to make sure you achieve that (i.e. if you want discussion, how do you get a discussive group?)
    5) How to determine appropriate depth, breadth and workload for a 100 lvl vs 200 lvl vs 300 lvl course.

    Phew! Sounds like a great class.

  9. Alex Galarza says:

    Building on the evaluation and assessment raised by Marta:

    How do we use the essay as an evaluative tool with a well-designed rubric, one that incorporates our subjective assessments (nuanced understanding of content, synthesis, argumentation) with our quantifiable ones (i.e. citations, error-free, page requirements). Our rubrics should change radically between introductory survey courses and, say, a senior research seminar. This takes a lot of work and thinking and one aspect of professional development I wish I was receiving more training in.

    #5 above discusses workloads across different courses. Once we have reached a workload and depth we are confortable with, how do we communicate this do our students. Students respond to the expectations we set for them, speaking generally. We can design what we think is a light course, set the wrong tone, and have students flooding our office with complaints about how much work we are requiring. So, how to we set classroom expectations about workload and course design?

  10. Be confident. Because graduate school is (partly) about constantly proving your credibility as a scholar and showing that you know your stuff, I think first-time teachers can often enter the classroom convinced that their claims will be unconvincing to students. The truth almost always is that you know enough to teach this group of students, who know much less about the subject at hand than you.

    I think this is important to carry into the classroom, at least psychologically, because a lack of confidence in one’s own credibility can often lead one to adopt teaching strategies or regulations for reasons other than their pedagogical value in the course (like falling back on heavy lecture because you have to prove that you know what you’re talking about, or taking an extremely hard line on late assignments or absences just to establish authority). That’s not to say that lecture or tough policies may not have pedagogical value, but it’s important to be confident of your command of the material or it will be difficult to evaluate why you’re doing what you’re doing from a teaching style or policy standpoint.

    At least, I found this to be true from my own experience!

  11. Mike says:

    Hey Chad, I’ll try to dig-up a couple papers on cognitive overload–I’ll send them to you when I find them.

    This paper is a little dated–a paper released this year suggests the age of this cognitive maturity isn’t reached until our late 20s and early 30s. This paper might be a good fit as it is well written and easy to follow–obviously most of the neuroscience journals are tough to follow. http://academic.udayton.edu/jackbauer/Readings%20595/Arnett%2000%20emerg%20adulthood%20copy.pdf

  12. Dr. Liz says:

    Grad school was a long time ago (!), but I remember struggling in my first few years to put together those first lecture classes, and feeling utterly unprepared to assess student skills and expectations, something I could only learn from colleagues in the departments where I was a new teacher.
    In hindsight, however, I think what would have helped the most in grad school would have been to have structured opportunities (such as your seminar) to break down and discuss the components of the syllabus — topics, readings, exams, assignments — and examine best practices in each area. As a new teacher, I was not prepared — and certainly had no time — to develop a thoughtful, measured approach that considered the very important things mentioned in these comments, and had little (other than some less-than-optimal-practices I had experienced as a student) to fall back on.
    In my work with grad students now, I try to provide opportunities for people to develop technical skills for and critical awareness about their teaching, but am constantly frustrated at the lack of institutional “space” for these discussions. I would love to hear from others about how teaching about teaching might be better incorporated into existing graduate training, such as readings seminars, advisement, and assistantships. Any ideas?

  13. I would have liked to learn more on how to alter my syllabus design and assignments for students at different kinds of institutions. (That small-liberal-arts-college syllabus for an enrollment cap of 40 needs a *lot* of editing to work for a big state school where the equivalent course is capped at 80-100; and expectations that are routine at a selective SLAC are often absurdly high for students at other institutions.)

  14. Decaying old prof says:

    What I wish I had known when I started (and what I’ve seen every knew assistant prof struggle with): you can’t teach them everything in one class. At the survey level especially, focus on what’s most important & keep the information manageable. Survey students aren’t graduate students, and as the old adage goes, if you tell them everything you’ve told them nothing.

  15. Decaying old prof says:

    Pardon my mental gaff–“new,” not “knew”

  16. ctb says:

    Decaying old prof– After 5 years, I still struggle with managing my expectations for how much my students should read, absorb, etc.

  17. […] like prompted two recent posts, on conceiving the class and soliciting your feedback on what you wished you’d known before stepping into the college classroom for the first […]

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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