Teaching practices that move beyond exclusively lecturing can greatly improve learning outcomes for students in STEM courses.1 However, by the time STEM faculty are in academic jobs, the demands of their position make it difficult to learn and implement unfamiliar evidence-based approaches to instruction. In our project, Promoting Undergraduate Success in Early College Mathematics through Graduate Teacher Training (PSUM-GTT), we have innovated teacher training for graduate student instructors and graduate teaching assistants (GSI/GTAs) to empower future faculty. Data from the National Science Board2 indicates that nearly two-thirds of new doctorates in the mathematical sciences pursue careers at higher education institutions, including community colleges, 4-year colleges, and universities, at which they spend a substantial portion of their careers teaching undergraduate courses. Because so many of our graduate students will soon scatter across the country—and even the world—the positive impact of a teacher training program is long-term and far-reaching.
Upon entry into graduate school, most of our GSI/GTAs have limited experience with active learning classrooms as their mathematics instructors primarily used lecture-based techniques. First-year graduate students are frequently overwhelmed with their new roles and responsibilities as graduate students are competing with other work/family/life obligations. Graduate students rely on juggling varying responsibilities and obligations and learning about new systems and expectations just to survive. They often shift teaching to the back burner to address more pressing or new needs that emerge. This leads to GSI/GTAs lecturing in the classroom as this is what they are experienced with and know to work. While their teacher training and mentors may be encouraging active learning or other student-centered pedagogy, the need to ‘survive the next hour’ often takes precedence for seeking what is fast, easy and passable (i.e. lecture). Rather than prescribe specific pedagogical approaches and teaching practices, we aim to support future faculty in their knowledge of evidence-based teaching practices and provide them ongoing and multifaceted opportunities to explore which of those suit their personal preferences and strengths.
Ongoing Professional Development
Whereas onetime workshops or seminars are great for introducing educators to new ideas and strategies, they are ill-suited to supporting teachers in enacting sustained changes in their classrooms and teaching practices.3 Accordingly, our project goes beyond the typical approach of offering training only in the GSI/GTA’s first year and extends it to include workshops & seminars along with ongoing classroom support as they adopt evidence-based techniques throughout their graduate school teaching journey. Vitally, this allows participants to revisit pedagogical training when it best fits into their graduate school trajectory.
Multifaceted Professional Development
Our multidimensional teacher training includes:
- A one-semester weekly pedagogical seminar that focuses on inclusive pedagogy and research-based best practices in classroom instruction.
- A Critical Issues in Undergraduate STEM Education (CIUSE) seminar series to provide our novice instructors the opportunity to discuss current issues surrounding undergraduate student instruction with invited researchers and practitioners.
- Robust peer mentoring where each GTA in the program receives regular one-to-one peer mentoring from a GTA who has taught at the university the prior year. The mentoring is designed around a series of “Office Talks” topics to facilitate their discussions together with at least two classroom observations and post-observation feedback each semester.
- Instructional design support from a peer teaching assistant coach (TA Coach), a peer leader that provides in-class instructional support during the facilitation of new instructional practices or activities in a supportive and non-evaluative manner.
Each GSI/GTA can build their own professional development path through our program, providing flexibility which allows GSI/GTAs to explore various areas of career interest. Our general map for GSI/GTAs’ professional development begins with the GSI/GTAs participating as a mentee for one year with active involvement in the TA and CIUSE Seminars. After their first year in the program, some GSI/GTAs complete another year as a mentee if additional support is needed and requested. As they gain confidence, they can apply for the role of peer mentor for one to three years. Another option is to serve as a peer TA Coach, which is a unique opportunity to serve as a bridge between mentors, mentees, and faculty in the department. Coaching duties could include co-teaching and co-developing teaching materials with novice GSI/GTAs.4 The flexible nature of the program allows GSI/GTAs to take time off from the GSI/GTAs’ professional development program to focus on research interests and opportunities, internships, and their coursework as necessary and to come back when they desire.
More about Our Program
PSUM-GTT originated at the University of Colorado Denver in 2015 with support from the NSF (Award 1539602). In 2019, Auburn University and the University of Memphis replicated the program with additional NSF funding (Awards 1821454, 1821460, 1821619). Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theories of development informed the development of our training program. According to Vygotsky, social interactions that are co-constructed between a more and a less knowledgeable individual develop knowledge construction.5 Vygotsky believed that “any higher mental function was external and social before it was internal.”6 What is more, Vygotsky’s social learning theories suggest that cognition and learning are social and cultural phenomena rather than individual. Therefore, we built our program on the premise that GSI/GTAs will learn and develop through their memberships and interactions in intersecting communities of mentees, peer mentors, TA coaches, program facilitators, and department faculty. As GSI/GTAs meaningfully engage with mentors and facilitators in these communities, they develop their pedagogical expertise and refine their practices.7,8
Hence, as GSI/GTAs become more active in the social-professional communities of educators within their departments, they shape their identities in those communities.
Given the first-year survival phenomenon – feeling unprepared and trying to learn what experienced teachers seem to know without thinking: locating supplies, communicating with students, or following institutional policies and federal regulations -, it is crucial to provide GSI/GTAs with opportunities to reflect on their teaching, implement new pedagogy and continue to evolve as educators at different touch points throughout their graduate studies. Most GSI/GTA professional development programs target first-year GSI/GTAs and can lay a useful framework of knowledge related to best practices and inclusive pedagogy. However, without follow-up and engagement with other experienced and novice educators, these trainings fall flat and GSI/GTAs forget the key elements before their first year as faculty members.
Our program encourages a model that provides multiple opportunities for GSI/GTAs to engage in teaching-related discussions, reflections and practice. We believe through repeated follow-up with a variety of opportunities, GSI/GTAs can choose their own path and opportunities throughout their graduate career to strengthen their teaching and knowledge base surrounding critical issues in education. This model allows for flexibility around major department milestones such as qualifying exams or comprehensive exams to reflect the need for future faculty to balance teaching, research and life obligations throughout their career. For example, consider the participant trajectories below. Participants A and B interacted with PSUM-GTT throughout their 4 years, each at their own pace. Participant A was ready to serve as a peer mentor after only a single year as a mentee, while Participant B took 2 years as a mentee before taking on the role of mentor. Participant C’s trajectory illustrates the program’s flexibility, where a student can take a year off from the professional development program and still return and benefit from the program’s support.
Tracking the Pathways of Three Participants in PSUM-GTT
Hearing from Our Participants
When asked how they benefited from participating in the program, one mentor explained:
“The main influence of the TA program…has been to increase my use of entry points, active learning, and effective questioning to ensure that all students have a place to enter the material and can reasonably follow through with the presentation of material.”
Additionally, Our graduate student participants have developed a community of support, where they strive to help one another improve their teaching practices. One TA coach explained:
“I want to find ways to feel like I am having an impact on their teaching in SOME way. I want them to feel like they are trying new things, growing towards a certain goal, and/or feeling more comfortable talking about teaching.”
Importantly, our participants are actively thinking about issues of equity in the classroom with a mentee reflecting on their first year of teaching:
“I try to level the playing field for everyone. Equity makes me think from different perspectives and try to realize that not everyone has had the same experience as me in the classroom and that everyone is coming from a different place. Some students may need extra steps to get them to the same place as everyone else and some students may even be beyond that place.”
In conclusion, there is no quick fix solution to supporting faculty in adopting evidence-based teaching practices. Instead, we recommend weaving together a rich multi-faceted tapestry that integrates many professional development components and offers training across multiple years. Changing faculty teaching practices is a complex issue facing higher education; by investing in novice instructors today, we can shape the landscape of faculty teaching practices of the future.