The University Record, September 5, 2000

GSIs get tips on their trade

Editor’s Note: An op-ed article, “Sometimes graduate students can make terrific teachers,” written by CRLT Director Constance Cook, appeared in the Aug. 31 issue of the Detroit Free Press.


By Britt Halvorson


Following the plenary session, new GSIs watched a Climate Theater Presentation by the CRLT players. The interactive theater troupe of professional and student actors stage classroom scenarios that raise issues of diversity and inclusion in the classroom. Above (from left), Jeffrey Steiger, Aral Gribble, Ronald Dreslinski and Erin Bahl play the parts of students in a physics class listening to a GSI (Ward Beauchamp). The skit focused on gender stereotyping in science and mathematics instruction. Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services
“In policy debates around the country, people are trying to figure out how to provide better teaching in higher education, especially better undergraduate teaching,” said Constance Cook, director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), in her address to an especially pertinent audience. Cook welcomed new graduate student instructors (GSIs) to a teaching orientation program hosted by CRLT and the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies on Aug. 28 at the Michigan League.

Cook, Graduate School Dean Earl Lewis and a panel of experienced GSIs spoke to the new instructors at the orientation program’s plenary session. The attendees also watched a video, “The Role of Graduate Student Instructors at the University of Michigan,” that had been shown to 6,000 incoming students and their parents throughout the summer. The video featured undergraduate students, faculty members, GSIs and administrators discussing the challenges, benefits and value of graduate instructors.

GSIs amass valuable organization and communication skills through their teaching experience, Cook pointed out. Those who plan for a career in academia find that search committees look at graduate teaching experience as a definite asset. In turn, she said, the University realizes the value of its current graduate instructors. CRLT offers numerous resources for GSIs, such as student/course evaluations, individual consultations, a teaching strategies Web site (www.crlt.umich.edu/tsmain.html), seminars and information technology solutions.

Teach=engage+confront+challenge+empower

In his address, Lewis touched on some of the fears first-time GSIs may have about their upcoming classes. Audience members voiced concerns that they might have unmotivated students, not be able to aptly negotiate class discussions or have students who felt their semester was unproductive.

“The first challenge is to figure out what your own goals are,” Lewis advised. Instructors often ask their students to write down their expectations for a course, but teachers should do the same, he said.

“Your job is to engage, confront, challenge, empower,” Lewis said. “If you deal with those four concepts in an earnest way, the nightmares may not go away, but you will have success in the classroom.”

Lewis shared ideas related to these concepts with the GSIs.

  • “Learning is fun,” Lewis said. Through the drudgery of grading papers and traversing across campus from class to class, Lewis said, instructors must remind themselves that learning is a fun activity.

  • Instructors should remember that they are not solely responsible for teaching a course. Students are responsible for learning and also for helping teach each other, Lewis said. “If you allow them [students] to become passive learners, you have lost.” Lewis stressed the importance of empowering students. “Empower means not to surrender the course to that class,” Lewis noted. Instructors are in charge, he said, but they can make their authority known in a way that allows students to be active learners.

  • The challenge for many instructors is to make the subject matter exciting for students and convey the passion they feel about their discipline. “You have to transmit knowledge to an audience that is non-specialist,” he said. (“Becoming an effective teacher is not an option.”)

  • “You have to be at ease with yourself in the classroom,” Lewis stressed. “Students will ask you questions you don’t know.” Be honest about the boundaries of your understanding of a subject.

  • Keep office hours—students take note of that, Lewis said. “You have to make sure you’re accessible.”

    ‘What I Wish I Had Known About the First Days of Class’

    In a panel discussion, four GSIs—Lynne Allen (astronomy), Josette Banks (psychology), Colleen O’Brien (English language and literature) and Brian McKenzie (political science)—shared with new instructors what they learned from experience.

    McKenzie’s advice focused on making a course’s subject matter interesting and relevant to all the students in the class. “Some people are in your class because they’re required to be,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon you as a graduate student instructor to try to make a connection [with students].”

    McKenzie taught an introductory course in American government as part of a theme semester in order to engage his students in the subject. He based the semester on the popular movie The Matrix, asking students to explore the matrix of democracy. Tying popular culture and current events to the course material can be an effective way to reach students, McKenzie said. “You have to meet people where they are.”

    Allen offered specific tips on grading assignments, learning from experienced GSIs within one’s department and obtaining feedback from students. Grading policies should be clearly outlined and consistently applied, she said, and assignments should be handed back in a timely manner.

    “Turn to other GSIs in your department for help,” Allen said. Experienced GSIs can point out potential problems in class and explain how they taught certain concepts.

    Allen also recommended obtaining mid-semester feedback from students. “Get something back so you know how you’re doing in the class,” she advised. Though her first semester students thought she was approachable and easy going, Allen was surprised to learn from evaluations that most of them wanted her to be more of an authoritarian figure in class.

    O’Brien stressed how much sections of the same course can vary, depending upon the students who are in them. Students may even be concerned that instructors are pushing a certain agenda through their presentation of the material. “It’s important to respect their [students’] opinions,” she said.

    Preparation is essential, O’Brien commented. She suggested placing students in focus groups, in which they analyze different sections of a text—a strategy known as jigsawing—and then present the material to the entire class. CRLT and other campus departments offer great resources for GSIs and for undergraduate students who need help that graduate instructors cannot provide, O’Brien said.

    “Each day is going to feel dramatically different,” Banks told the new GSIs, describing how her feelings about her teaching have fluctuated day-to-day. “It’s perfectly normal,” she said.

    In order to “regain your equilibrium,” Banks advised GSIs to get feedback from students, encourage office hours, talk to other GSIs, develop a good relationship with faculty members and not rely on first impressions of one’s students.

    Banks asks her students to write down a question, concern or compliment at the end of each class, so she knows how they feel about the material and can anticipate their anxieties. She also recommended encouraging students to take advantage of office hours to express their concerns or ask questions early in the semester, rather than in the term’s final two weeks.

    “Believe it or not, you are now middle management,” Banks said, laughing. “These [students] are empowered customers.”