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Provost's Seminar illustrates important role of GSIs on campus

Teaching is an important component of graduate education because it forces students to learn to organize and analyze information and present it succinctly to a broad audience, said Earl Lewis, dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.

"The teaching experience is key to the graduate experience," Lewis said at the April 30 Provost's Seminar on Teaching, entitled Graduate Students as Teachers.

For many job markets students will enter after earning their Ph.D., the training they receive as teachers is as important, if not more important, than their in-class education, he said.

"One thing industry says they value the most about graduate training is the pedagogical training graduates receive. What is done there prepares them for everything," Lewis said.

This being the case, Lewis pointed out a disparity between the amount of teaching experience that goes on at the graduate level within departments across campus. This leads to graduate students having radically different experiences from one another during their time at U-M, Lewis said. He stressed that this disparity is not the fault of those departments, but rather a problem at the institutional level.

Lewis invited the University community to suggest ways to continue to improve graduate education and pedagogical experience.

Throughout the seminar GSIs were lauded as tremendous assets to the University. "Graduate students simply can do things we cannot do in relating to students," said Provost Paul N. Courant during the opening remarks of the event. He added that it is because of the GSIs that U-M, as a large research university, is able to out-perform even the best liberal arts colleges.

Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, noted that "graduate students provide a very important intergenerational bridge between faculty and students."

One issue that was addressed during small group sessions was how best to evaluate and improve a GSI's teaching ability.

It is important to make the GSI aware of the evaluation process in advance, said Matt Kaplan, associate director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). He warned against placing too much emphasis on student evaluations of a GSI's performance. While student ratings do provide useful feedback, they should never be used as the only source of information about GSIs' teaching.

Provost's Seminars have been held for the past 10 years. They are by invitation only, and are an opportunity for faculty across disciplines to come together to address issues of concern to the provost, said Constance Cook, director of CRLT.

Cook also discussed recommendations made by the Task Force on Testing and Training Prospective GSIs, which she chairs. The task force, which was mandated by the latest contract signed between the University and the Graduate Employees Organization on May 7, 2002, reported its recommendations to the provost in September. Those in attendance at the Provost's Seminar received a full list in the seminar materials.

The best way for a unit to avoid problems when deciding whether a graduate student requires testing and training of English language classroom competency, Cook said, is to follow recommendation IIIA. "It establishes criteria that eliminate citizenship status as a basis for determining testing and training needed for prospective GSIs," Cook said.

She also said that in the past, some units have indicated their GSIs have little direct contact with students. But "extensive CRLT research shows that nearly all GSIs interact with substantial numbers of students in their work in some way," Cook said. "As a result, there is now a minimum of four hours of training required for all GSIs."

Graduate student mentors have been a successful part of GSI training in LSA and the College of Engineering for many years, and the task force recommended that all schools and colleges have them, Cook said.

The complete set of task force recommendations are available at http://www.crlt.umich.edu/

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