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How to Design and Teach Your First Course As a Graduate Student

By Andrew J. Felton and Xoco Shinbrot

Andrew Felton is a PhD candidate in the department of Biology studying studying the mechanisms of ecosystem sensitivity to climate extremes. Xoco Shinbrot is a PhD candidate in Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, and editor-in-chief of EcoPress. Both authors attend Colorado State University in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.

Many new doctoral students want to pursue a career in academia in a tenured position, doing research and/or teaching. Yet few will achieve this goal. The reality is that as the bubble of job-seeking PhD students and post-docs continues to grow, a professional life in academia is becoming less and less achievable. As competitiveness for the dream job in academia increases, graduate students must consider what will make them stand out in terms of building a competitive record. Here we advocate for PhD students to take advantage of the teaching opportunity that Colorado State University (CSU) provides through its interdisciplinary seminar course ECOL 592, and provide basic steps for designing and teaching a course.

“Arguably second to research, evidence of an effective teaching record that sets you apart from others will increase your competiveness.”

There are multiple ways in which a graduate student may build a competitive record, and no one formula to do so. However, there are essential components to building a competitive record as a PhD student. The first and foremost is publishing innovative research in your field. Even if you are not aware of this when entering a program, it becomes clear that the importance of GPA performance in an undergraduate environment gets replaced with research performance in a PhD environment. Attending conferences, mentoring undergraduates, reviewing manuscripts and outreach are also important, yet lesser components to building a public intellectual identity. Arguably second to research, evidence of an effective teaching record that sets you apart from others will increase your competiveness. (See these articles in Inside Higher Ed, AAAS Science Mag, and The Muse, The Professor is in for more advice on landing your first academic job.)

Most graduate students work as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) at some point. These positions typically entail leading lab or discussion sections, grading and much of the necessary work of a course offering. While being a GTA may involve designing lectures, writing and grading quizzes, and being the front line for dealing with students, a GTA is not a position that will fully show your expertise, creativity and skills in pedagogy. If most graduate students have experience as a GTA, what can you do to set yourself apart on the job market?

Teaching a course for which you are the instructor of record means a great deal to prospective academic employers, as it reflects the confidence your graduate program has in you to lead a course. One of the many great things about CSU’s Graduate Degree Program in Ecology (GDPE) is the graduate level interdisciplinary seminars, ECOL 592. At CSU these seminars are offered every semester, and are always about new and emerging topics. For example, last semester topics ranged from aquatic microbial ecology to citizen science. The structure is often relaxed and discussion oriented, but is ultimately flexible. Importantly, there is an opportunity for PhD students to work with their advisers to create their own ECOL 592 seminar. This results in the chance to design and lead your own mini-course, which translates directly to your CV.

Andrew Felton lecturing intensely to his students.

Last semester, I, Andrew Felton designed and lead my own ECOL 592 seminar titled ‘Ecosystem Resistance, Resilience and Stability’. I was prompted to create the course for various reasons. Mainly, I am deeply interested in the topic and this was the chance for me to lead my own course and interact with graduate students across departments. Indeed, students enrolled in the course came from the Biology department, Natural Resource Ecology Lab, and Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. These students had interests that ranged from community-based natural resource management, to plant-insect interactions and soil microbial ecology.

There are certain challenges in designing and teaching your own course. Much of the work is done at the planning stage. Is the course a specialized one for a few well-prepared students or is it a larger general introduction to a new topic for students without expertise? How should the class environment be set up? Should the structure be discussion-based or lecture-based? How can I make it worth a busy graduate student’s time to show up?

Once a general topic is decided, a good way to begin to plan a course is to read and completely immerse yourself in that topic, whether it be through the literature or an academic textbook, writing notes along the way. These notes and ideas will form the basis by which you construct the contents of the course. After this, you can begin to organize your notes to draft an outline of the course that will become the actual syllabus. The syllabus is a contract between yourself and the students for the course. The required work and the deadlines should be specified on the syllabus and should not be changed.

It is useful for you and your students to explicitly state the goals of the course in the syllabus; these should be more than “we are going to read some interesting work on a hot new topic.” In a 15-week semester, you should assign readings, set discussion topics, and possibly field trips that make pedagogical sense. Assessments such as exams, homework, and projects should be assigned during the term that make classroom time productive. For assessments in ECOL 592, I find weekly worksheets or assignments, projects or presentations as the best approach. If you do assign weekly homework, keep in mind you will be grading weekly homework. If they have an in-class exam, you will be spending time grading that exam.

I found it challenging to think broadly about the topic of ecological stability, and what could be of interest and use to a diverse set of perspectives. On this issue, the optimal structure of the course (discussion vs. lecture) will likely differ by course topic. The approach I took last semester was to pick a central topic and assign a seminal reading about the topic. Additionally, I assigned discussion questions for students, who also picked their own paper to contribute to a course bibliography. Students then paired up to lead classroom discussion for a week to end the semester. Students were encouraged to think critically and freely about an ecological topic. One issue with this approach is keeping a fluid discussion through out the whole time period, and the onus is on you, the leader, to maintain the fluidity of the class discussion.

“Designing and leading your own seminar can actually be a humbling yet exciting experience: transforming your ideas and exposing these ideas to different perspectives challenges your ways of thinking about a topic and about teaching generally.”

This semester I am taking a different approach. The course, which is on theory and R programming methods of data visualization, will be split between lecture-based and interactive computer programing, to provide both theoretical and hands-on experience. Instead of providing a survey of the literature, this course will focus on the seminal work of Robert Cleveland (Cleveland 1994) that is paired with an in-depth look at the grammar of R programming and graphics.

Of course, every class has different learning objectives and the students themselves will have different expectations. A basic survey course will be different from a higher-level in-depth lecture. A skills related course will be necessarily different from theoretical driven course. These factors should influence how you structure the course. Here are a couple of questions you should ask yourself before designing your course:

  1.  What are the objectives of this course?
    Be clear with the students (and yourself), what are the objectives of the course? Write it down. Although students will likely skim this section of the syllabus, having explicitly written expectations and a road map will be your saving grace when questions or conflict arise, as they invariably do.
  2. How can I make this course worth the students’ time?
    Ask yourself how broadly this class will appeal to and benefit the students. If it’s a required course then the number of students may be capped by the department itself. If it’s not required then it might be a smaller course. In a small classroom setting like ECOL 592, the sky is the limit to how you can structure a course. Small classes, by which I mean classes with less than 25 students, there’s the possibility for greater student interactions with discussion sessions, field trips, and hands-on labs. Larger courses can pose major logistical and financial constraints on what an instructor can accomplish. That said, new technologies like iClickers can allow teachers to gauge participation and level of understanding in large classrooms. Ultimately, the challenge is structuring the course to create an engaging, yet intellectually beneficial experience for the student.
  3.  How will you assess whether the students understand the topics?
    Typical ways of assessing student include homework assignments, midterms, participation points, group projects, and final exams. Again, whether and how you assess the students depends on the objective of the course, who is taking the course, and how much time you personally are willing to commit. Undergraduate students often appreciate regular homework assignments, which can clarify topics, reduce stress during exams, and generally keep them accountable. How you assess students will also depend on the number of credit hours you expect them to put into the course outside of class time. Graduate classes can be held accountable to completing reading assignments since most are small and discussion based, i.e. instructors can easily tell who did and did not do the readings. Undergraduates may need points associated with readings and homework assignments. In either case, make sure to select readings that directly relate to the topic of the day.
  4.  What platform will you use to communicate to students both inside and outside the classroom?
    Likely whatever academic institution you are at has some form of online platform where you can post assignments, put up readings, generate discussion sections, create student groups, and grade students on their participation. At Colorado State University, we recently switched from Blackboard to Canvas. In these platforms, course content, communication and assignments can be infused into a single online medium. As such, the benefits of these online platforms are that students can complete their assignments and communicate from afar (and so can you!). Although creating online platforms can be time consuming, in the long run it is a convenient extension of the course outside of the classroom. These courses can then be duplicated online and reused the next year. That said, smaller classrooms might not need online platforms. Regardless of whether you create an online or offline course structure, making sure that the course is well structured with dates, assignments, and expectations up front is essential.
  5. That’s it!
    Now that you know the students, the goals for the class, the topics and how you will assess their understanding, it’s simply a matter of putting it all down in your syllabus. This will be your contract with the students. Once its printed students expect no date to change, assignment to be altered or last minute decisions on what will be taught. Students, like teachers, need to plan ahead and the majority want to do well. By sticking to the syllabus you can best help them achieve both of those goals.

By no means does designing your own class mean that you are an expert on a topic. Instead, holding yourself accountable to design a course provides concrete incentive to better learn a topic. One realization we’ve made as graduate students is that even the most distinguished professor is still learning new things; nobody knows everything. Rather, designing and leading your own seminar can actually be a humbling yet exciting experience: transforming your ideas and exposing these ideas to different perspectives challenges your ways of thinking about a topic and about teaching generally.

Teaching a small graduate level course – like ECOL 592 at CSU – is an excellent, low-stakes platform to have an experience of what it is like to design and lead your own class.. In an increasingly competitive job market, the benefits of investing time in designing your own course is balanced and outweigh by the costs to your busy schedule, even if you don’t end up in an academic setting.

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