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Find out what motivates students and teachers in the process of learning and teaching as the authors discuss Student Motivation/Teacher Motivation in this issue of CDTL Brief.

March 2004, Vol. 7, No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
On Graduate Students and Teaching
Dr Alan K Szeto
Department of Chemistry

Professor Charles M. Knobler, former chairperson of the Department of Chemistry at UCLA, once spoke during the opening address of a graduate student orientation week about preparation for teaching. In his speech, Professor Knobler emphasised the anticipation of a change of roles—from being a student to being a teacher and from taking examinations to writing them. These changes could be sudden and significant transitions especially for some younger graduate students who have just completed their first degrees and have never been involved in any form of teaching. Having this psychological readiness does help to ease the transition somewhat. Nevertheless, teaching is not an easy task for any graduate student because it requires massive investment of time, energy and resources, which graduate students likely cannot afford. It must not be forgotten that the graduate students’ primary function in a graduate institution is to carry out research. Asking the graduate students to teach seems to suggest that they would need to make some difficult decisions regarding the use of limited resources such as time and energy.

A surprising majority of the graduate students, at least those with whom I have interacted during my department’s graduate orientations in recent semesters, stated that they would enjoy teaching. In a survey which I conducted early in the orientation programme, as many as 33 from a batch of 36 students answered ‘yes’ or ‘definitely yes’ to the question: ‘Do you think you would enjoy teaching?’ These graduate students were motivated to take on teaching tasks because they felt that teaching offered an excellent opportunity to learn communication skills and gain experience in real-life problem solving. They also regarded teaching as a chance to do something different—to ‘escape’ from their research work, especially from the surroundings of a hectic scientific laboratory, and to interact with and help students (human beings), to ‘make friends’ and to ‘feel good’. One respondent wrote:

“I’d enjoy teaching, because I believe study is not just to work hard, but also to enjoy, to discover and to create. I learn [by teaching] to stimulate and activate students’ creative abilities; [this is] not to tell them to remember, but to understand, and to create. This will bring me pleasure.”

Though the affinity for teaching is yet to be determined for a larger graduate student population, for my department’s graduate students, teaching serves as a refreshing alternative to an often isolated, research-intensive environment and lets them feel the human touch. A few graduate students see teaching as an opportunity to sharpen their communication skills before entering the teaching force or academic world.

If the expectation of graduate students to teach in the conventional formal sense can perhaps be removed, it may make more sense to promote graduate teaching. Removing this component does not mean lowering the graduate students’ involvement and responsibilities in teaching. Rather, it means asking the graduate students to teach in a way and from a perspective that is more conducive to their role as graduate students. Graduate students are students themselves and hence, it is important that they feel like students even in the context of teaching. For example, they can think of themselves as students who have taken and succeeded in the courses that they are teaching. Undergraduate students taking courses taught by the graduate students may be more motivated to learn if they feel ‘helped’. Thus, it is necessary for graduate students to effectively convey the key ideas, study tricks and other relevant information on the courses in their teaching. However, we do not encourage poor and irresponsible teaching that imparts only what matters for doing well in examinations. In fact, what graduate students teach should be holistic, comprehensive, concise and accurate to make the undergraduate students feel that they have learned something meaningful and relevant. Such is the basis of good teaching.

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Motivation for Mandatory Courses
Driven to Teach
On Graduate Students and Teaching