It’s back-to-school time so what better time to think about teaching? I haven’t commented much on the new job here, but something related has been on my mind lately: teaching science at the graduate level. People who work on science teaching in higher education spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach big, first-year classes, since that’s a lot of what we do. In astronomy in particular we also spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach “Astronomy 101”, the introductory course in astronomy for non-scientists that forms the vast majority of the students we reach.

But what about graduate teaching – how does that differ? Obviously this question only applies to places (e.g., Canada and the US) where graduate students take courses! Here I’m just thinking about classroom teaching, not mentoring or advising or any of the other things important for graduate student training. (And I should note that this is not official policy of my university or faculty or anything, it’s just me thinking-by-writing.) Certainly I think many of the attributes of good teaching—interest, an ability to convey that interest, and concern for students—apply to teaching at all levels. Compared to the undergrad level, some differences that I can think of with graduate teaching are:

  • Graduate students have been students for a long time. Compared to (say) university first-years/college freshmen, graduate students are expected to be more self-regulated and internally motivated, implying that perhaps instructors don’t have to provide as much motivation. However, having been students for a long time can also mean that graduate students can be reluctant to change the strategies and learning methods that have worked for them in the past, and I have certainly seen that in my own courses.

  • Graduate classes are often advanced courses. This can mean that there is no right answer to problems, or there are no suitable textbooks, or the material is beyond the instructor’s own experience. One approach to dealing with this is to figure out how to help the students teach themselves (or each other); this is what they will have to do in dealing with research problems, so starting it in coursework seems like a good idea.

  • Graduate classes are usually small. The skills needed to facilitate a discussion in a class of eight are different from the performance skills needed to run a class of 800, or even one of 40. Understanding how people work together in groups is, in my opinion, one of the most important things for academics to learn that’s not typically part of our training.

  • Graduate classes often aim to train “scholars”. While we know that most holders of graduate degrees in science won’t be professors, graduate school is still the place where we train people who will end up in academia. So graduate courses need to introduce the ideas of scholarly criticism and discussion in a way that undergraduate courses don’t.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but was all I could come up with after a long day. If you are a new faculty member teaching your first graduate class, perhaps it will give you some things to think about. Please continue the conversation in the comments below.