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Mentorship program gives physics grad students teaching experience

Pilot project boosts student confidence and skills for facing the classroom
April 23, 2014
Physics Professor Mike Wieser and graduate student Ambrish Raghoonundun.

Physics professor Mike Wieser (left) and graduate student Ambrish Raghoonundun. Photo Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Graduate students typically gain their teaching experience as assistants or, if they’re lucky, by delivering one or two lectures a semester. The Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Faculty of Science is working towards changing that thanks to a successful teaching mentorship project it piloted last fall.

As part of the inaugural program, two doctoral students each taught a section of Physics 211, an introductory physics course. The opportunity allowed the graduate students to be responsible for the entire course under the mentorship of experienced faculty. As a result, graduate students gained more confidence and felt better equipped for the challenges awaiting them after graduation.

Rob Thompson, our department head, had the original idea of providing some of our graduate students with a more immersive teaching experience,” says Mike Wieser, associate professor and coordinator of the mentoring program. “There’s a recognition that our grad students are going to be teaching very soon in their careers but there’s no real opportunity for them to develop their teaching skills and receive some formal feedback before that happens. Universally our department saw this program as something we needed to do and fortunately the opportunity came up last year for us to proceed.”

The two graduate students selected—Ambrish Raghoonundun and Tim Friesen—were in the final stages of their PhD program and both had been teaching assistants. But as Raghoonundun explains, “This instructor position let me gain valuable teaching experience with a large 200 student class. And Tim and I were supported by experienced faculty so we never felt like we were in this alone.”

Community of mentors
The support Raghoonundun refers to came from a group of people who provided mentorship in different ways. Jason Donev, an instructor in the department who had taught the same course before, shared his lecture notes and experience with interactive teaching strategies involving technology. Andrew Yau, the course coordinator, also assisted Raghoonundun and Friesen, guiding them through course logistics such as scheduling and grading of exams.

Additional mentoring came from Leslie Reid, Faculty of Science associate dean (teaching and learning) who, along with Wieser, conducted two classroom observations throughout the semester and provided each grad student with constructive feedback. “Structured classroom observations are a great way to provide feedback and learn from colleagues,” says Wieser, “and Ambrish and Tim were very open to the process and reflective about their teaching practice.”

The benefits of teaching mentorship
“For the first course you’re teaching, receiving feedback is very, very helpful,” Raghoonundun says. “The comments and suggestions I received let me know what teaching strategies I was using were effective and how I could increase student interaction in a large class.”

“The opportunity to teach and be fully responsible for a course from start to finish was hugely beneficial,” he adds, “and having course instructor on my CV also gives me a leg up when it comes to applying for teaching positions.”  

Does Mike Wieser wish he’d had this type of teaching opportunity when he was in school? “Oh, yes. Having the insight into what’s involved in putting a course together would have been really valuable. I’m glad to see that Ambrish and Tim benefited from the program.”

With the success of its pilot program, the Physics and Astronomy Department will be offering this mentoring/teaching opportunity again in the fall of 2014.