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The recipients of 2005's Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Awards convened last spring for a group photo at an Alumni House event celebrating their contribution to Berkeley's undergraduate education. Recognition of the most effective GSIs (and their faculty mentors) is a key element in the ongoing support of their work - along with the training, coaching, and feedback they receive along the way. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Singing the praises of tomorrow's teachers
Graduate-student instructors at Berkeley play an increasingly crucial role in the classroom — using skills that shrewd faculty mentors help them develop

| 25 August 2005

This Thursday and Friday, some 700 new graduate-student instructors (GSIs) will start preparing for their first semester in the classroom. A two-day conference held prior to the start of each fall semester is designed to equip Berkeley's newest teachers with strategies for success: how best to present information to their students, and how to handle difficult moments in the classroom.

The skills they start to develop this semester will evolve and improve during the semesters to come, as the GSIs continue to teach undergraduates while progressing toward their own advanced degrees. With guidance from faculty and additional classroom experience, some of this latest crop of fledgling instructors will no doubt prove as skilled in reaching students as Kathryn Peek, an astronomy GSI who recognized, and creatively addressed, a problem undergrads in one of her sections were having with some particularly challenging material.

GSIs and their faculty mentors get recognized for their good work
At one point in the semester, her students were struggling with the difficult concept of stellar evolution. Rather than oblige them to "glean the story of a star's lifetime from a barrage of vocabulary [terms] thrown at students in rapid succession," she later recalled, she assigned her undergrads to small groups, had them get out of their seats to work at the board, and encouraged them to interact with each other as well as with her in creating flow charts of stellar movements.

"The day that I did this exercise ... was one of my best days that semester," Peek wrote in an essay she submitted for a campus GSI award. It was "interactive and simple, and had a worthwhile outcome." It also, she said, "followed from a tenet of my teaching philosophy: Occasionally putting larger concepts aside to nail down the basics is important, and doing so can illuminate more complex ideas."

As last semester drew to a close, Peek found herself one of 15 GSIs honored for their classroom savvy by the Advisory Committee for Graduate Student Instructor Affairs and the GSI Teaching and Resource Center. Says Peek: "It's really easy for teaching to feel like something else we're required to get through before graduation. It's nice to feel successful at this thing I've worked really hard at."

Inspiring undergrads, singly and en masse

Berkeley has been recognized as a national model for GSI development programs, says Linda von Hoene, director of the GSI Teaching and Resource Center. "What people should know," she adds, "is that Berkeley's graduate programs produce not only the best researchers in the country but the finest instructors."

Teaching offers GSIs opportunities to employ the practices their teachers and other graduate student instructors have modeled. "Having been a Berkeley undergraduate, I know how much students depend on GSIs for feelings of connection to their courses," says Len von Morzé, a GSI pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. "Several of my GSIs at Berkeley ranked among the most caring and thought-provoking teachers I've ever had. I know what it's like to be sitting in these classrooms facing the other way, so I try to recapture what they did to inspire me."

Getting to know students as individuals has helped more than one GSI accomplish key goals. "Not only is understanding their backgrounds, concerns, and expectations a great way to enhance teaching effectiveness," says Mauricio Mancio, an international student from Brazil who's pursuing a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering, "but I've learned that listening to students may be just as important as talking to them."

Mandatory office hours

Indeed, Katie Gough, a Ph.D. candidate in theater, dance, and performance studies, put such a high premium on getting to know the students in her section that she made office hours mandatory several times each semester: "It allowed me to understand their particular intellectual interests, so that I could tailor suggestions for research and writing to complement a student's own interests and strengths."

Gough, who will soon file her dissertation, will teach a cultural-research course this fall in the American Conservatory Theater's MFA in Acting Program in San Francisco. The lessons she's learned as a GSI at Berkeley — being flexible in the classroom, and understanding that students vary in their learning styles, ways they process information, and how they articulate what they've learned — prepared her for this first step in her future career.

For some GSIs, teaching undergraduates is the high point of their Berkeley graduate experience. Kathryn Drabinski, who is working toward a Ph.D. in rhetoric, says the life of a grad student can be "a lonely, isolating, difficult experience." Teaching keeps her motivated to stay in grad school, and "interacting with students makes the whole thing worthwhile. Berkeley students are so diverse, eager, and smart that it's really a joy to teach them."

Working as a GSI helped Drabinski chart out a future path as a teacher. "When you enter graduate school, you don't know what the profession of teaching is like. You only discover after you are here that you want to be a teacher."

Over time, Drabinski's view of her students has evolved. Originally, she gravitated and related most easily to those top-of-the-class students who reminded her of herself. Now her favorite students are those who are "improving, not the ones who know everything already or the smart kids. It's exciting to watch students intellectually grow up."

And how do undergrads regard the not-all-that-much-older-than-they scholars who play such a crucial role in their education? Many dedicated GSIs receive course evaluations praising them for their enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject matter as well as the sincere concern for the learning and well-being of their students. Says Dana Buntrock, an associate professor of architecture: "If we did not have one of the world's finest graduate-student populations — which we do — we could not accomplish what we do at the undergraduate level."

Mentorship matters

To ensure that graduate students get the support they need to excel in teaching, the university created a comprehensive policy on GSI mentorship in 1997 (evcp.chance.berkeley.edu/GSIMentoringPolicy.pdf). Revised in March, the guidelines require faculty to observe first-time GSIs in the classroom and to hold regular meetings with them to provide teaching guidance.

It's not only the new instructors who reap the benefits from this attention. A research study conducted by the GSI Teaching and Resource Center revealed that faculty who have taken steps to provide more structured mentorship for GSIs report greater interest and engagement in their own teaching. "The better the collaboration between faculty and GSIs, the higher the quality of faculty instruction that will be provided to undergraduates," says von Hoene. The study indicated that when faculty made changes in their meetings with GSIs (for example, adding structure and focus, emphasizing topics such as course design, teaching methods, and feedback on teaching), the process of mentoring became more effective without necessarily increasing the amount of time spent on it.