Teaching for Graduate Student Instructors

GSIsPedagogical Treatments for Graduate Student Instructors  (GSIs)

I’ve been thinking about his for some time. Thought I should write something up on it.


I propose that someone create small programs to improve the teaching of GSIs — in conjunction (and collaboratively) with various entities on campus to identify and target needs, to avoid programming in areas that do overlap, and to capitalize on lines of communication to potential participants.


This proposal addresses a problem that has not been adequately acted upon, and does so in such a way that could benefit several levels of a university.

For Undergraduate Students:

  • Many R1  undergraduates are taught by graduate instructors, most of whom have had no pedagogical training.
  • Most universities have little programming to improve undergraduate education through graduate instructor outreach.

For Graduate Students:

  • Of the 9,430 graduate students at a local R1 university, ~2400 (21% of Masters students and 27% of doctoral students) are TAs.
  • Although graduate and professional students were 13.9 percent of all students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in 2001 (U.S. Department of Education, 2004), conversations and subsequent efforts to achieve educational excellence regarding student engagement have focused almost exclusively on undergraduates.
  • TA training opportunities on many campuses are varied. Often these are on specialized trainings (e.g. HR procedures, sexual harassment, etc.)
  • A significant percentage hunger for opportunities to learn to teach more effectively.

For T&L Communities:

  • Awareness of current practices (through contact/communication with graduate student instructors) will better inform T&L communities of the current state of teaching on campus.
  • Graduate students often have more time and energy to devote to learning about good teaching practices (at certain stages of their studies) than many faculty — especially non-tenured faculty, so can provide fantastic opportunities/inroads in improving the T&L of those classes.
  • Graduate students are often more willing to share openly about their frustrations with current T&L practices. They can provide “fresh” (on the student side of) insight to recent trends in T&L.
  • Graduate students can teach us of new technologies that are relevant in their fields — technologies that we may not be aware of (e.g. deep experience from a user-perspective with Piazza).

For faculty:

If faculty know that their TAs are learning how to teach (beyond TA experience, and faculty-provided knowledge), they will be more willing to trust and share with the TAs the responsibility of designing assignments, units, and even courses.

  • increased willingness to try new things (e.g. Hybrid Learning, mobile-enhanced field research, experiential and socioculturally-rich activities)
  • increased sharing of their successes and failure (failures are shared “learning experiences” for TAs, rather than reinforcement of only marginally-effective practice).

For the local R1 university:

By helping graduate students become expert communicators and instructors, the reputation of the university will be enhanced, but so will the day-to-day workings of teaching, learning, research, and administration.

  • graduate students could leave as experts in Teaching & Learning, which would raise the competitive advantage  beyond most R1 universities by producing not only research leaders, but research leaders who can effectively communicate and teach to a wider variety of audiences.


Increasing undergraduate success is such a tremendous goal for this R1 campus that it is built into the very fabric of the university and taken for granted. However, increasing undergraduate success by increasing the success of their primary instructional contacts — their TAs and graduate student instructors — is typically not discussed. Increasing the pedagogical abilities of graduate students will help them become better teachers, better learners, and better researchers. The impacts of this will affect the entire campus culture.


Given the intensity of graduate student schedules, the diversity of disciplines and practices, the relatively short time they are on campus (2-10 years), and the high cost of “cohort”-style fellowships, I envision this succeeding most effectively as a “broad-but-shallow” program with the following aims:

  • broadly target all ~2500 graduate instructors with a “light touch” treatment (e.g. one-hour brownbag, online series of short YouTube-style videos, etc.) providing very basic questions for inquiry into their current teaching (i.e. awareness of a lack of knowledge and need for action)
  • establish a (or supplement to an existing) community of graduate student peers who are interested in increasing their teaching skills
  • support and maintain that community, both online and offline by participating, mentoring, and rewarding their participation.
  • create pathways for deeper exploration (and credentialization/recognition options) for those who delve more deeply into increasing their pedagogical skills and implementation.

Proposed actions:

  1. Identify entities on campus who are engaging in graduate student instructor outreach (we have many of these already identified)
  2. Map out the types of outreach and professional development they are already doing.
  3. Identify focused “generally applicable” pedagogical practices for adult learners.
  4. Share any and all data with campus entities who prefer to do their own training (do not target their GSIs).

If this moves forward and receives funding,

  1. Develop or curate a variety of short treatments (workshops, videos, readers, etc.) to address the focused “generally applicable” pedagogical practices for adult learners.
  2. Create a GSI T&L community, or if appropriate and welcomed, expand existing campus T&L communities with GSI SIGs.
  3. Actively maintain the community by participating in it, moving treatments to it, expanding and curating treatments on deeper T&L topics, rewarding GSI participation with recognition, credentialing, and inexpensive tokens of appreciation.

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