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Gensheng (Jason) Liu, Steve Huchendorf, and Ilene Alexander on the ramp to the Washington Avenue Bridge, Coffman Union in the background.

Left to right: Gensheng (Jason) Liu, Steve Huchendorf, and Ilene Alexander.

Teaching Ph.D.s how to teach

Improvement spotlight of the month

By Meredith Fox

From Brief, October 26, 2005

Gensheng (Jason) Liu, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Operations and Management Science, served as a teaching assistant six times for a class he was about to teach. But he didn't know where to begin in terms of delivering a lecture or developing lesson plans for each class session.

A new teacher-training program for Ph.D. students in his department gave him a place to start. He was able to discuss upcoming class sessions and get a syllabus, slides, and class notes to customize in order to reflect his individual teaching style.

"We did not have to start from zero," says Liu. "The program dramatically reduced my prep time while giving me the skills that I needed to be a good teacher."

Liu was one of the first students to complete PACE--the Program for the Advancement of Classroom Excellence. PACE is now providing higher quality undergraduate education--a high priority for the Carlson School of Management--and producing better future faculty members.

Liu has begun the process of looking for his first faculty position and says PACE has given him a competitive advantage.

"I regard teaching as one of my strengths in the market that other Ph.D.'s do not have," Liu says. "I have a successful track record."

Preparing future faculty

On any given day, Ph.D. students like Liu can be found across the Twin Cities campus, in front of classes, teaching undergraduates. Typically, the classes they teach are in their discipline, so they cover areas mastered years before. But mastery of organic chemistry, the history of western civilization, or physics has not prepared them to teach it well.

Historically, doctoral students were expected to simply know how to teach from being in classrooms themselves. They devised lesson plans and ways to effectively engage their students without specific training in the art and science of teaching. It wasn't an ideal situation for the Ph.D. students or for the students they taught.

In the early 1990s, a national movement began to transform the way in which Ph.D. students were prepared to become faculty members. That included learning how to teach. According to the national Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) Program administered by the Council of Graduate Schools and Association of American Colleges and Universities, over 45 doctoral degree-granting institutions, including the University of Minnesota, have now created institution-specific PFF programs.

"The PFF program is professional development for our graduate students," says University of Minnesota PFF program director Ilene Alexander.

The U's multidisciplinary program is jointly sponsored by the Graduate School and the Office of Human Resources and housed in the Center for Teaching and Learning Services. It offers two linked courses, Teaching in Higher Education and Practicum in Higher Education.

The first course supports Ph.D. students in becoming more effective and efficient teachers. The scholarly and practical experience with teaching and learning makes them much more marketable when they hit the job market, says Alexander. Both of courses include practice, theory, reflection, and assessment.

How the program is applied across the University differs, says Jane O'Brien, interim director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Services. Departments can send their Ph.D. students through a variety of paths.

A two-tiered approach

One path is PACE at the Carlson School, which is showing great promise. PACE was created by Steve Huchendorf, coordinator for OMS undergraduate academics, who had two reasons to make Ph.D. students better teachers.

"The objective is to have a good experience for both the new Ph.D. instructor as well as the undergraduate students in their classrooms," he says.

In previous years, Huchendorf was a co-teacher of PFF's general teacher-training course for Ph.D. students.

"It's a great course that Ph.D. students who teach should take," says Huchendorf. "But I don't feel that general training can fully prepare Ph.D. students to teach the specific content of their discipline."

Huchendorf created PACE for his department to help the doctoral students bring teaching skills and their specific discipline content together. He calls it a "two-tiered teacher-training paradigm."

Participants typically enter the program between their second and third year, a semester before they will first teach. They begin by taking Grad 8101, Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning Services.

The next semester, they participate in an intensive learning and mentoring process with a PACE director in their department. PACE directors are typically seasoned faculty members who have a reputation as effective teachers. PACE articipants are given specific assistance developing a content-specific syllabus. They're provided with a teacher's kit, which includes grading guidelines, lecture slides, and recommended text. They also meet weekly with their PACE director, and each participant is closely monitored through classroom observation and peer review.

In partnership with the Carlson's School's Office for Learning Excellence, which is focused on making learning excellence a hallmark of the school, PACE secured central funding to expand to other departments. As of fall 2005, four Carlson School departments are participating. Through PFF, students can also earn one academic credit for PACE courses. Paul White, the PACE director in accounting, says he is excited about participating in the program.

"So often, students are just handed a book and told 'good luck,'" he says. "Learning how to teach happens all on the ground, and it is not an easy task.

"A lot of the disparities in teaching come from [the] Ph.D. students. With minimal resources, we are able to remove a lot of the variation."

The PACE model and other methods to improve the teaching ability of future faculty are having great results for Ph.D. students and the students they teach.

Paul Wieser, director of Carlson's Office of Learning Excellence, says participating departments can be assured that their undergraduate students are receiving the level of instruction they want them to have.

"We can worry less about the Ph.D. students' teaching quality because we know that we have capable faculty mentoring them," says Wieser.

Nationally, studies have shown that two-tiered programs such as the PACE-PFF partnership result in alumni that are more effective with their time when carrying out their new faculty roles. They also receive higher-than-average ratings on student evaluations and report greater-than-average job satisfaction.

"PACE is an effective process for training our doctoral students to teach," says OMS department chair Chris Nachtsheim. "It leads to a better undergraduate program in our department and better placement for our doctoral students. I would encourage other departments to consider this approach."

"We want to spread this program out across the University," says Huchendorf.

Interested departments should contact Huchendorf and Alexander to gain a better understanding of the two-tiered approach to doctoral student teacher training.

For more information

Dr. Steven C. Huchendorf
Senior lecturer and undergraduate coordinator
PACE Program director
Department of Operations and Management Science
Carlson School of Management

Ilene Alexander
Preparing Future Faculty Program
Center for Teaching and Learning Services
On the Web: Do you have an improvement success story to tell? E-mail Meredith Fox at

Meredith Fox is community relations coordinator for the Office of Service and Continuous Improvement.

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