How to Build Teaching Experiences and Skills as a Graduate Student
By Shelby Kilpatrick
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.
As graduate students in entomology or other scientific fields, many of us serve as teaching assistants and outreach educators during the course of our degree programs. We also have access to a variety of professional development opportunities that can prepare us for, complement, and build on our teaching experiences by providing us with new skills and ideas. These opportunities are valuable if you are considering a career in teaching (e.g., K–12 teacher, instructor/professor in higher education) or any other position involving significant instructional activities (e.g., extension educator, outreach specialist, science communicator).
However, the skills acquired through teaching—including adaptability, communication, conflict resolution, critical thinking, leadership, organization, problem-solving, technical experience, and time management—are transferable to a wide range of career paths. Recognizing this, graduate students can leverage their teaching proficiency and involvement to achieve diverse career goals.
Below, I share some of the opportunities available to graduate students interested in building and enhancing their teaching skillset. Additionally, I provide suggestions for how to document and demonstrate these skills. Some of these opportunities are also open to undergraduate students, postdoctoral researchers, or professionals at any career stage. Whether you want to start teaching, further your education, highlight your experiences, or meet a combination of these objectives, there is something that everyone can benefit from!
Here are four different types of opportunities that build teaching experiences, with suggestions on how to initiate and develop them:
Extension and outreach events. Assisting with or leading extension and outreach events is a great way to gain teaching experience with diverse groups of learners (e.g., school children, adults). Your lab, student organization, or department may already have programs you can get involved in. Connecting with your local extension office can also facilitate new opportunities to provide educational experiences to the public. For more ideas and details about how you can interact with the public in-person, virtually, or through social media, check out “The Bugs and the Bees: A Guide to Entomology Outreach, Even During a Pandemic” and “Entomology Outreach: Tips for Making an Impact and Sharing Your Science.”
Student instructor (SI) and teaching assistant (TA) positions. Serving as an SI or TA for courses allows you to get experience leading undergraduate and graduate students. Depending on your program, teaching responsibilities may be required or optional, and you can either be assigned to positions casually or selected via an application process. Additionally, courses may be in your department or hosted by related academic programs. If there is a particular course you are interested in helping teach, you can reach out to the instructor or department head directly to express your interest and ask about opportunities.
Responsibilities in these positions typically include grading student exams and projects, hosting office hours, tutoring students, presenting review sessions, designing and facilitating lessons, preparing and leading laboratory sessions, and more. When you receive an SI or TA position, consider meeting with the faculty member leading the course to review the tasks you will have. In addition to establishing expectations, this will give you the opportunity to share your interests and goals and to discuss options for creating meaningful experiences that align with those goals as part of your responsibilities in the course.
Guest lectures and seminars. For more teaching experience related to your interests, reach out to faculty members and others in your network with requests to give guest lectures on topics related to your research. Guest lectures can be presented to undergraduate or graduate classes or as part of seminar series. They may be hosted by your campus or other institutions, including those you have previously attended.
With many courses and seminars being shifted to virtual platforms over the past year, technology has made these opportunities even more accessible by reducing travel requirements. These are all excellent opportunities to develop and present educational talks, and get valuable feedback from your peers.
Co-instructor and instructor positions. For an even more in-depth teaching experience, you can create and implement a new course! This can be in your department or through a related program. Depending on your career stage and what your institution allows, you can teach in collaboration with a faculty member as a co-instructor or individually as the sole instructor.
To develop a course, think about topics you have experience with and reach out to the degree program coordinators for their insights on what is needed to fill gaps in the department’s curriculum. Program coordinators can also explain what is expected in a course and advise you on how to schedule it. Once you have a topic narrowed down, draft a syllabus and present it to the department’s administrative office for consideration. Furthermore, you can apply for teaching positions (e.g., adjunct professor, lecturer) at local colleges; responsibilities in these positions will provide similar experiences.
Professional Development Opportunities
Improving your teaching skills is a continuous process. It is important to take time to reflect on your teaching experiences as part of learning. Reflecting on your skills will also allow you to identify areas where you might want to increase your understanding and experience, enabling you to create a professional development plan. Based on your goals, you can advance your professional development in teaching with any combination of options, including the following:
Courses and workshops. Many universities offer courses and workshops on teaching that are open to students. Your institution may even have a specialized center for teaching development that sponsors such events on a regular basis and covers an assortment of subjects. Some examples of teaching-focused centers include the Institute for Teaching and Learning Excellence (Oklahoma State University), the Michael V. Drake Institute for Teaching and Learning (Ohio State University), the Center for Teaching Innovation (Cornell University), Center for Educational Innovation (University of Minnesota), and the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence and World Campus Online Faculty Development (Pennsylvania State University).
Your university may also have an agricultural leadership, development, extension, or education department that offers coursework you can take for credit or request to audit. Additionally, seminars in your and other departments may include outreach and education topics. Overall, courses are a great way to gain knowledge and advice on topics you are interested in. Check to see what your campus has available!
Certificates. Some universities even offer teaching certificate programs! Master’s and Ph.D. students who complete specific requirements (such as taking a series of required courses, serving as a TA, or submitting documentation of their teaching activities) can earn certificates alongside their primary degrees. While certificates often take longer to complete than a course or workshop, they may be for-credit or non-credit, offering flexibility to students seeking teaching credentials.
Some programs, such as the University Teaching Certificate (University of California, Riverside), require an application process and have specific timelines for completion. Others, such as the Graduate School Teaching Certificate (Penn State), are self-directed in coordination with the student’s department. There may also be certificates on specific topics that are offered periodically, such as the Graduate Student Online Teaching Certificate (Penn State World Campus), or that are earned once a student completes all of the required courses within a specified field (online teaching examples from the Penn State World Campus include course authoring, inclusive teaching, and the learner and learning).
Conferences and meetings. Attend (virtually or in-person) presentations and organized sessions at ESA meetings! For example, several teaching- and learning-centered symposia are on the slate this year at Entomology 2021, including:
- Sunday, October 31 – Member Symposia: Advancing Undergraduate-focused Teaching and Mentorship in Transformative Times, and 2021 Education and Outreach Adapting to Challenges, Advancing the Science, Transforming the Future.
- Tuesday, Nov. 2nd – Program Symposium: Transforming Teaching in Entomology: Engagement Through a Pandemic.
Be sure to search the program for additional individual presentations and symposia as you create your personal conference schedule!
Attending conferences and symposia can also be a great way to network and collaborate with others who have shared interests. If you are interested in other opportunities for meetings, I encourage you to consider the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA), an organization that hosts an annual meeting each summer. NACTA also offers other teaching and learning resources pertinent to entomologists throughout the year. Furthermore, teaching and learning symposia may also be hosted by your campus (e.g., Teaching and Leaning with Technology; Penn State); see the Courses and Workshops section above for suggestions on where you may find events like this listed.
Webinars. ESA has several Learning and Educational webinars that are archived for viewing anytime (ESA membership required). Particularly relevant webinars include “Distance Learning Tools For Students/Educators” (two sessions), “Lessons Learned from Teaching Entomology Online,” and “Incorporating Entomological Research in the Classroom.” Stay tuned as more may be available in the future!
Scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) literature. Reading research articles is a way to stay up to date with the latest methods in teaching and learning. They are also a good source of ideas and resources you can use in the classes or programs you lead, and they may even inspire your own research interests. Some ESA publications, including American Entomologist, publish literature in this category. Insect Systematics and Diversity recently published a special collection on teaching resources, which includes papers that can be used as teaching tools in the classroom. Other journals, including the new Journal of Entomological Education and Outreach and the NACTA Journal, are dedicated exclusively to SoTL content.
E-newsletters and podcasts. Other options for keeping up with current news and strategies in education are e-newsletters and podcasts, delivered directly to you at regular intervals. A lot of options are available, so explore and try out different ones to see what is best for you.
A few newsletters to consider are Edutopia (PreK–12), EdSurge (PreK–12 and higher education), Inside Higher Ed (higher education), and The Chronicle of Higher Education (teaching; multiple topics within higher education are also available). If you are interested in podcasts, some of the organizations that offer newsletters also host podcasts or have articles with podcast recommendations in their archives that can kick-start your search.
Personal learning networks (PLNs). Consider outlining a PLN as part of your teaching professional development. PLNs are personalized tools that use technology to connect resources, like those listed above, and people that you interact with, such as colleagues and mentors, to support your learning. PLNs can also change and grow over time.
In addition to asking questions within your network, be sure to answer others’ questions when you can. Furthermore, contribute any information, materials, and opportunities you find so that others can discover them. One social network to consider adding to your PLN is ESA’s Entomology Education and Outreach Network. You may also be interested in creating your own network; for example, Entomology Online was started by Carly Tribull last year (new members are also welcome)!
Documenting and Demonstrating Your Skills
The teaching and professional development activities you engage in can be recorded in several ways. Components of your record will often be required as part of award nominations and job applications. Keeping your materials updated and in a variety of formats allows you to be prepared for any occasion. Furthermore, tips for implementing these and other methods are available freely online. For more details and examples—especially for designing evaluations, creating portfolios, and writing philosophy statements—search the websites of the institutions offering courses and workshops, and the websites for e-newsletters listed above.
Teaching evaluations. Distribute anonymous evaluations to students at the end of any individual sessions you lead or at the end of the semester if you serve as an SI, TA, or instructor for a course. You can create your own evaluation, or you may need to use an evaluation required by your institution. For maximum value, the questions in your survey should evaluate both evidence of learning (e.g., learning objective-based questions; a short-answer format is sufficient) and evidence of learner satisfaction (e.g., What did you like?, What could be improved?; six-point Likert scales work well).
Reviewing the survey results will help you determine your teaching effectiveness (i.e., if students achieved the learning goals) and how your students perceived your teaching. These results can help you pinpoint what you can do to improve and, as you continue refining your teaching approach and skillset, demonstrate positive change over time. Additionally, if you serve as an SI, TA, or co-instructor, consider requesting feedback from the faculty member you worked with to add to your records.
Teaching portfolios. Create a portfolio highlighting your teaching and professional development involvement. This can be done online as an e-portfolio on a public website, kept privately in a folder on your computer, or a combination of both based on the type and sensitivity of the material included. In any case, it is helpful to collect all of the material associated with your activities in an organized and accessible location. Writing a brief description of the experience, your responsibilities, a summary of the feedback you received, and the impact and outcomes of the activity is also encouraged, as these can be easily reviewed or shared as you prepare for interviews or assemble application packets for submission.
Teaching philosophy statements. Writing a teaching philosophy statement can be a challenging yet incredibly valuable exercise; it requires you to articulate your teaching views and strategies. There is no single way to write a teaching philosophy, but there are items and qualities that most share. Reviewing examples, particularly from others in your field, may be helpful as you consider your teaching values and identify examples to illustrate them in your own document. You may even have the opportunity to construct your philosophy as part of a course or workshop. Overall, seek feedback from people you trust, and occasionally review and reflect on your philosophy to adapt it as needed over time.
Resumes and curricula vitae (CVs). Just as you catalog other accomplishments, credentials, and experiences on your resume or CV, be sure to dedicate sections to your teaching-related activities! A few details that are useful to include are your role in the activity, the date(s) of the class or event, the number of people taught, and the demographic of the students (e.g., grade levels represented, adult learners, or members of a specific association). This information helps illustrate your impact and versatility as an instructor.
Teaching recognition. Consider applying for awards that recognize excellence in teaching, outreach, or extension activities. Organizations including ESA and NACTA, as well as your department, college, or university, sponsor awards that graduate students are eligible for. Additionally, encourage or nominate your colleagues to celebrate their work! Being nominated for or receiving an award is a testament to your quality as an educator.
Do you have a teaching experience, professional development, or other related opportunity that you would like to share with the community? If so, please leave a comment below!
Thank you to Patricia Prade, Ph.D., and Joe Rominiecki for comments that improved the scope of this article. Special thanks to Sarah Elzay, M.S., Tessa Shates, and Karen Poh, Ph.D., for sharing insights and examples which enhanced the content. Additionally, thanks to Carolyn Trietsch, Ph.D., Brooke Lawrence, and Ryan Selking, M.S., for providing constructive reviews.
Shelby Kilpatrick is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Entomology at The Pennsylvania State University and is the Eastern Branch Student Representative on the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Twitter: @SKK_Anthophila. ePortfolio: https://shelbykkilpatrick.weebly.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.