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  • Graduate students Annelise Thompson (left) and Brendon McNicholas teaching their session titled “Motivating Your Students: Beyond the Carrot and the Stick” at the third annual Caltech Teaching Conference in September 2015.
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech
  • Graduate student, Annelise Thompson speaking at one of the sessions during the 2015 Teaching Conference at Caltech.
    Credit: CTLO/Caltech
11/23/2015 15:48:03

Learning to Teach

For many graduate students, the Caltech doctoral program is not only about producing innovative science, but also about beginning an academic career. To support their peers in their growth as educators, a group of graduate students began the Caltech Project for Effective Teaching (CPET) in 2006. The program's mission is to help members of the Caltech community—including postdocs, undergraduates, professors, and graduate students—become more effective teachers and communicators. To this end, CPET hosts regular seminars and workshops, featuring speakers such as Feynman Teaching Prize winners as well as presidents and faculty from other universities.

"We know that many of the students and postdocs at Caltech will go on to become faculty at some of the top institutions around the world, so we have a chance to help these talented individuals develop not only as researchers but also as educators," says Daniel Thomas, one of the two graduate student CPET co-directors. "We can also help TAs, professors, and postdocs model excellent teaching for the undergraduate and graduate students here at Caltech, creating an effective learning environment that can be emulated elsewhere."

Over the summer, CPET helped plan Caltech's third annual teaching conference, held on September 24, 2015. With sessions led by faculty, staff, and graduate teaching assistants from Caltech and other local universities, the conference drew approximately 350 participants from across Caltech's divisions and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One subject of the conference was how to create an inclusive classroom. "An inclusive classroom is one in which all students, regardless of their backgrounds, have the support necessary to succeed and feel that their contributions to the class are important," says Kelsey Boyle, CPET's other co-director. "We have to do our best to connect with students and understand their perspective so that unencumbered learning can take place."

A trademark of a Caltech education is weekly problem sets, as well as take-home exams. How to design these assignments in order to effectively measure and challenge student learning has been an ongoing focus of workshops at the annual teaching conference. "It takes a great deal of work to make a problem set that has problems that can pinpoint student misconceptions, avoid confusion, and be completed in a reasonable amount of time," Boyle says.

CPET also provides a certificate program that gives participants an introduction to best practices in the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as opportunities for real-time feedback as they teach. Students can receive a Certificate of Interest in University Teaching by participating in six CPET seminars or workshops and submitting reflective journal entries. Several hundred people participate in one or more of CPET's seminars or workshops each year, and CPET expects to award more than 10 Certificates of Interest in 2015-2016. CPET also offers a Certificate of Practice in University Teaching, in which participants work with CPET and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO) on developing and practicing lessons for real Caltech courses. This second certificate program is in its first year and has eight participants.

"The CPET certificate program is one of a very few, if not the only, student- and peer-led program of its kind," says Cassandra Horii, the director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach. "I'm incredibly proud of and grateful to CPET for their innovation and leadership in this area, including adding a Certificate of Practice in University Teaching program for those who want to extend their knowledge and skills of effective teaching even further through experience, feedback, and creation of their own teaching materials."

"We are in an exciting period in the history of STEM teaching, with faculty and education experts across the country realizing that teaching styles that actively engage with students are significantly more effective than traditional lectures," says Thomas. "Using methods such as 'flipping' the classroom—when students read or watch lectures outside of the classroom and do 'homework' problems collaboratively during traditional class time—as well as collecting student feedback during class and incorporating peer tutors, can help students improve their conceptual understanding. We can get students to be more passionate about a class when we engage with them."

Written by Lori Dajose