Research News

Doctoral student teaching development programs make a difference

April 06, 2015
by Paul Baker

Most doctoral students are socialized by faculty and peers to value research more than teaching. Yet improving undergraduate education depends on leading these future researchers to value and use methods of high-quality undergraduate teaching and learning. Teaching development (TD) programs are an effective way to build early-career academics’ confidence in their college teaching skills.

Only 19 percent of college students receiving a bachelor’s degree will graduate with a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) degree, despite industry demands for workers with training in a STEM field. Poor teaching is a primary reason for students’ switching out of a STEM major, and poor teaching remains a source of concern for those students who remain, according to a landmark 1997 study by Seymour and Hewitt.

Mark Connolly
Mark Connolly
At research-intensive universities, teaching development (TD) activities are seldom offered to doctoral students in a coordinated fashion, says Mark Connolly, an associate research scientist and principal investigator with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). Connolly studies postsecondary teaching and learning, graduate education.

Faculty advisors in STEM fields often stigmatize participation in TD, says Connolly. These skeptical advisors consider the time that doctoral research students spend in TD programs a waste of time — or perhaps a way to avoid one’s research.

As a result, improving one’s teaching is typically a “do-it-yourself” experience. Helping doctoral students find TD programs and assess the potential return on the time invested would benefit them — and the undergraduates they eventually will teach.

Connolly says that one’s self-confidence as a teacher is a strong predictor of successful teaching performance, and that doctoral training is a crucial time to develop that confidence.  That’s especially important when one considers that one of every three STEM Ph.D.s will teach college courses within six years of completing a doctorate.

You-Geon Lee
You-Geon Lee
Connolly and WCER colleague You-Geon Lee measured the effects of teaching-focused professional development at three U.S. research universities. Their study used social cognitive career theory (SCCT) to analyze the short-and long-term effects of TD on instilling the belief that one can be an effective teacher.

SCCT posits that the beliefs that people hold about themselves are key to their personal agency. It attempts to explain how personal career goals, career expectations, and one’s sense of personal efficacy collectively shape an individual’s career choices. SCCT considers many things including how students form their career interests, how they make career-related choices, what constitutes effective job performance, and what makes for satisfying work.

Within that framework, Connolly and Lee hypothesized that TD offerings are the kind of learning experience that directly influence one’s self-efficacy beliefs toward college teaching, indirectly influence one’s career interest and choice, and contribute to subsequent job performance and satisfaction.

This research was part of the Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars, which is following a group of more than 3,000 late-stage doctoral students. It explores the short- and long-term effects of TD participation on students’ pedagogical preparation, career choices, and early-career success.

Connolly and Lee measured college-level teaching along six components: course planning, teaching methods, creating learning environments, assessing student learning, interacting with students, and mastering subject knowledge. The study determined that participation in TD activities had a statistically positive impact on STEM early-career academics’ college-teaching efficacy beliefs. Compared to non-participants, participants were more confident in course planning, teaching methods, assessing student learning, and mastering subject knowledge.

The study found that participation in TD especially benefits women. The more women participate and engage in TD activities, the more effective they are in college teaching. In STEM fields, more women than men leave doctoral programs before completion. But those who are better prepared for their teaching role by doctoral TD may experience less stress and more balance among their academic responsibilities.

In general, more intensive engagement in TD led to greater gains in teaching efficacy. Findings suggest that substantial gains in college teaching efficacy beliefs can be made by students who participate in at least 10 hours of TD. Combining TD with actual teaching experience has the greatest effect. Connolly says that STEM doctoral students should be encouraged to participate in both types of activities during their doctoral training, and that these activities work best when integrating theory and practice.

WCER is housed within UW-Madison's School of Education.