Research News

Teaching preparation during doctoral training could transform undergraduate STEM education

April 22, 2016

When science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) doctoral students participate in teaching development programs, their skills, confidence and interest in teaching undergraduates increase, according to a just-completed study funded by the National Science Foundation. 

“Preparing current and future faculty more effectively as undergraduate instructors has become a national priority,” says Mark Connolly, principal investigator of the seven-year Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars (LSFSS), housed at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in UW–Madison’s School of Education. “Our research shows that teaching development programs for STEM doctoral students are an effective way to prepare skilled instructors. Because many STEM Ph.D.s will eventually teach at colleges and universities across the U.S., high-quality teaching development during doctoral training has the potential to transform undergraduate STEM education.” 

STEM program
Graduate student Jeremy Hemberger (left) and professor of
entomology Claudio Gratton work together (Photo by Bryce
Richter/UW-Madison).
These programs, from brief workshops to semester-long courses, help future faculty develop the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to teach effectively. The study found TD programs helped STEM doctoral students develop confidence in teaching skills such as course design and assessment of student learning. It also found that increased levels of teaching development bolstered students’ confidence in teaching undergraduates and augmented a sense of community with their fellow graduate students. To this end, the report recommends increasing doctoral students’ engagement in teaching development programs. 

Another key finding is that STEM Ph.Ds. who taught undergraduates and engaged in more teaching development during their doctoral programs were more likely to obtain a faculty position. And those students with increased participation in teaching development were more likely to use evidence-based teaching practices when they later became college instructors, indicating that teaching development during doctoral training can have a long-term impact on teaching practice. Among the findings detailed in its final report, the study indicates that teaching development had positive, significant effects for all doctoral student participants, even those who did not take positions in academia after graduation. 

Since 2009, the study has followed more than 2,000 doctoral students from STEM departments at three U.S. research universities. Although all three institutions offered teaching development programs, doctoral students encountered barriers to accessing this training, including resistance from faculty members who believed that students’ focus should be on research, regardless of their ultimate career interests and goals. 

“Getting faculty at top research universities to see the value in teaching development remains a major hurdle,” says Connolly. “Making teaching development a higher priority will require coordinated change at the institutional, departmental and individual levels.”