Cover Story

Three times a week, Boston University counseling psychology graduate student Jessyca Arthur teaches introduction to psychology to undergraduates at Lasell College in Newton, Mass. She also teaches a similar introductory course and one on "Interpersonal Relations," a three-hour class on the psychological underpinnings of family, professional and romantic relationships, to students ranging in age from teenagers to middle-age adults at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Mass. Both Middlesex classes meet once a week.

And while her teaching hours mean that she has to balance her time between instructing, commuting and writing her dissertation, Arthur believes the experience she's gaining will be a boon when she is a first-year professor.

"If students want to go into academia, [teaching] experience is important," she says. "And my experiences have kept me wanting to teach."

Arthur is one of many students who are paying as much attention to preparing for the teaching aspect of academia as their research. And many, like Arthur, are finding workshops, courses and mentoring can all improve their teaching know-how. Some are also carving out more creative opportunities by securing part or full-time teaching assignments.

Ask around

Indeed, gleaning on-the-job teaching experience as a graduate student is one way to learn the ins and outs of education. As a graduate student at Marquette University, Bonnie Nicholson, PhD, taught three courses: An introduction to psychology course at Carroll College, a "Life Span Development" course at Alverno College and a section of an educational psychology course at Marquette University.

How'd she do it? Since she knew by her second year of graduate school that she wanted to teach counseling psychology rather than pursue a career as a clinician, Nicholson told her adviser and other department faculty she wanted all the experience she could get and offered to give guest lectures in their undergraduate classes. In addition, during her second-year assistantship, she worked with her major professor to prepare and grade his exams.

"The experience helped me figure out what [exam] questions work and why," she says. Her early efforts paid off: When a teaching assistant position at Marquette opened up, her professors turned to her to teach the educational psychology course.

Nicholson was also active in Marquette's Preparing Future Faculty program, a national program that provides graduate students and postdocs with opportunities to observe and experience faculty responsibilities at nearby academic institutions that have varying missions, diverse student bodies and different expectations for faculty. Networking in the program led her to positions at Carroll College and Alverno College. And the experiences were close to ideal, she says.

"Teaching experience was the perfect supplement to basic training," she says.

Get training

However, before students start teaching, it's important that they learn how to teach, says Paul Nelson, PhD, APA's deputy director of education and director of graduate and postdoctoral education and training.

"Teaching is work-just like research and clinical work," he says. "Students can't assume that just because they'll have a PhD that they can teach."

To get training, Nelson urges students to seek out teaching resources at their university, such as the University of Oklahoma's course on teaching psychology, or a campuswide course or workshop that trains graduate students from all departments to develop lesson plans and manage a classroom.

Some schools, like Indiana University, also feature campus teaching centers that serve as a primary resource for appraising teaching evaluations, handouts and other teaching-related information.

Students whose universities do not feature such resources can tap online offerings, like the University of New Hampshire's online "Preparing to Teach a Psychology Course," which helps budding instructors develop a range of teaching skills, like crafting a course syllabus, grading plan and teaching units. However, Victor Benassi, PhD, a University of New Hampshire psychology professor and the course's coordinator, recommends that students augment the course's work by joining organizations, like APA's Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology) and taking advantage of literature on the psychology of teaching and learning (see further reading box).

Another resource for students is APA's annual two-day preconvention teaching training workshop, where seasoned psychology professors, like Miami University's Cecilia Shore, PhD, work with students and early-career psychologists to develop a teaching philosophy, write a sample syllabus, and learn to structure their lectures, class discussions and writing assignments.

Shore says that her goal for the workshop is to help early-career psychologists avoid the struggles she encountered during her first semester of teaching as a new professor.

"I was very organized," she says. "But all I did was lecture off overheads which is not conducive to learning. So I worked hard all semester and got horrible evaluations because I didn't know how to teach."

Seek supervision

To get the most out of their experiences, Shore suggests that students should bounce ideas off each other as well as develop a strong relationship with their adviser, mentor or supervisor.

These relationships can provide students with a forum to think and talk about teaching issues, such as teaching to students' various learning styles and teaching in ways that help students retain information.

Arthur says that the key to her improving her teaching skills is the supervision by more seasoned professors that she seeks at Middlesex and Lasell.

"My main concern is to be a quality teacher," she says. "And my supervisor's input into my process is extremely revealing."

The supervision also provides Arthur a place to go to voice questions about her teaching style and concerns about students' learning.

"I notice I'm getting better all the time-and that improvement helps keep me motivated," she says.

Links to help you gain teaching experience