Student-Centered Graduate Teaching

Most academics dream of teaching doctoral seminars. Why do we spend so little time thinking about how to do it well?

Adam Niklewicz for The Chronicle

November 04, 2013

Just about every professor wants to teach graduate courses. Lots of them regard it practically as their birthright, which isn't unusual when you consider that the graduate-school experience marks their own birth as professional intellectuals.

I know that I wanted dearly to teach graduate students. At the beginning of my faculty career, graduate teaching looked like the pinnacle of professional existence. It wasn't available to me for years, so when the opportunity came to teach a graduate seminar, I felt lucky rather than entitled. I still do.

Looking back, I realize that I was chasing something I knew little about. Although I wanted very much to teach graduate students, I had no particular ideas about how to do it, nothing special I wanted to try. I did have more than a few negative examples from my own life as a doctoral student, so I knew some ways not to teach graduate school.

But I had no grand pedagogical vision for those courses. I just wanted to be a Grad School Professor. I expect that I was fairly typical in that respect.

So if most academics want to teach graduate students, why do so few of us think hard about how to do it? Scholarship proliferates on how to teach undergraduates, and rightly so, since most of us do it, most (or all) of the time. But scholarship on how to teach graduate students is thin on the ground.

That's partly because it's possible to teach a graduate seminar without doing much work. Most graduate students are heavy lifters, and they usually carry the load if you don't step forward to do it.

I had teachers in graduate school who certainly didn't want to do much. Many of my seminars as a graduate student were run by what I call the beach-ball method: Just as a crowd at an arena bounces a beach ball at random from one person to another, the professor depends on the students to keep the seminar going just by talking—which they do, bouncing from topic to topic without design. Such professors are abdicating their responsibility to plan and shape a course around the educational needs of their students.

Planning around the needs of graduate students is actually more radical than it sounds, especially in the humanities and the more qualitative social sciences. Professors often ask, "How do students learn?" But when we do, we're typically referring to undergraduates.

The philosophy behind that question is called student-centered learning. It's not a new idea; its beginnings may be traced back to the likes of John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Its application to undergraduate education came later. Student-centered learning has not, for the most part, reached graduate school yet.

How do graduate students learn? The same way that other students do: through what educators label "retention" and "transfer."

It does no good to learn something if you don't retain it. That's why analysts of education at all levels take a jaundiced view of cramming: Students retain the material only long enough to get through the test and then promptly forget what they "learned." Graduate seminars don't usually require cramming, but when they cover too much material, it gets crammed in students' minds, with approximately the same results.

In an article in The Journal of Higher Education called "The Transition to Independent Research: Who Makes It, Who Doesn't, and Why," Barbara E. Lovitts quotes a graduate-seminar leader who complained, "Even as I'm teaching my graduate class right now, people have forgotten what they learned the semester before, which is very surprising to me." He shouldn't have been surprised. Most graduate seminars squeeze too much information into a brief time.

We expect graduate students to be able to use what they're being taught when the class is over—that's the meaning of "knowledge transfer." Indeed, the education scholars Diane F. Halpern and Milton D. Hakel point out in an article in Change magazine, "Applying the Science of Learning to University Teaching and Beyond," that the entire justification for higher education rests on that premise. The rationale is obvious enough: Your learning benefits your career only if you can draw on it while you work, not just for the brief period of your training.

How might graduate professors teach in order to promote the sensible goals of knowledge transfer and retention?

We have to start by reverse-engineering from those concepts. But there's the rub: Most graduate teachers don't want to do that. As self-styled defenders of the last bastion of teacher-centered curriculum, many professors in graduate school want to cover "content" and consider anything else to be a distraction.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the work of the discipline, of course. Graduate students have to read a lot to learn their fields, and nothing is going to change that. But they also have to be able to work with what they've read. Seminar leaders therefore need to leave enough time not just to "cover" material but also for students to practice doing things with it. As Robert Frost once said, "It's knowing what to do with things that counts."

David A. Gerber, a historian at the University at Buffalo, designed a research seminar to promote knowledge retention. It wasn't a simple task. Gerber first created a research-paper-centered seminar that he hoped would foster independence and intellectual community among students—and he watched it falter. Among other obstacles, he ran into a consistent problem in humanities graduate seminars: It often takes students so long to come up with a topic that they can't do full justice to writing about it in the weeks that remain. A semester proves not very long a period to complete a work of original research.

Second, Gerber found that his students often lacked basic research skills—which in history include efficient note-taking and organization of files. "It had never occurred to me," he wrote, "to set time aside to teach these skills."

So he adjusted. He adopted a student-centered approach, and he scrapped the seminar paper. Instead he assigned what he called "research reports," based on clusters of sources that he'd gathered beforehand. In other words, he replaced the independent pursuit of historical research with a research-training exercise. "I wanted to provide actual instruction in research," he said, along with a chance to discuss the historical work that follows, and "not merely individual guidance in choosing a topic."

Dewey argued that learners need to create knowledge firsthand in order to really experience it, and learn it. In 1907 he wrote of teaching chemistry to elementary-school students by having them cook eggs and observe the way that heat led to changes in the texture of the whites. Gerber's reworked seminar provided an analogous experience to apprentice historians. The results were encouraging enough for him to write an article about them.

He wrote that article in 1989, and no one read it. I had a hard time reading it myself. My university subscribes to the usual array of electronic databases, but Gerber's essay wasn't available on any of them. I wound up getting a copy from the author, who professed surprise that I would want to read a forgotten piece of work.

Who knows whether Gerber (who is now semiretired) might have continued his scholarship of graduate teaching if his attempt in that vein had received more of a response, let alone support? That is too often the fate of professors who try to start conversations about how to teach graduate courses—especially when those conversations start with the needs of the students themselves.

But graduate students do have needs that extend beyond acting as a seminar audience for the latest research in a professor's favorite subfield. Given the state of the job market—both inside and outside of the academy—graduate students need all the help we can give them. We might start by placing them at the center of our teaching, where they belong.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at