Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Teaching Graduate Students

paul atchley lecturingBased on her research on teaching graduate students, as well as her experience as a graduate student at KU, Ann Volin (2003) suggests that what makes graduate seminars successful includes clear goals, adequate preparation and follow-up. Often professors begin seminar preparation with their experience as a student as the sole blueprint. Augmenting that experience with the following ideas can streamline benefits and increase student learning:

  • Model your professional leadership. You are undoubtedly an expert about the seminar topic; thus, your presentation of the seminar material should model relevant skills for teaching, learning and presenting in your profession. A seminar offers the chance for you to relay to graduate students the professional expectations of your discipline. It’s best not to assume that students know what these are—make them explicit.
  • Set clear course objectives. Articulate not only what you plan to achieve for the semester, but also what each session will accomplish so you can judge whether your plan will achieve its intended benefits.
  • Make behavioral intentions clear. What are your expectations for student learning? Do students know what behaviors, attitudes and ideas you hope to address through this seminar? These fundamentals can be taken for granted in a seminar that assumes advanced students, but again, make even these overt.
  • Structure each class meeting. Allowing classes to “go with the flow,” which may sound like an idealized intellectual process, leads away from course goals. You have limited time for intense learning in a seminar.
  • Plan student-led discussions. Students can—and should—lead discussions based on papers they have written or topics they have researched. Teachers can coordinate, facilitate and comment on presentations. An interactive format is crucial; there must be a reason for students to attend class instead of reading material on their own. Watch out for sessions that center on a presenter and fail to draw out the group’s expertise.
  • Encourage students to help each other. No doubt many students are in class because of their deep interest in a subject. By joining their peers, they own material in a way that professors cannot create on their own. Let seminar interactions build upon skills that each student brings to the seminar. Through these interactions, graduate students become each other’s professional colleagues.
  • Have an obligatory follow-up. Not only do graduate students need the opportunity to practice and demonstrate skills, but they also need feedback. If that feedback exists in a vacuum—for instance, at the end of the semester when there will be no opportunity to correct and modify skills—it’s less than optimal. Figure in a realistic revision that will demonstrate the application of the feedback.

In his course portfolio titled “Re-envisioning Teaching Graduate Seminars,” Anton Rosenthal describes how he implemented backward design (see Course Design) in a graduate course, “The Global City.” Rather than beginning with a set of readings and expecting students to fit into a “one size fits all” approach, Rosenthal first identified goals he wanted students to achieve by the end of the course.

Since one goal was to prepare graduate students for their professional lives, Rosenthal developed assignments that reflected that goal. Students didn’t write a long research paper; instead, they wrote multiple short papers (five–six pages) that employed methods, theories and sources. For their cumulative work, students developed a teaching unit. Rosenthal observed students’ improvement in several areas, such as writing, research analysis, understanding journal articles, and performing comparative analysis.

For additional thoughts on teaching graduate students, please see this brief reflection by Paul Atchley. For tips and thoughts on directing theses and dissertations, see this handout by Marsha Haufler and Mary Lee Hummert.


Volin, A. (2003, February). Seven ideas for graduate seminars. Teaching Matters, 6, 8.

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