Viewpoints

Teaching Exams: Some Suggestions

Joseph M. Henning, September 1998

Editor's Note: This essay is one of two responses to Peter Stearns's suggestion in the May issue that one of the PhD oral examinations may be focused on teaching.

Some great teachers are born, but most are made. History departments that welcome Stearns's suggestion should use a teaching exam only as the capstone of a series of training activities designed to cultivate teaching skills. Preparation to take a teaching exam should require the same commitment of thought and energy as any other oral exam. Departments can help graduate students develop into proficient teachers by systematically offering extracurricular seminars, teaching assistantships, and faculty mentorships. I would like to suggest a few approaches for departments to consider.

As a graduate student at American University, I did not have a teaching-exam option, but did participate in a three-year interdisciplinary program of biweekly seminars on teaching. From departments across the university, faculty recognized for their teaching skills met with doctoral students to discuss approaches to course design and teaching. The seminars encouraged us to develop our own teaching philosophies and to experiment with discussion and lecture techniques.

In the first year, the seminars introduced us to the skills required of an effective teaching assistant. Focusing on the challenge of leading discussion sections for the first time, we realized that our BAs did not automatically make us good TAs. The seminars equipped us with a variety of discussion formats that we could immediately employ. At each seminar meeting, we bragged about our recent successes, commiserated over our failures, and attempted to identify methods for improvement.

In the second and third years, the seminars focused on designing and teaching our own courses. Faculty members distributed sample syllabi and debated the merits of their different styles. The faculty also presented sample lectures and led sample discussions. In the seminar dialogues that followed, they described the rationale behind each presentation's design. At the same time we prepared syllabi, lectures, and discussion topics for courses of our own. These were offered to the seminar for critical evaluation and constructive suggestions.

Short of a multiyear program of interdisciplinary seminars, many other training activities are available to history departments exploring the teaching-exam option. Departments might offer their own workshops early each fall to prepare first-year TAs to lead recitation sections. First-year TAs would also benefit from workshop discussions of different approaches to grading papers and exams. Faculty leaders of the workshop could describe the tactics they use to cultivate their undergraduate students' thinking and writing abilities. What works for them in the classroom? What does not?

All graduate students have experienced a wide variety of teaching styles and have opinions about successful teaching strategies. Few, however, have examined this question in detail with faculty members or with peers who are also interested in teaching. Offered the opportunity to talk about teaching with experienced faculty, graduate students can begin to understand why some strategies are successful, and to choose strategies that will succeed for them.

The training of TAs is a process too often neglected. The teaching assistantship should be an initiation into the full world of academe, not just an introduction to the tensions between teaching and research. History departments should challenge their TAs not only to find time to grade papers and exams, but also to sharpen their teaching skills. Ideally, the teaching assistantship serves as a laboratory in which graduate students, under faculty guidance, experiment each semester with another element of teaching. By the time they are preparing to take the teaching exam, they will have developed their own philosophies of teaching.

Departments that hope to cultivate teaching skills among their graduate students must also encourage all of their faculty members to act as teaching mentors. Faculty and their TAs should think cooperatively and deliberately about teaching as well as grading. In each course, faculty and TAs should discuss the purpose behind its design, lecture and discussion topics, writing assignments, and exam questions. TAs should regularly have the option of preparing and presenting a lecture, after which their faculty mentor can offer feedback.

Faculty advisers also can serve an important role by inviting students to consider how they would teach specific topics in their research specialty. This aspect of mentorship can prompt students to begin preparing for conference presentations and on-campus job interviews. Students should invite their advisers to observe the classes they lead as TAs or graduate lecturers so that their recommendation letters include firsthand descriptions of their classroom performance.

As Stearns correctly points out, teaching ability is an important asset in the job market. During my recent job search, I found that many small colleges ask candidates more questions about their teaching philosophy and experience than about their dissertation research. Campus visits are likely to include a sample lecture to undergraduates. While such schools value research and publications, they place a premium on their faculty's ability to enthusiastically engage students in the classroom.

History departments studying the teaching-exam option must not overlook other training activities that prepare graduate students to teach. Adopting a training program can be a matter of self-interest: departments will better prepare their students for the job market. But developing teachers is also a matter of responsibility. After all, the act of learning carries with it the obligation of conveying knowledge to others. Helping graduate students to make themselves into successful teachers will work not only to the advantage of individual departments, but also to the advantage of undergraduate education as a whole.

—Joseph M. Henning teaches at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.