Do Econ Grad Students Need a Teaching Bailout?

January 5, 2009

At most research universities, considerable teaching of undergraduates is done by graduate students -- either leading discussion sections or full courses, or grading papers for faculty members. While graduate students presumably know more than the undergraduates they instruct, there remains the question: Do those in the front of the classroom know what they are doing?

Research presented this weekend at the American Economic Association’s annual meeting, in San Francisco, suggests that relatively few doctoral programs require graduate students to take for-credit courses that are intended to teach them how to teach. While this finding concerns the authors of the study, other research presented at the economists' meeting suggests that many new Ph.D.’s still feel well prepared to lead courses.

The study on requirements was based on a survey of departments that grant Ph.D.’s in economics. Among the findings:

  • 91 percent of departments employ graduate students as instructors.
  • 29 percent of departments require graduate students to take a course for academic credit on how to teach undergraduates.
  • Just over half of departments require graduate students to attend a non-credit program about teaching undergraduates.
  • 80 percent of departments require a formal test of English proficiency before foreign students can start teaching duties.
  • 89 percent of departments have programs for formal assessment of teaching by graduate students, with student evaluations being the most commonly used tool (many times in combination with other methods).

The authors of the study -- William B. Walstad of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and William E. Becker of Indiana University at Bloomington -- write that they are “perplexed as to why more economics departments do not require that their graduate student instructors take a credit course on teaching.”

Noting that teaching “can be difficult to master on your own,” the authors write that without “effective” training, “the goal of becoming a teacher for most graduate students is likely to focus on the simple mastery of lecturing to the exclusion of other teaching methods or strategies.” And Walstad and Becker note that the quality of undergraduate teaching can affect enrollment patterns and have a key impact on whether new students are inspired by a field.

While no research presented at the meeting featured the views of undergraduates in those courses, another study -- based on a survey of new economics Ph.D.’s -- found that they do feel prepared to teach at the end of their doctoral programs.

Further, this study found no statistically significant difference in the percentage reporting themselves well prepared who had taken a credit course on teaching and those who hadn’t. The second study was conducted by two scholars at Murray State University: James P. McCoy, associate provost and professor of economics, and Martin Milkman, professor of economics.

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