Professor Develops Program to Help Grad Students Become Better Teachers

Listening to a lecture as a student and giving one as a teacher are two very different things. That’s why Shatakshee Dhongde started an initiative to help with this transition.   

“As a Provost Teaching and Learning Fellow, I needed to create a project related to my work at Tech,” said Dhongde, an associate professor in Economics. “When I was talking to the dean of Ivan Allen College about possible projects, I mentioned my worry that larger classes in the School of Economics meant a greater need for graduate teaching assistants who had less experience — especially those from other countries. From that conversation, came my idea to create this program.”

The Center for Teaching and Learning’s (CTL) Provost Teaching and Learning Fellows (PTLF) program brings together a group of 17 professors interested in improving Georgia Tech’s teaching community.

Fellows serve a two-year term and meet monthly to discuss new projects. (Faculty members can apply to the program or be nominated by their deans, and all participants receive an annual stipend during the fellowship.)

Dhongde was part of the first group of fellows in 2017. Read on to learn more about her and the work she’s done to help students transition into teachers.  

Did you always want to go into teaching, or was it a career you came across later in life?

I worked as a graduate teaching assistant when I was at the University of California. The university's program for teaching assistants (TAs) was very structured. But, during my first section, I remember thinking that I really enjoyed this, and that maybe I wasn’t bad at it.

What I enjoyed most of all was that the students could connect a lot better with graduate students as their TAs, so I felt really comfortable with them. And the students seemed so excited. It didn’t feel like teaching the same course over and over, because every class approached it in a new way. That connection helped me decide that this was where I wanted to be.

What brought you to Tech?

Since Tech is known for its engineering program, the economics program is slightly smaller here. But, I worked in a similar situation at another university, and I really liked that the students could work well with numbers. Economics is like math and physics in that it uses a lot of quantities, and I knew students here would be well trained in that.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at Tech?

I enjoy interacting with students. The students here are very smart; they take interest in any challenging problem, regardless of their major. I remember a few years ago, I was teaching a master’s class in economics, and I had one graduate student from Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) who was very close to finishing his Ph.D. He was taking the course because he was interested in economics, but he became so excited about the subject by the end of the semester. Later in the year, he told me that he'd decided to go for another degree — in economics (after finishing his degree in ECE). I was surprised that he wanted to go for another Ph.D., but it felt great to have this connection with a student.

Something like that won’t happen every time, but it was great to see an engineering student who has this interest in social topics, who actually decided to use it. A lot of my students here come up and ask if they can do something beyond what the class requires them to do. I’ve even had some students present their papers at undergraduate research conferences on their own. I enjoy seeing that initiative in our students.

What are some of the challenges that international students face when they transition from students to teachers?

International students aren’t always familiar with the undergraduate class structure, especially how undergraduate students at Tech approach the class and the instructor. For example, many students in our program are from different countries in Asia, so a couple of them have had to adjust to students being very direct in their questions to the professor. Another thing our international students struggle with is confidence in the language. Usually, they are very good at reading and speaking English, but they lack confidence in their presentations.

Tell us more about what the program you’ve created for international students entails.  

As part of the program, students go through CTL’s Teaching Assistant Orientation and Tech to Teaching program. We included these components to help students think more scientifically about the art of teaching and help international students learn about classroom structures in the United States. Students then move on to a teaching capstone where they teach a course by themselves or with a mentor.

The program generally lasts two semesters. So far, we’ve had 11 students participate. Any graduate student can join, but we tend to see the most interest from international students looking to gain more expertise in teaching in this country. We’re building a website for the program. But, for now, visit the Tech to Teaching page for more information about the required courses.

How have students benefited from participating?

The participants have a chance to learn specific teaching skills in the CTL classes or from their mentors, such as how to write syllabi well and how to give presentations.

One of the most beneficial parts is the capstone where they teach a course with a mentor. The student that I mentored last semester got to see the process of building a course over time and observe lectures, and even got to give some lectures herself. She was able to observe how professors deal with things like student questions and if you run out of copies of something — all the things that can happen in a classroom. The program also helped her in getting feedback from students regarding things like projecting her voice so they could hear her. Students also get a Tech to Teaching certificate and a letter of recommendation from CTL. 

Going forward, what are a few of your goals for your program?

We’re working to institutionalize the program within Economics and share it with other schools at Tech. I’m glad that Laura Taylor, the new chair of Economics, has recognized the importance of this initiative and has been very supportive in helping it grow. 

Why would you recommend that other faculty members participate in the PTLF?

The program provides the opportunity to think creatively about teaching. It’s an opportunity to learn what you’re doing well and what you can improve about your methods. We as faculty rarely share our classroom experiences and our thoughts on teaching with each other, even though teaching is an important part of our lives. The PTLF program helped me make these conversations with colleagues across campus happen.

For more information about the Provost Teaching and Learning Fellowship, visit ctl.gatech.edu/faculty/groups/PTLF.

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Carol Subiño Sullivan

Center for Teaching and Learning