Last semester, I started my first official school year off teaching a senior level undergraduate class. This was a required course that was, from my understanding, a softball in recent years. I decided that I needed to set a different tone for the class than what might have been set in previous years. Incidentally, that tone got me quite a lot of “not very approachable” reviews on my semester student ratings. I find that odd because I never turned away a student from my door and I answered emails all throughout the night. Shrug. But I digress…
This semester, I’m teaching a grad class of my design. And there are two distinct differences from teaching an undergraduate class: 1) it’s a free-for-all on material and 2) I find that I’m much more lackadaisical about grad classes. I’ll expound on those thoughts, reverse chronologically because it makes more sense that way.
Lackadaisical Approach – I think there are a few reasons for this. First, this course is much more in my wheelhouse so I feel comfortable teaching some of the topics with minimal prep. For instance, there’s a few lectures that will come directly from research topics towards the end of the semester. Those I’m confident that I know without checking, double checking, and triple checking. Second, I don’t know about the rest of my colleagues but I didn’t get too much out of grad classes. I found them to be more of a waste of time than anything else. Now, I’m hugely biased because I did a thesis masters and for my PhD, I was in Europe where there are no required classes. I understand that I’m lacking some of the mathematical background and fundamentals on some topics, but at the same time, I think I was able to produce much more research results because I wasn’t burdened by classes. And probably because of this bias, I also don’t think too highly of a coursework masters but I’ll save that topic for a later date.
The third, and I think most important reason for my approach, is that graduate students are generally looking for course topics to fit within the context of their research. I have students from 5 different engineering disciplines in my class. It’s going to be very hard for me to present, for instance, bio-medical solutions to some problems. Rather, I feel the point of graduate classes is the expose grad students to a topic that’s potentially useful to them. Thus, unlike undergraduate classes which have a specific set of course material that must be covered, grad courses that are not required are not limited by this.
This is a nice segue into reason 1…
Material Free-for-All – Because there’s no defined material (this isn’t a required course), I’m basically free to choose what I lecture about. This, I find is totally awesome. As I said previously, I have 5 different engineering disciplines sitting in my class. And since my course is a “engineering design” type of course, setting aside part of the lecture to do collaborative brainstorming on projects that may be outside of my wheelhouse is great. For instance, my aforementioned bio-medical student may have a research challenge that we can collectively attack, which will expose all of the students to problems in that area, assist the bio-med student with their research challenge, and free me up for having to do too much planning. I also think this can be good for showing how engineering problems are tackled in a real research environment, something that’s not a major focus of some undergraduate programs.
All in all, I’m pretty excited about being able to teach this course because I think the students are interested even though I’ve covered the driest topics during the first week to get them over with. Those topics do set the tone for the course but some of that material is like trolling through the Sahara. I’ll check back in during the semester to let you know how it goes with the better material.
What about you? Did you find any difference between classes at the Grad and UG level that were taught by the same prof ? If you are teaching at both levels, do you find you have a different style for both?
[photo credit: The Innovative Educator (actually from a useful post too)]