Effective teaching strategies demonstrated by top graduate student teachers

by Julie Dodd

Falcon Restrepo-Ramos receives the Calvin A. VanderWerf Award from Dean of the Graduate School Henry Frierson and Dr. Constance Shehan, chair of the selection committee. The VanderWerf Award is given to the top of the teaching award winners. Morgan Yacoe also received the VanderWerf Award. Photo by Julie Dodd

Promoting student involvement.

Connecting learning to important issues.

Assigning meaningful projects.

Establishing a supportive learning climate.

These were some of the effective teaching strategies employed by the graduate students who were selected to receive the University of Florida’s Graduate Student Teacher Awards for 2019.

As a member of the faculty committee that observes the graduate students nominated for this award, I could feel the energy of those really engaging instructors when I visited their classes. I admired the graduate students’ course design and class planning to create such good learning experiences for their students.

Structuring class activities to get students involved

In the classes I observed that were taught by award-winning graduate students, their students were actively involved. Here are three examples I observed.

The winners of the University of Florida’s Graduate Student Teaching Awards for 2019 and members of the selection committee. Photo by Eric Zamora

In a physiology lab, the students worked in teams to review the results of the physiology lab they had conducted independently online.

Talking with classmates in a small group helped them answer some of their own questions about the lab and prepared them to share their experiences and the questions they still had with the class. In addition, after talking in small groups, the students were more confident in speaking in class.

In a media production class, students discussed in pairs how communications professionals for organizations can use both traditional media and social media to convey a message. By working in pairs, everyone was involved instead of just three or four students answering questions posed by a teacher to the entire class.

In a language course, the instructor designed an Escape Room activity that required students to work in small teams. Speaking only in Spanish, each team had to research questions related to the lesson’s topic. Then, using a code, each team had to identify a partner team in class and work together to determine the puzzle’s answer.

Focusing the course on big ideas

The graduate student teachers structured their courses to focus on important issues. In each class the instructors kept “the big ideas” of the course at the forefront.

In an acting class, the students were rehearsing scenes from a play, with different partner teams performing different scenes from the same play. With one team, the instructor used role reversal, having the male student take the female role and the female student take the male role. Immediately, the two students used stereotypical body posture and mannerisms. That led to a guided conversation by the instructor about actors not falling into the trap of presenting gender stereotypes when characters are much more nuanced.

In one class I observed, the topic for the day was reviewing for an upcoming exam. The instructor designed the review to help students think like medical professionals (which was what they were training to become) not just as test takers.

Requiring ambitious and relevant student projects

Many of the instructors who received awards had designed their courses to include ambitious projects for the students to accomplish.

An arts and medicine course was divided into units addressing a variety of medical issues. Each unit required the student teams to create a product, which would be evaluated not only by the instructor but by a medical professional or computer engineer. In the class I observed, the teams were creating apps related to medical issues, such as helping children with Type 1 diabetes better understand the disease.

In another course, the students would be presenting their final reports in a campus symposium – taking their findings beyond the classroom and connecting with other undergraduate researchers on campus.

After observing a sociology class when the teacher reminded the students that they would be discussing their individual projects in their next class meeting, a student wanted to tell me about the research she was planning. She was excited that the instructor had given the class flexibility in designing their own projects.

Creating a supportive learning environment

In presenting the award to each individual, Dr. Constance Shehan, chair of the Graduate Student Research Awards Committee, shared a little background on the graduate student from the student’s teaching philosophy or a letter from a department chair or dean who nominated the graduate student for the teaching award.

A recurrent theme was the graduate student teacher’s goal of creating a classroom environment that would put students at ease and encourage them to ask questions, listen to others, and express their views in a respectful way. That approach was evident in the classes I observed.

The awards presentation was uplifting, hearing about the exemplary teaching of the 20 graduate students selected to receive the awards. Faculty advisers, college deans, friends, spouses and some parents were there to celebrate the outstanding teachers’ recognition.

I thought about the hundreds of students these graduate students have influenced in their teaching at the University of Florida and the thousands they will inspire in their teaching careers.


You can read the names of the 2019 award winners on the University of Florida Teaching Center website.

The Teaching Center provides a range of programs to help graduate student teachers, including an Orientation for Graduate Teaching Assistants and  Teaching More Effectively Workshops.

Dr. Henry T. Frierson is Associate Vice President and Dean of the UF Graduate School and Dr. Paul Duncan is Senior Associate Dean. Dr. Winifred Cooke is Director of the Teacher Center.

Dr. Constance Shehan is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Graduate Student Teaching Awards Committee. Lorna Dishman is Executive Assistant I in the Graduate School and the administrative staff member for the committee.


1 thought on “Effective teaching strategies demonstrated by top graduate student teachers

  1. Pingback: Professional development for graduate teaching assistants | Strategies for Successful Teaching

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s