How Is Teaching Undergrads Different From Teaching Graduate Students?

What are the differences between teaching undergraduate and graduate students? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Elizabeth H. Simmons, Dean, Professor, ACE Fellow, Physicist, on Quora:

As a physics professor, I've taught students at every level in the university from freshman non-majors through doctoral students.

The pedagogical tools are similar at all levels, in that active-learning methods are the most effective for promoting deep understanding and mastery. One should use pure lecture as sparingly as one can and do as much as possible to get the students talking and applying material right in the classroom. However, it is far easier to come up with classroom tabletop demonstrations for elementary courses than for advanced ones (those tend to get rather heavily mathematical), so the particular kinds of active learning one employs shift from the hands-on to the calculational and conceptual as one moves from freshmen through graduate students.

In teaching undergraduates who are not majoring in the discipline, one must take care to connect what is being learned to areas that they are intrinsically interested in, whether academically or in real life. If students feel there is long-term value in what they are studying, they are more likely to put in significant effort to understand the concepts rather than merely trying to skate through the course.

When teaching undergraduates who are majoring in the field, I expect that they are intrinsically interested in physics, so my job is to help them see how the particular subject matter ties into other areas of physics. Again, one wants them to appreciate the long-term value of the material -- but now as it relates to their scientific studies and eventual careers. I expect them to be able to grasp not only the core concepts of the particular class but also the range of validity of the different methods we are using and how that corresponds to the natures of different physical situations one may be analyzing.

I expect that graduate students have had a solid undergraduate preparation in the discipline and retain the essentials of the core areas. So in teaching more advanced material, I can draw on principles and results covered in undergraduate courses as a starting point and show how they fit together to yield new insights. I also expect that anyone electing to pursue graduate coursework is strongly interested in understanding the conceptual underpinnings of the field. This means that I feel more free to spend time on key derivations (rather than focusing solely on outcomes) as a way of illustrating methods they will find useful in their future research.

At all levels, I expect students to come to class prepared (according to directions given in the syllabus and course website), to speak up in class and work actively on in-class projects, and to bring questions to me after class, via email, or during office hours.

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