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Supporting Students

On the cutting edge of teaching

How graduate-student instructors help undergrads thrive

By Cathy Cockrell

 Graduate student instructor with undergrad
Ph.D.-candidate Jessica Smith, right, mentors undergrad Leslie Hamachi in research techniques. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Spring 2013 | "Find techniques to deal with varying energy levels, class by class, day by day," a Ph.D. student in history advises other graduate students, shortly before the start of spring semester. "Have a variety of activities on hand to choose from."

In a nearby classroom, a Chinese agricultural economist fields questions from fellow international grad students—taking care to answer "a little more slowly than in everyday life," as recommended by the speech coach. Meanwhile, behind a third door, young scholars practice their skills at leading group discussions.

What does this gathering of grad students, 300 strong, have to do with your student? A lot.

At a large research university like UC Berkeley, graduate-student instructors (GSIs) play an important role in undergrads' academic lives. And here at this year's GSI teaching conference, seasoned GSIs help their newer peers hone teaching and mentoring skills.

Noting individual needs

Perhaps your student is taking a gateway course in math or chemistry, one that freshmen and sophomores must complete before enrolling in more advanced engineering or science offerings. If so, a world-renowned expert may introduce concepts weekly to students in a large lecture hall.

"Jessica has been really proactive in helping me find funding sources for research, and very instrumental in my decision to go to grad school."
—Leslie Hamachi, '13

While it's great to be exposed to top-flight faculty researchers, what about regular one-on-one help understanding confusing concepts? Discussing the material in depth with classmates? Or having casual conversations about entering the field today?

That's where graduate students come in. Each semester, nearly 2,000 up-and-coming scholars—equipped with pedagogical training from their department and the Graduate Division's Graduate Student Instructor Teaching and Resource Center—help provide undergraduate instruction, largely by leading discussion and lab sections.

In those section meetings, undergrads grapple with concepts and develop foundational skills. And GSIs—typically working with a student cohort of 15 to 25 throughout the semester—get to know each student and take note of indivi­dual needs.

GSI Resources

Student Mentoring & Research Teams (SMART)

GSI Teaching & Resource Center

Fourth-year math major Ian Pendelton recalls a GSI who "knew the kids were struggling with proofs" and made a point to offer extra guidance on this foundational math skill.

In chemistry lab, doctoral candidate Jessica Smith keeps close tabs on undergrads' work—from the accuracy of their calculations to the quality of their lab reports. In scholarly writing, providing essential information while leaving out extraneous details is a "nuanced distinction, but important," she notes, especially for those who intend to go further in the sciences.

When Smith notices students struggling in the lab, "I give them some very casual extra help," she says. "Or if I notice a student who's really excited, I might hand her a paper from the contemporary literature" to read.

Learning the research ropes

Leslie Hamachi, who will graduate this May, was just such a live wire. During her introductory chemistry course for intended chem majors, the spring of freshman year, she impressed Smith with her smarts and curiosity. Hamachi was intrigued by her GSI's research in the burgeoning field of nano­science, which deals in super-small materials and structures. By fall semester, she landed a position in Smith's research lab, where she's worked ever since.

In Hamachi's opinion, the best GSIs are both knowledgeable and confident, and Smith brings both traits to the table. "Jessica has been really proactive in helping me find funding sources for research," she says, and "very instrumental in my decision to go to grad school."

Through Student Mentoring and Research Teams (SMART), a new Graduate Division program, more students will have opportunities to be mentored in research, as Hamachi has, by inspiring GSIs. SMART will pair 20 grad-student mentors, chosen by faculty, with 20 Berkeley undergrads, chosen by the grad students. In preparation for their work together this summer, the selected undergrads will sign research contracts, while the grad students will complete a required course on mentoring undergraduate researchers.

"Some people are born with a sixth sense about how to teach or mentor," says Linda von Hoene, director of the GSI Teaching and Resource Center. "But for most of us, teaching is something that you learn."

Generational ties

That GSIs tend to be closer in age to undergrads—closer than tenure-track faculty— can work to the undergrads' advantage, too.

Professor of Anthropology Rosemary Joyce earned her Ph.D. in the '80s. She notes that while her own cultural references—music, movies, and TV shows—don't really fly with 19-year-olds, grad students tend to be "up on where undergrads spend their time, what they're reading, how they're thinking." By forming a teaching team with her GSIs, "I can be a better teacher," she says.

"A faculty member in theoretical chemistry who's been tenured for 30 years may have really interesting insights," notes Smith, who's in her mid-twentites, but may forget what it's like to be brand new to these concepts. "I can still remember those visceral moments of struggling with the material, when I was an undergrad and taking these classes myself," she says. "That's a powerful thing that graduate students can offer undergrads."

"Spectacular" is an adjective Smith uses to describe the Berkeley undergrads she's taught and mentored for the past five years. "They're really curious and passionate about the material. A lot of them are first generation, or they're working jobs to put themselves through school. They really want to be at Berkeley and have obviously worked their whole lives to get here.

"Undergrads," she says, "renew my passion for science every day."

The training of a Berkeley GSI