Learning from our students

Having just conducted my first round of undergraduate supervisions (similar to an intensive tutoring or teaching assistant session), I have a greater amount of respect for an article published in Science back in June that has been making the rounds in academic discussion forums. In it, researchers conclude from both subjective interviews with students and faculty supervisors, as well as through objective reviews of student research reports, that graduate students who teach or supervise undergraduates come away with better research and analytical skills than those who do not.

This finding is at first counter-intuitive and flies in the face of accepted dogma that students who teach are taken away from their own research and laboratory time, and therefore cannot produce as much or as thorough work as those who do not. However the authors of the report, led by Dr. David Feldon at the University of Virginia, have done a thorough job vetting this claim by objectively assessing graduate students’ research proposals on the quality of their experimental design, hypothesis testability, and general research skills. Based on an empirical set of criteria, the authors of the study determined that students who pursued teaching as well as research assistantships had better research and study design skills than those who did not.

As my fellow graduate students and I can attest, teaching undergraduates takes a significant amount of time, effort, and brain power, all resources that would more preferably be spent (both according to ourselves and our supervisors) on our groundbreaking and earth shattering research. However, in accordance with Dr. Feldon’s report, teaching undergraduates is not without its advantages, though some of the benefits I have experienced are somewhat harder to empirically define.

In a PhD we all too often become absorbed in our own niche research, convinced that it is the most imperative and fascinating topic there is to study. If we did not we would most likely drop out. However, it also means that the articles, discussions, work, patients, and results we see are all geared towards this small facet of our respective subjects, which are at times far away from the more general concerns of the field. Tutoring or supervising undergraduates can bring us back into the larger discussion of our disciplines, reminding us of the history and background that predates our own work. It also provides an opportunity to review some of the seminal papers that we may now take for granted but were groundbreaking at the time of their release. And lastly, it reminds us of information we had learned during our own undergraduate tenures, knowledge and analytical skills that are essential in the wider scope of our fields but that might have been forgotten or discarded in favor of our own passions.

This all happened to me in my first tutoring sessions. I was at first overwhelmed with the information the students were expected to learn and resentful of the distraction from my work. Fortunately, over time I was able to recognize much of the material as familiar and even attempted to provide my own spin on it, combining the fundamentals of the lectures with offshoots from my research. However, it was certainly a humbling reminder of just how much there is I do not know about the brain. I was also impressed by the knowledge and intellect of the students themselves, some of whom I have no doubt are vastly more intelligent than myself. More than anything though, reviewing this material and having to master it all well enough to later disseminate it to others reminded me of just how interesting and exciting some of these topics are, and made me aware of connections in systems pertaining to my own research that I had neglected to make.

While teaching certainly does take up vast quantities of time, it also provides an invaluable medium to refresh us on essential material, to review our field with new eyes, and to make us truly learn the information so that we are later able to provide guidance for others. It is also an important exercise in reminding us of just how little we know, and how seemingly “simple” questions can be far more complex than some of the more nuanced “expert” queries.

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