New Johns Hopkins certificate program helps future PhDs develop teaching skills

In 2010, during her fourth year as a doctoral student in Neuroscience, Betsy Mills led a one-credit "journal club" for undergraduate students. Things did not go well. The students were supposed to read academic journal articles and discuss them in class, but, Mills says, "discussions didn't really happen.

"It was kind of chaotic," recalls Mills, now in her seventh year and about to receive her PhD. "I had a really hard time engaging the students. But the experience prompted me to realize, Wow, I really need more training and more opportunities to practice teaching."

So last fall, Mills applied for the newly created Preparing Future Faculty Teaching Academy, a certificate program for PhD students in or beyond their second year of doctoral work who are considering academic careers that will involve teaching. Now nearly finished with the approximately yearlong program, Mills says if only she had known then what she knows now, "things might have worked out very differently."

The PFF Teaching Academy was launched last year, funded by a 2013 PhD Innovation Initiative prize awarded to Pam Jeffries, vice provost for digital initiatives and a professor at the School of Nursing, and Candice Dalrymple, associate dean of University Libraries and director of the Center for Educational Resources. The duo's proposal was for a universitywide program to train doctoral students to become effective teachers—a skill set likely overlooked while they were concentrating on research.

"Students at research universities are trained to be extraordinary researchers, but that doesn't mean they necessarily are going to be extraordinary teachers," says Dalrymple, who notes that a significant percentage of doctoral students go on to careers that involve academia. "There's definitely a hunger out there on the part of students who are thinking of the academy as their future and want to better prepare themselves. They don't want to walk into class for the first time and think, Oh, my God, here we go. I hope this works out."

The program, whose cost is covered by full-time tuition, is divided into three parts. Phase 1 includes an introduction to pedagogy: leading lectures and labs, and how to engage students. Phase 2 covers more hands-on activities: developing a syllabus, learning and using instructional technology, and developing active learning exercises. Phase 3 is where students put together what they've learned and spend at least six hours teaching in front of a class.

The inaugural cohort consisted of 45 students, about evenly divided between the Homewood and East Baltimore campuses, according to Kelly Clark, the Teaching Academy's program manager. Clark helped establish the program outline by aggregating existing teaching-related course work from across the university, supplemented by online classes.

"One of the guiding principles was to try to make the program as flexible as possible for busy doctoral students," says Clark, who also coordinated a series of monthly seminars led by "master faculty" on topics from technology in the classroom to teaching students with diverse backgrounds. "The program is not supposed to be time-intensive but to help students feel more confident with their first teaching assignment should they go in that direction. It's an enhancement to their career portfolio, giving them an edge when applying for jobs."

As part of the program, Jeffries, along with David Andrews, dean of the School of Education and an advisory board member for the Teaching Academy, organized a six-week massive open online class called University Teaching 101, team-taught with several other faculty members. Students participated in the MOOC as part of the first phase of the program, but the online course reached far beyond Johns Hopkins' borders: According to Jeffries, more than 14,000 people worldwide—from graduate students to new faculty to high school teachers—have participated in the class, demonstrating enormous appetite for this kind of instruction. "Obviously they want assistance, and desire to learn new teaching strategies and evidence of best practices," says Jeffries. "I think most students have this perception—they see professors and think they teach only once a week, but they have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, the preparation required."

Nationally, other research universities have picked up on the trend. Hopkins is a member of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, a nationwide network of 22 research universities organized to improve the undergraduate experience through more-effective teaching methods. Teaching Academy students participate in online courses offered by CIRTL, but whereas CIRTL focuses solely on improving STEM instruction, the Teaching Academy is open to doctoral students in all nine academic university divisions, something Dalrymple and Jeffries wanted to stress from the start. "It doesn't really matter if you're talking about how to run a discussion about a cell biology problem versus the impact of the Medicis on a certain period of art history," says Dalrymple. "The methods and the strategies and techniques used in effective teaching are common across the disciplines."

In May, Teaching Academy students participated in the university's first Summer Teaching Institute, a series of intensive workshops organized by Clark and Richard Shingles, a lecturer in the Krieger School's Department of Biology and director of the TA Training Institute at the Center for Educational Research. After going over pedagogical strategies for three days, students "taught" their peers about topics ranging from cell structure to the ontological argument for the existence of God.

Shingles, who also leads teaching workshops in the fall and a three-credit Preparation for University Teaching course in the spring, says he's found that most new teachers mainly need practice controlling a classroom. "Many of them are used to lectures and presenting papers at the front of a class, but we want to break the mold of being the 'sage on the stage' and be more of a facilitator or moderator, which helps improve retention of information."

As the academy moves into its second year, Dalrymple and Jeffries hope to grow the program, increasing the number of cohorts and offering more courses and more real-world teaching opportunities for students. Primarily, it's a matter of continuing to pool appropriate courses and other programs already being offered across the university—and of doctoral students finding out about the nascent academy.

"When this program came along, it really filled a void that a lot of us had," says Mills, who hopes to teach science at the college level. "I just wish it started a little sooner than when I was ready to leave. Luckily, it came along just in time."

For more information on the Teaching Academy, go to

Posted in University News

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