Friday, August 19, 2011

Teaching Makes Grad Students Smarter

One of the best pieces of career advice I received as an undergrad was that if i wanted to go to grad school I should work as a TA for the freshman and sophomore level physics classes.  As a TA for those classes I learned how to do all of the basics of mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and even a bit of quantum mechanics in my sleep.  I can still solve elastic collision problems on autopilot.  And it turns out that one of the big tricks to doing well on the physics GRE (aside from just being really smart) is to be able to do freshman and sophomore level physics very rapidly.  I credit most of my "decent but not terribly impressive" physics GRE score to those shifts in the tutoring labs on the 3rd floor of the Eyring Science Center.

But you don't have to take my tales of benefits of teaching as the only evidence for the link between teaching and success.  A paper in Nature (see the review by the Chronicle of Higher Ed) purports to have objectively created a measurement of the quality of a grad student in the physical sciences as a researcher and then tracked that quality for groups of grad students that worked as TA's versus others that simply worked as researchers.  To measure research quality they had 95 grad students write research proposals twice - once early in their grad careers and again several years later. The proposals where then graded by a review panel similar to those used by the NIH and NSF. Interestingly, they found that the two abilities most improved by teaching were generating testable hypothesis and valid research designs.

The authors limit their speculation as to why those two qualities are improved by teaching experience, but my guess is that teaching emphasizes understanding how fundamental concepts (e.g., conservation laws in physics) are used over and over again in progressively more advanced ways.


  1. My experience agrees with this too.  I was not a TA really until my first year in grad school.   And though this may have effected my GRE score what I more wanted to point out is: before TAing I could solve most "undergrad" problems correctly but I would often have to think about it but after TAing I could do just about anything "in my sleep".

  2. I agree totally.  Through both private tutoring (a little cash on the side always helps) and official TA duties, my ability to teach has increased as well.  Sometimes, I would get different student with the same problem but the approaches I would have to take to teach them would HAVE to be different.  Being able to approach a problem in more than one way has been a result of the 'practice' of solving problems through teaching.  Now, if I was only smart enough to tackle novel problems that way...

  3. I totally agree Nick.  I would say I didn't really learn anything until I was a TA for it.  That was one of the best things about BYU - they let undergrads do a lot of TA work.  And that's my biggest regret in grad school -- they didn't have TAs for the grad level courses.  So some things I didn't get a chance to really learn as well as I wish I had.  And then I got reamed in my phd defense for not knowing some basic cosmology off the top of my head like I should have... but they still passed me in the end. 

  4. Feynman would agree as well.  He taught Freshman physics for years and it seems to have helped.  But he also had a bit of a physics "break down" and then just started doing basic mechanics for the fun of it.  I don't know how true it is but he claims that it was working out spinning dishes in the cafeteria that led to his breakthrough on QED.

    One thing I always did in my physics class was study with someone who was struggling.  Typically you thought you knew things better than you did.  But to explain things cogently to someone who really couldn't figure it out forced you to know it inside and out.  It almost always helped.  While I didn't go on to a PhD I still think the days spent in the TA room was well worth it.  What used to really bug me were how many grad students were there but not really going out of their way to help the students and work with them.  I used to go around and ask leading questions to ensure they understood.  I think it helped me as much as them.


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