Teaching the Graduate Seminar

Printby Gina Merys, Assistant Director, Reinert Center

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Student-Centered Graduate Teaching,” the author asks, “if most academics want to teach graduate students, why do so few of us think hard about how to do it?” (Cassuto, 2013). While I disagree with the premise that instructors of graduate seminars do not diligently plan their classes, I do think there is something to his question. It gets to the heart of a real concern; not that we do not think about how to teach a graduate seminar, but that, as compared to scholarship on undergraduate pedagogy, there is precious little scholarship about graduate pedagogy. As Cassuto points out, the graduate seminar has become the last space where it is acceptable to still function with teacher-center teaching, over-filling the course with content to the point that students cannot really learn the material, or using the “beach-ball method” whereby with little planning or solid goals, the instructor throws out an idea and lets it bounce randomly from student to student, relying solely on their ability to catch and throw ideas to sustain the discussion.

In an effort to begin a new conversation about strategies for teaching graduate seminars, I offer “Six Ideas for Teaching Graduate Students” collected by Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning:

1. Clearly establish learning goals for a seminar. Faculty often do this for undergraduates, but mistakenly think that a graduate seminar should be more free-flowing or organic.

2. When appropriate and feasible, work with the students to set the direction of the class.

3. Ask students to write a short “intellectual autobiography.” This is a deeper form of the first day questionnaire that is used in undergraduate classes. Some graduate students are fresh from undergraduate experience, while others are older with a variety of experiences. It is helpful for both the instructor and the other students to understand the variety of backgrounds in the class.

4. Even if the material is new to most students, don’t lecture in a seminar. Depend on their doing background reading so that the time can be spent in discussion and analysis. For some topics, assign a presenter and a respondent, students who will be responsible for kicking off the discussion.

5. Make sure that students understand the context in which this course is set. Surveys have indicated that graduate students, even those who have been in a program for several years, do not understand the processes involved in a graduate program.

6. Consider the various roles of the faculty member. In any graduate seminar, the faculty member is not only teacher, but also frequently student, as well as mentor and advisor.

“At no level—least of all at the level of graduate education—do I think of my primary mission as the conveying of information that can as easily be read in books, presented on tapes, or called up from databases. I am always aiming to teach how to do something, to teach a mode of action. On the level of graduate seminars and the advising of dissertations, the formulations of the questions themselves and of appropriate methods for answering them become the principal focus of attention for student and teacher alike.” –Anthony Newcomb, Distinguished Teaching Award Winner, 1989, UC-Berkeley

Share your thoughts and ideas about teaching graduate seminars in the comment section.


     Cassuto, L. (2013, November 4). Student-centered graduate teaching. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Student-Centered-Graduate/142791/

University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Teaching graduate students. Retrieved from http://teaching.berkeley.edu/teaching-graduate-students

One Response to “Teaching the Graduate Seminar”

  1. Great starting point for conversation!

    I think one way we can distinguish graduate courses from undergraduate ones is to ask graduate students to periodically stop and reflect on the “how” of a class — to explore and explicate the teaching decisions that informed out course design and the interactions we’re stucturing in the moment — so that they get a kind of “meta” view of a course. This also can lead to interesting, explicit conversation about how specific content might best be adapted / structured for undergraduate consumption. Thus, graduate students get an opportunity to experience both the content and the form of their graduate courses in ways that can enhance their understanding of the different roles they will play as future faculty.