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Even professors need practice

Grad students at Tufts get together to learn how to teach better – a skill often overlooked in graduate programs.

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Lewis went on to win an award for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education. Barbara Grossman, chair of the department of drama and dance, saw Lewis's teaching skills take shape behind the stage when Lewis served as her assistant director for a production of "Company." She created bonds among the student actors, directed wonderful improv exercises, and maximized rehearsal time, Professor Grossman says.

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Different learning styles applied

Graduate students are usually isolated in their departments. So GIFT participants are excited about the opportunity to meet peers from all over campus.

"One of the greatest strengths of this program is its diversity," says Ashley Shelden, a graduate student in English. "Because we represent other disciplines, we also represent other learning styles.... It's kind of scary when I hear that students don't learn well simply by reading things, my being an English major.... But it's precisely out of that fear that [I realize] if I'm going to give them a difficult text to read, I need to integrate other strategies for comprehending that material."

To tap into those varied learning styles, Ms. Shelden brings along packs of crayons to her practice lecture and sets her giggling students to work drawing key psychological concepts used to analyze a television show.

During Long's presentation on swordplay, he throws out questions to the group, passing along his excitement for the topic with stories about Renaissance England, jokes, PowerPoint slides, and of course, a short demonstration of "thrust" with his own rapier (a blunted stage version).

At the end, Long's peers fill out an evaluation form for him to pore over later. Then the floor is open for discussion. He earns praise for keeping his audience engaged the whole time. But several chide him gently for spending too much time on the introductory material and then rushing at the end to give out an assignment.

Jennifer Kowalski, from the medical school, puts it this way: "It almost seemed like there were two parts, like you were talking in the beginning about fighting in general ... and then I thought it was really cool how we can look at this play and see the class distinctions based on different types of weapons. I wasn't sure: Was that the take-home message?"

Sitting cross-legged on the desk up front, Long nods. "Yep, you got it."

"So you could shorten it by just paring down the beginning," Ms. Kowalski suggests.

Greater interaction with faculty

By now, the GIFT students are well practiced at discussing the pros and cons of classroom activities. In one workshop, GIFT director Sinaia Nathanson, a psychology professor, led them in a simulation of the power dynamics in a hierarchy, not unlike the relationship among professors, teaching assistants, and undergraduates.

Young college students don't have as much life experience on which to draw, so "by doing a simulation in the class, you create some kind of common denominator that they can all analyze," Professor Nathanson says. After experiencing the exercise as students, the GIFT class stepped back to analyze how well it worked.

Recently the grad students were thrilled to have an "ask anything" lunch session with seven faculty members, some still working toward tenure, others in leadership positions. Their questions covered everything from strategies for applying for jobs to handling ethical issues and balancing work and family.

Meeting three days a week for the past month, the students also attended workshops ranging from "Triggers and hooks to engage students" to "Different types of assessments." They received a thorough briefing on using recent technology such as blogs, wikis (group editing sites), and podcasts.

"This set of [workshops] are all the things that you're supposed to get in graduate school implicitly, but they're done explicitly, and they're done by area experts – so we're hearing about curriculum design [and other topics] from someone who really does it well," says Claudine Kavanagh, who's preparing to be an English professor.

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