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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Caltech's 4th Annual Teaching Conference

Olivia Wilkins

The final mandatory part of G1 orientation at Caltech is attending the annual teaching conference held on campus. The conference is a one-day affair geared mostly toward G1s, but it is open to all of those in the Caltech community interested in teaching as well, from undergraduates to post docs and professors.

Like many other teaching resources on campus, the annual teaching conference is sponsored by Caltech's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO). The CTLO was started in August 2012, and in its four years of activity, it has worked to promote better teaching at the university level as well as effective engagement of the Caltech community with students and teachers at the K-12 level.

The teaching conference opened with a presentation by CTLO representatives, including two student co-directors of CPET, or the Caltech Project for Effective Teaching. They gave an overview of the CPET program, including a certificate of practice in university teaching (in which I am interested in pursuing). The presenters also provided some insight into how students learn best, focusing on the importance of making material relevant and drawing on information already known.

To achieve the aforementioned point, the audience was given ten seconds to study a code (shown below). They were then given a number sequence, which they were instructed to translate into the given code.

Here's the code:

After having just over a second to recongnize the code for each number, translating a number sequence like 2 5 7 8 1 3 9 might seem like a near-impossible task. In the room of ~260 attendees, only eight people (including myself!) were positive that they got the translation 100% correct. (To be honest, I vaguely remembered encountering this code before, so once it clicked about eight seconds into the memorization portion of the exercise, I felt great about my ability to translate the given sequence.)

The point that was being made is that material that is completely new (or that looks completely new) is hard to grasp, so it is much better to build upon already-learned material.

In this case, teaching the code in a way that students have already seen makes it nearly impossible to unlearn; the code is derived from a number pad:

This exercise made the biggest impact of the day, even though it is something that seems so obvious. It is important to remember when teaching that material seems easy when you already have learned it, and it is important to keep in mind that from scratch, material makes much more sense in some kind of context.

The rest of the conference entailed attending three or four presentations on topics spanning how to get off to a great start to how to make a classroom more inclusive. I attended Fair Grading and Effective Feedback, Helping Students Write in STEM, and Caltech 101: Getting to Know Caltech Undergrads. The first two of these sessions weren't anything new to me; I had graded as a math TA and worked as a writing associate and peer tutor in the writing center during undergrad. Nevertheless, I still learned (or was at least reminded) of some important information. The biggest takeaways were to make the grading policy clear ahead of time (Is showing the work necessary? What is the collaboration policy?), rubrics are helpful in making sure marks are fair, and feedback includes pointing out was was done well. These are things I strived to do as an undergrad TA, and they are things I hope to incorporate into my role as a graduate TA (GTA) at Caltech too.

My last session of the day—Caltech 101—was the most insightful, especially coming from a small liberal arts college where attendance is mandatory. Although Caltech is smaller than Dickinson (~1,000 undergrads versus ~2,5000), undergraduate students frequently skip class. Moreover, undergrad Techers are not morning people, so don't expect anyone to show up at your morning office hours. But just because no one shows up when you are teaching doesn't mean you are a bad teacher necessarily; apparently, playing hooky is just the Techer culture.

Now, the next step as a GTA is to put what I learned at the conference to good use in Ch 91: Scientific Writing, which starts Monday. Who knew working in the writing center at Dickinson would actually help me out in grad school?