Case #8: Mentorship of Graduate Students in Teaching & Pedagogical Research


DISCIPLINE: Chemistry Education, Higher Education
RESEARCH AREAS: Graduate student mentorship, teaching assistant (TA) training, undergraduate curriculum redesign, collaborative/cooperative learning


During the last few years, the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto has introduced several supports and opportunities related to mentorship of their graduate students from a teaching perspective. These include: (i) enhanced training of new TAs in best pedagogical practices; (ii) formalized in-class instructional observations; and (iii) a unique Chemistry Teaching Fellowship Program (CTFP) that facilitates undergraduate curriculum renewal.


Many university faculty and administrators have historically assumed that, having obtained an undergraduate education, graduate students “know how to teach”. The formal training and mentorship so essential to growth as an educator is therefore not always provided. The Department of Chemistry has invested in an educational leadership project where incoming graduate students undergo standardized, specific training in effective teaching techniques, both in tutorial and laboratory environments. Following this, TAs that tutor in first-year undergraduate courses for life science students are observed in the classroom by teaching faculty, with an in-person “debrief” taking place afterwards. Consequently, upper-year graduate students interested in curriculum design may apply for a fellowship that directly pairs them with a faculty advisor, which affords them the chance to positively influence the education of many undergraduates.


The educational leadership exemplified through implementing this approach is closely aligned with the Five Pillar Model framework. The affective qualities of establishing trust and facilitating the building of relationships begins with a highly interactive half-day workshop designed for new graduate students, which is co-organized by a senior TA and a faculty member. Here, scenario-based activities are enacted through “real-world” case studies, to educate the graduate students about what they will encounter in their teaching spaces. Formation of collective, collegial “teaching teams” in different courses that are comprised of faculty instructors and TAs lends support to a robust mentorship model, where advice about and insight regarding teaching excellence is readily shared. Following this, relationships are deepened by individual, pre-arranged classroom visits by course coordinators which are deconstructed in detail afterwards. This feedback is powerful for the TAs who are, in essence, being “taught how to teach” and how to effectively communicate with undergraduates in order to improve their learning experience. Having received this training, the CTFP provides select graduate students (fellows) with a funded opportunity to develop, implement and evaluate new initiatives in concert with an assigned mentor from among the research or teaching streams (Kim et al., 2017). As an example of action orientation, applicants typically craft proposals to design novel laboratory experiments, tutorial activities, workshops, in-class demonstrations, lecture material and other course resources with a view to spending 50 hours on a specific activity. Aside from developing resources, Fellows may also implement material as if they actually were the course instructor (e.g. deliver lectures, conduct workshops, and perform in-class demonstrations). They are also encouraged to investigate the impact of their project on student learning, and to reflect on their development as chemistry educators. In this manner, and under the guidance of a mentor, the CTFP graduate students are deeply engaged in pedagogical research and scholarship activities in order to effect positive change.

“Over 70 graduate students have participated in the Chemistry Teaching Fellowship Program (CTFP) since its inception, leading to meaningful and ongoing curriculum renewal with several high-impact projects now published in the chemical pedagogical literature (e.g. Sues et al., 2015; Obhi et al., 2019).”


Feedback from graduate students regarding these activities has been very positive and encouraging. An underlying theme is that they feel initially supported in the department as TAs and not just as researchers, and that they have the option to receive significant group and personal input on their teaching activities. Over 70 graduate students have participated in the CTFP since its inception, leading to meaningful and ongoing curriculum renewal, with several high-impact projects now published in the chemical pedagogical literature (e.g. Sues et al., 2015; Obhi et al., 2019). An intention is to extend this “mentorship for teaching” approach to include additional TA training. This may be either in the form of incorporating more“front-end” workshop time, or potentially through the creation of a semester-long seminar course focusing on model educational practices.


Kim, K. S. et al. (2017). The Chemistry Teaching Fellowship Program: Developing curricula and graduate student professionalism. Journal of Chemical Education, 94,439-444.

Obhi, N. K. et al. (2019). Comparing industrial amination reactions in a combined class and laboratory green chemistry assignment. Journal of Chemical Education, 96, 93-99.

Simmonds, A. H. & Dicks, A. P. (2018). Mentoring and professional identity formation for teaching stream faculty: A case study of a university peer-to-peer mentorship program. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 7, 282-295.

Sues, P. E. et al. (2015). Template effect and ligand substitution methods for the synthesis of iron catalysts: A two-part experiment for inorganic chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 92, 378-381.


Headshot of Andy Dicks

Andrew P. Dicks (Andy) holds the position of Professor, Teaching Stream at the University of Toronto. He has research interests in undergraduate laboratory instruction that involve designing novel and stimulating experiments, particularly those that showcase green chemistry principles. In 2014 he was co-Chair of the 23rd IUPAC International Conference on Chemistry Education which was held in Toronto.


Andy is currently about to commence a second term as Associate Chair, Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Chemistry. Previously in this role he has overseen the development of a department-wide initiative to improve the writing skills of chemistry students, and a successful first-year undergraduate “Course Community” mentorship program. His involvement in the latter activity has led to great interest in peer-to-peer mentoring models across the university. As Associate Chair, Andy is responsible for providing ongoing leadership in undergraduate curriculum renewal, innovation within classroom and laboratory environments, and other pedagogical advancements. He became a Canadian 3M National Teaching Fellow in 2016, having previously earned the University of Toronto President’s Teaching Award and the Chemical Institute of Canada National Award for Chemistry Education.



Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE)
Chemical Institute of Canada