Dr. Hartmut Derendorf
Distinguished Professor and Chair
UF Department of Pharmaceutics
2008-2009 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
Learning can only be accomplished by active participation on the part of the student. Therefore, I view the teacher’s primary role as guiding the learning process by structuring the material into portions that are within the student’s grasp for understanding. Thus, the effective teacher motivates students to learn by providing the appropriate context for the subject matter. Furthermore, the most effective way of teaching for any teacher is to really like his subject and the teaching of the material. This simple approach will make all the difference for a student since it gives credibility to the teacher and the teacher becomes a role model.
Unfortunately, many students today are completely immersed in their coursework, focusing on exams and grades rather than on the actual subject matter. This can be to a point where the joy of learning completely gets lost and a checkbox attitude prevails. Also, in their research projects, students frequently develop a narrow vision and lose sight of the bigger questions. As a teacher and advisor, it is important to guide this process and stimulate independent approaches and initiatives on the way to completing their thesis projects. To do this efficiently, the following elements are needed:
The teacher needs to make clear why the subject is important and significant. He should be enthusiastic about the material and make the course a positive experience. He should reemphasize learning experiences for the students to give them a sense of accomplishment and nourish their sense of curiosity in the subject matter.
The student needs guidance to find his/her way into the new material. This guidance should be measured in the sense that it should ensure the student’s active involvement without presenting “pre-chewed” material.
An absolutely essential part in the learning process is challenge. Only material that demands some effort on the part of the student will present advancement, superficial facts will only have short retention.
Since the goal of the learning process is to be able to solve problems, logical cause and effect relationships of events or sequential development of issues should be emphasized. Observed events should be questioned for their etiology, and problems should be solved in a step-by-step logical way. It is important for the student to create certain scenarios “from scratch” without memorization based on reason, deduction and logic. With time, this will reinforce a student’s confidence to realize that “even if they don’t know the answer they can come up with a reasonable response to a question.”
The students need to know what is expected from them. However, this does not mean that they be given a list of facts that “will be on the exam” or experiments they are supposed to complete. Rather, students should master sample questions that simulate situations which will be encountered in their future careers and propose their experiments themselves. In exams in graduate classes, the students should have available the same tools (books, calculators, computers) they would have in real life. These sample questions should be discussed in class and the way to deduce the correct answer should be presented in detail.
Availability of the Advisor
The advisor should be available to guide the students and answer questions. Besides the required “office hours,” the teacher should encourage students to come to his office whenever they have a question or need help with a class problem.
Leading by Example
The students need to have some role models which for graduate students are most likely the senior graduate students and post-doctoral fellows they meet during their research experiences. These mentors assure the junior graduate students that projects can indeed be finished and tasks can be completed even if at times they seem insurmountable. They learn that a rational approach is the most promising way to tackle a problem with a clear assessment of the existing knowledge, explicit statement of the hypothesis that is to be tested and then clear goals and objectives to solve the problem. These senior colleagues have a lot of credibility with the junior students and provide a nurturing academic environment.
Life as a graduate student can be stressful. As an advisor, one has to be sensitive to the emotional needs of the students, trying to encourage them to bring out their best without compromising the expected performance standards.
Clear Communication and Presentation Skills
Students need to have opportunities to present their work in front of their peers as often as possible. In my group we have weekly group meetings with 2-3 presentations of students and in-depth discussion of their projects and problems. This is an invaluable experience for the entire research team and especially for the presenting student. The team criticizes not only the science but also the presentation style in a constructive manner.
Participation at National and International Conferences
Students should have many opportunities to attend national and international conferences and to meet the thought leaders in their field in person. This gives reading their papers a personal note and creates a sense of belonging to the field. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to present their work to obtain feedback and learn to defend their ideas as well as closely follow other research teams in the field.
When the end of a Ph.D. project is near it is important to introduce the students to potential employers and present career options. This can be done in a careful way not to force a certain job onto a student but rather present several options and let the student decide what he/she likes best. It is part of the responsibility of the academic advisor to make sure the student moves on to a suitable next phase of their career. This relationship frequently continues for many years where the advisor notifies their former students of career opportunities and makes connections on their behalf. This is truly win-win, since the best advertisement for a successful graduate program is the quality of the graduates.