A Novel Approach to Promoting Graduate Student Professional Development: The First Graduate Research Symposium at FFPER

Abigail Daane, Seattle Pacific University and Paula Heron, University of Washington

Graduate students have always been an important part of the FFPER Conference series. At each conference since 2005, student participation has been supported by grants from the APS Forum on Education, which has allowed them to pay reduced registration fees. At the fifth FFPER conference, a special Graduate Symposium was held to allow students to present their own work and have it critiqued by their peers and faculty mentors. The format was based on graduate schools that FFPER organizers have attended in Europe. The process was intended to benefit students’ thesis research and possibly result in a publishable paper. It was also intended to contribute more generally to their professional development by offering students the opportunity to broaden their knowledge of PER, strengthen their communication skills, develop reviewing skills and get to know their peers.

Each participating student wrote a four-page paper on part of their PhD research, following the format of the Proceedings of the annual Physics Education Research Conference and submitted it several weeks before the conference. (The PERC format was chosen in part to encourage students to submit their paper to the Proceedings, the deadline for which was shortly after FFPER.) The students were placed in three groups, who were mentored by E.F. (Joe) Redish, Rachel Scherr and Paula Heron. Within each group, students reviewed each others’ papers. They were instructed to offer constructive advice aimed at strengthening the paper or the work it described, not to judge whether the paper was suitable for publication. In order to facilitate face-to-face discussions at the conference, the reviews were not anonymous. Mentors also provided feedback, either in the form of a separate review, or a cover letter helping the author interpret and prioritize the reviews.

At FFPER, each student group had a 90-minute session to present and discuss their work. These sessions were held on different days, to allow students and mentors to attend as many as they chose. During the sessions, each student gave a short oral presentation about his or her work, and then discussed their responses to the reviews they had received. In several cases, there was extensive discussion about how best to incorporate suggestions into the paper. There was also discussion about the review process itself, and what participants learned from the process, both as authors and reviewers.

The faculty mentor view: The faculty mentors all agreed that the reviews produced by the students were of unusually high quality and that the oral sessions were collegial, supportive and productive. Upon reflection, however, there are changes that could be made for future Symposia.  For instance, in one group, students were advised to prepare their review as a letter, addressed to the author. There was general agreement that this style led to especially constructive and helpful reviews. Also, the format for oral sessions was unclear and they were conducted somewhat differently for each group. In particular, there was some discussion about the most useful role for the initial oral presentations, as either a précis of the paper, or a talk aimed at an audience that had not previously read the paper.  In the future, the purpose and format of the sessions will be clarified. Finally, at the request of the students, the sessions were not to open to other conference attendees. This decision was discussed extensively. While the students expressed the desire to share their work more broadly, there was also general agreement that having the sessions closed contributed to the relaxed and collegial atmosphere. Overall, the Symposium was successful enough that a larger program will be attempted at a future national meeting.

The graduate student view: Often, learning to write reviews and respond to reviews occur during trial by fire experiences in graduate school. These by-the-seat-of-your-pants moments eventually lead to competency in both reviewing and responding to reviews, but not without struggle. Graduate students who participated in the FFPER Graduate Symposium had a chance to learn about the review process in a low-stakes, supportive environment. They first individually wrote a paper and then had the opportunity to read and write constructive reviews of others’ papers. These activities alone were good experiences; however, the symposium further supported students, offering an iterative feedback loop. Graduate students received written reviews from other students, then from faculty members, about their papers prior to the symposium. They also received feedback about their own written reviews. Once at the symposium, students were able to share their work with all of the graduate students via a presentation, which gave them the rare opportunity to address, revise, and defend concerns about their writing raised in the reviews to the reviewers. The facilitating faculty member encouraged constructive and supportive feedback throughout the experience, reminding reviewers that they would not be anonymous and therefore should approach these reviews as if they were speaking directly to the author. The lack of anonymity created a space for both truth and care. The graduate students could also provide each other with additional constructive feedback in the presentations and throughout the rest of the conference. Because they were able to intimately engage with each others’ work and have productive discussions about that work, the experience gave students a strong sense of immediate community throughout the conference.

Abigail Daane is a graduate student at Seattle Pacific University. She conducts research in the context of SPU’s Energy Project, investigating K-12 teachers’ productive, intuitive ideas about energy degradation and the second law of thermodynamics. She is currently the President of the Physics Education Research Consortium of Graduate Students.

Paula Heron is a professor of physics at the University of Washington, where she is a member of the Physics Education Group. She is a co-organizer of the FFPER conference. She has served as a member on the National Research Council’s Committee on Undergraduate Physics Education, which in 2013 released the report “Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education.”

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.