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Teaching Graduate Courses


The CETL discussion group met during the Spring 2011 semester. The goal was to examine issues such as the following:

  • Comparison of undergraduate and graduate teaching and courses
  • Discipline/program specific graduate teaching approaches
  • Learning outcomes of graduate courses and programs
  • Evaluation in graduate courses
  • Assessment of graduate learning outcomes


The mission and outcomes of Graduate Studies at UW-Eau Claire are as follows:

  1. Demonstrate advanced mastery of the methodology, techniques, and practices specific to the field of study;
  2. Excel in written and oral communication, with the ability to convey complex ideas clearly, consistently, and logically;
  3. Demonstrate understanding and mastery for appropriately managing a range of general and discipline-specific ethical dilemmas; 
  4. Utilize the research or scholarship of the discipline and produce scholarly or creative products consistent with disciplinary standards.

Each of the Colleges is responsible for promoting high standards of scholarship, for offering professional preparation appropriate to societal needs, and for maintaining an appropriate balance between the academic and professional components of graduate programs.

Until recently, at UW-Eau Claire graduate courses were numbered 500, 600, and 700. The courses numbered 500 and 600 are double numbered with undergraduate 300 and 400 level courses. With the implementation of the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, a new graduate course number, 800, has been added.

We began the discussion with our own experiences teaching graduate courses. We also sought out resources that deal with the same issues that we have been dealing with. The following presents a report of our discussions and resources we have found that may be helpful to faculty teaching graduate courses.

Comparison of undergraduate and graduate teaching and courses
Discipline/program specific issues and graduate teaching approaches
Learning outcomes of graduate courses and programs
Evaluation in graduate courses
Assessment of graduate learning outcomes

Comparison of undergraduate and graduate teaching and courses

As the mission and goals of UWEC Graduate Studies indicate, graduate courses are identified as such to a certain extent by comparison to undergraduate courses: "demonstrate advanced mastery of the methodology, techniques, and practices specific to a field of study," presumably by comparison with level of mastery that undergraduates attain. The differentiation between graduate and undergraduate levels is perhaps most difficult to establish in double-numbered courses (300/500, 400/600). For example, in the College of Arts and Sciences, the syllabus for a double-numbered course must show the following:
Courses that enroll both undergraduate and graduate students must account for the additional work (e.g., extra papers, more involved research assignments, class presentations, etc.) the graduate students would complete for credit in the course. To earn graduate credit, graduate students enrolled in this course will . . .
In one A&S department, graduate students must do the following:
Graduate students will be required to use statistical programs (SPSS) to analyze homework data.  Graduate students will be required to present examples of statistical techniques studied in class.  These examples may come from research articles or theses and will be presented to the class.  The class will be required to identify the statistical procedure that would be most appropriate for each example.
In another A&S department, the requirement is that graduate students will do additional reading resulting in an additional paper beyond that which is required of undergraduates.

In a course in the College of Education and Human Sciences, one course requires the following:

  1. Select one article from the special issue of the Journal of Learning Disability, November/December 2005, on Research Topics in Responsiveness to Intervention. In about one double-spaced page, summarize the author's important ideas. Provide a one or two paragraph personal response to their commentary. (15 points)
  2. Research one "magic cure" for learning disabilities.  You will sign up for one questionable treatment and will be expected to summarize information on a one-page handout to distribute to the whole class. I must have your handout by the Monday morning preceding your presentation in order to make copies. The handout should include historical origins; a description of the method; research evidence that supports the approach; evidence that negates it; and your overall evaluation of the treatment based on the strength of the data, your background knowledge from this class, logic, and common sense.  You will present your information in a 10 minute lively and interesting oral presentation.  Presentation should include a demonstration or simulation of the method an evaluation of a website.  A starting point for your research is the article by Silver, 1987 listed in the references. (20 points)
  3. Read a second article about LD or ADHD in the popular press and critique it.


Nor are distinctions between undergraduate and graduate courses defined more specifically at other universities. For example, at Michigan State University, course numbers are defined as follows:

300-499 Advanced Undergraduate Courses: Courses with these numbers are undergraduate program leading to the bachelor's degree. A graduate student may carry 400-level courses for credit upon approval of the student's major department or school. In exceptional cases, a graduate student may petition the dean of his or her college, in writing, for approval of a 300-level course for graduate credit.

500-699 Graduate-Professional Courses: Courses with these numbers are courses in the graduate-professional programs. A graduate student may carry these courses for credit with approval of the major department or school.

800-899 Graduate Courses: Courses with these numbers are for graduate in their total programs equal to or greater than the minimum requirement for graduation with honors may be admitted to 800-899 courses. The student must obtain approval of the relevant department. More than half of the credits of the total required for a master's degree shall be taken at the 800-and 900-level except as specifically exempted by the dean of the college. 

900-999 Advanced Graduate Courses: Courses with these numbers are exclusively for graduate students and primarily for advanced graduate students. A master's degree student may take these courses with the approval of the major department or school, with the exception of courses numbered 999 (doctoral dissertation research). Admission to a doctoral degree program is a prerequisite of all courses numbered 999.
A search of available sources related to graduate teaching provides a little guidance as to how the differentiation is to be made:

Pendse, R., & Johnson, E. (1994). Teaching an undergraduate class vs. graduate class. Is there a difference. Proceedings of the ASEE Midwest Section Meeting, March 1994, Lincoln, NB

Rothman, B. K. (2004). From seminar to study group. The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2.

Six Ideas for Teaching Graduate Students. Retrieved from The University of California-Berkeley website cited above has helpful information. Other sources are available at

The participants in the CETL discussion group represented primarily practitioner programs: Nursing, Communication Sciences and Disorders, and School Psychology. All three are accredited by national associations that specify knowledge and skills students are to master. A comparison of knowledge and skills expected of Psychology undergraduate majors and School Psychology graduate students, for example, shows fairly clear differences in degree of depth of knowledge, but especially in the level of skill to be attained by graduate students enrolled in 700 level courses. In the College of Nursing and Human Sciences there is now an additional complication in that the College offers both 700 and 800 level courses, with the 800 level required in the Doctor of Nursing Practice program. Our search of sources has also shown that practices typically found at the undergraduate level, such as service learning and immersion experiences, are used at the graduate level:

Lu, Y. & Lambright, K. T. (2010). Looking beyond undergraduate classroom: Factors influencing service learning's effectiveness at improving graduate students' professional skills. College Teaching, 58, 118, 126.


Finley, J. B., Taylor, S. L., & Warren, D. L. (2007). Investigating Graduate Business Students' Perceptions of the Educational Value Provided by an International Travel Course Experience. Journal of Teaching in International Business. 19(1).
Moreover, the increased use of online instruction at the undergraduate level is reflected at the graduate level:

Ferguson, J., & Tryjankowski, A. M. (2009). Online versus face-to-face learning: looking at modes of instruction in Master's-level courses. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 33(3), 219–228.

Huckstadt, A., & Hayes, K. (2005). Evaluation of interactive online courses for advanced practice nurses. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 17, 85-89. 

Santilli, S., & Beck, V. (2005). Graduate faculty perceptions of online teaching. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6(2) 155-160.

Terry, N. (2007).  Assessing instruction modes for Master of  BusinessAdministration (MBA) courses. Journal of Education for Business, March 220-225.

Topper, A. (2007). Are they the same? Comparing the instructional quality of online and face- to-face graduate education courses. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32(6), 681–691.

In our discussions we examined and compared syllabi of courses that we teach. By comparison with undergraduate courses, the requirements in graduate courses are more demanding in terms of depth of knowledge that must be acquired (e.g., students are required to read primary sources in their disciplines, analyze them in depth, and apply the information to their potential career responsibilities) and in level of skill that is expected. The most obvious differentiation between undergraduate and graduate syllabi is the amount of reading required. Some instructors try to "lighten" the load by requiring a smaller number of readings for everyone in the class and assigning each student two additional readings to present to the class.  

According to the discussion group participants, two kinds of complaints are often heard from students. One concerns the amount of reading, writing, and other work required for a course. The other is that students do not always see the need for the theoretical knowledge base that they must acquire; what they want are clinical and other kinds of skills. The demands are seen as particularly burdensome by students who have work and family obligations in addition to their graduate study. Nevertheless, the discussion group participants were adamant that the requirements are necessary for students to attain both the knowledge and skills required by their professions. 

This view that knowledge or theory is just as necessary to the education of practitioners as is the training of skills is well expressed in the following. Although the source is the accreditation guide used by the American Psychological Association, the statements apply to other disciplines as well. 

Doctoral graduate and internship education and training in preparation for entry-level practice in professional psychology should be broad and professional in its orientation rather than narrow and technical. 

Science and practice are not opposing poles; rather, together they equally contribute to excellence in training in professional psychology. Therefore, education and training in preparation for entry-level practice and in preparation for advanced-level practice . . . should be based on the existing and evolving body of general knowledge and methods in the science and practice of psychology. This more general knowledge should be well integrated with the specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes that define a particular area of interest in professional psychology. All programs should enable their students to understand the value of science for the practice of psychology and the value of practice for the science of psychology, recognizing that the value of science for the practice of psychology requires attention to the empirical basis for all methods involved in psychological practice.  

Concerns about the balance between knowledge/theory and practice are also seen in the following two studies:

Peluso, D. L., Carleton, R. N., & Asmundson, G. J. G (2010). Clinical psychology graduate students' perceptions of their scientific and practical training. Canadian Psychology, 51 (2), 133-139.

Karseth, B., & Solbrekke, T. D. (2006). Characteristics of graduate professional education: expectations and experiences in psychology and law. London Review of Education, 4(2), 149-167.

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Discipline/program specific issues and graduate teaching approaches

While there is little research regarding differences between graduate and undergraduate courses, there is more information regarding issues and teaching approaches in graduate education. Research deals with areas that are included in the goals of UWEC Graduate Studies such as understanding and mastery of ethics, development of research skills, and development of writing skills. Some examples are shown below.

Belcher, W. L. (2009). Reflections on ten years of teaching writing for publication to graduate students and junior faculty. Journal of Scholarly Publishing, doi:10.3138/jsp.40.2.184

Burkemper, J. E., DuBois, J. M., Lavin, M. A., Meyer, G. A., McSweeney, M. (2007). Ethics education in MSN Programs: A Study of National Trends. Nursing Education

Fisher, C. B., Fried, A. L., & Feldman, L. G. (2009). Graduate socialization in the responsible conduct of research: A national survey on the research ethics training experiences of psychology doctoral students. Ethics & Behavior, 19 (6), 496-518.

Garcia, A. (2006). Combining professional development with academic learning in graduate seminars. Radical Pedagogy 

George, M. A. & Davis-Wiley, P. (2000). Team teaching a graduate course. College Teaching, 48 (2), 75-80.

Grace, J. T., & D'Aoust, R. (   ). Evidence-based program requirements: Evaluation of statistics as a required course. Nursing Education Perspectives, 27, 28-33. 

Hamilton, J. (2010). Teaching research to graduate nursing students: A strategy using clinically based research projects. Nursing Forum, 45 (4), 262-265.

Hays, J. R., & Vincent,J. P. (2004). Students' evaluation of problem-based learning in graduate courses psychology courses. Teaching of Psychology, 31(2), 124-125.

Lei, S. (2008). Factors changing attitudes of graduate school students toward an introductory research methodology course. Education, 128(4), 667-685

Sanders, S. & Hoffman, K. (2010). Ethics education in social work: Comparing outcomes of graduate social work students. Journal of Social Work Education, 46 (1), 7-22.

Terry, N. (2007).  Assessing instruction modes for Master of Business Administration (MBA) courses. Journal of Education for Business, March 220-225.

Weiss, J. A., & Morin, D. (2010) Psychology graduate student training in   developmental disability: A Canadian survey. Canadian Psychology, 51(3), 177–184.

Woodward-Kron, R. (2007). Negotiating meaning and scaffolding: Writing support for non-English speaking background postgraduate students. Higher Education Research & Development, 26(3), 253-268.

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Learning outcomes of graduate courses and programs  

As is true at the undergraduate level, learning outcomes are easier to establish in programs that are accredited: the accrediting agency basically sets the outcomes. The syllabi that we examined specified the outcomes, using the criteria of the accrediting agency and aligning them with examinations, papers, clinical skills, and other requirements in courses. Even in disciplines and programs that are accredited, however, evaluation can still raise questions.

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Evaluation in graduate courses

In our discussions, we had difficulty with the question of how to grade graduate work. Although the discussants know what standards of performance are set by their disciplines and accreditation standards, grading can still be problematic. Students in graduate courses are by definition a selected group and do not represent the range of preparation and skills among undergraduate students. Consequently the question is whether the full range of grades A to F applies to graduate students. Contrary to grades at the undergraduate level, at the graduate level no credit toward graduate degrees is earned for grades below C, and students are expelled from graduate programs if they earn an F in one course. In double-numbered courses that require graduate students to complete additional work of some kind, syllabi tend not to specify how the additional work is evaluated and how the evaluation of that work is combined with the evaluation of the work that is done by both graduate and undergraduate students in determining the final grade. 

Moreover, there is the question of whether and how grades in a course (evaluation) are to be related to assessment of learning outcomes. The following deal with issues of grading and assessment, albeit at the undergraduate level: 

Goldman, G. K., & Zakel, L. E. (2009). Clarification of assessment and evaluation. Assessment Update, 21(3). DOI 10.1002/au  

Greville, E. C. (2009). A rose by any other name: Grading and assessment. Assessment Update, 21 (5). DOI 10.1002/au

Sadler, D. R. (2009). Grade integrity and the representation of academic achievement. Studies in Higher Education, 34, 807-826. DOI: 10.1080/03075070802706553

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Assessment of graduate learning outcomes

Contrary to the widespread development of learning outcomes and their assessment at the undergraduate level, assessment at the graduate level is at the beginning stages. Most work in assessment deals with inputs and data on retention rates, graduation rates, and time to degree. The lack of assessment of learning outcomes is indicated by the title in a 2008 issue of Assessment Update
Orzoff, J. H., Peinovich, P. E., & Riedel, E. (2008). Graduate programs: The Wild West of outcomes assessment. Assessment Update, 20, (3). 
For help in developing assessment of learning outcomes, Orzoff and Peinovich cite an author who is most commonly associated with undergraduate assessment: 
Walvoord, B. E. Assessment Clear and Simple: A Practical Guide for Institutions, Departments, and General Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.
One tool often mentioned for both grading and assessment is the rubric. The following discusses the origins and uses of rubrics:           
Griffin, M. (2009). What is a rubric? Assessment Update, 21(6). DOI 10.1002/au

In the case of most participants in the CETL discussion group, their programs are accredited and the accreditation agencies set the learning outcomes for the programs. Programs must provide evidence that students are attaining the outcomes. In some cases the evidence that must be provided is defined very specifically. For example, in School Psychology the program must show evidence that students can design an appropriate intervention for a child and also demonstrate that the intervention was effective.  

Shown below are a few studies of assessment at the graduate level.

Delaney, A. M. (1997). Quality assessment of professional degree programs. Research in Higher Education, 38(2), 241- 264.

Edwards, C. (2000). Assessing what we value and valuing what we assess?: Constraints and opportunities of promoting lifelong learning with postgraduate professionals. Studies in Continuing Education, 22(2), 201-217. 

Linnan, L. A., Steckler, A., Maman, S., Ellenson, M., French, E., Blanchard, L., et al. (2010). Engaging stakeholders to assess and improve the professional preparation of MPH health educators. American Journal of Public Health, 100(10), 1993-1999.

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