The Mark J. Stehlik Introductory and Service Teaching Award
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Reflections on Introductory Teaching

Edward W. Dryer
2018 Introductory and Service Teaching Award

One of the best things about Carnegie Mellon is the opportunity to get involved in teaching as an undergraduate student. For me, teaching defined my CMU experience. I had the honor of serving as head TA of 15-112 Fundamentals of Programming and Computer Science for 2 years. I was also given the opportunity to be a founding contributor for CMU CS Academy (a project to create an online interactive CS curriculum for high school students). Below I attempt to take insights from my teaching career and boil them down into a couple of ideas that are worth remembering.

Innovation and Creativity. I've seen creativity lead to excellent educational outcomes countless times. For example, Hack112 is a Hackathon designed for intro CS students that was started roughly 2 years ago. Now it empowers hundreds of students a year. Similarly, our online office hours queue greatly reduces stress at office hours and provides an avenue for data analysis. CMU CS Academy's online autograded graphics content is inspiring high schoolers in 14 schools around Pittsburgh. Keep in mind that not all uses of creativity have to be as large as the ones mentioned here. Finding a more effective way to teach a concept in recitation can lead to excellent outcomes too.

Information Hierarchy. A mentor of mine (David Kosbie) always says "people don't read". This extends into listening too. During an 80 minute lecture, the chance that a student is tuned in for every word you say is very low. This is where information hierarchy comes in. Everything you need to teach is not of equal importance. A small detail about string methods is not as important as the fact that strings are immutable. When teaching, whether writing a Piazza answer, or lecturing, it's imperative that you present information in a way that highlights the priorities. That can mean slowing down when talking about important points, doing mini quizzes on large ideas, or even formatting text to highlight important points on a Piazza post.

Priorities & Caring. This one is pretty simple. I've read hundreds of reviews that students have submitted about TAs. One thing shines through every time. TAs who care are successful teachers. If you prioritize helping students your students will recognize and appreciate that. Especially in introductory courses, students are not yet used to balancing multiple classes and activities, and you staying even a little longer means more to them than you would think.

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