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)


Michelle Ma
2016 Introductory and Service Teaching Award

These past few years I have had the pleasure of being a TA for 15-104, which is a fall course that introduces principles of computation to individuals in creative practice. When I was first offered the position, I was thrilled to be able to share my passion with other students so that they may bring CS into their creative practice.

I learned quickly, however, that knowledge of the material wasn't the only thing I had to offer. Introductory courses are crucial in transitioning students to entirely new cultures with new ways of thinking and doing. Therefore, I learned that being a TA was more than just being an assistant. I had the important role of bridging gaps in course teaching and learning. Right now, I am still learning about teaching practices, but in the meantime, here are takeaways from my current experience as a TA.

Be flexible, whether teaching forwards or backwards. When I speak or write course material, I try to be clear so that the path to understanding is as straightforward as possible. Sometimes this means using diagrams instead of text, and sometimes this means replacing technical jargon with analogies. Still, every student's path to understanding is different, so it is also my responsibility to go back and clear misunderstandings by asking questions and revisiting the material from other perspectives.

Learn from your mistakes and from others. Sometimes I find myself doing more harm than good when I make a concept too complicated or if I offer tough criticism. I often feel bad when that happens because I know how frustrating it is to be a student that is on the receiving end. However, it is important to internalize those experiences in a positive way in order to keep improving your teaching methods. And if you don't know how you would handle a situation in a different way, seek others' advice and learn from their experiences. And don't forget to help your fellow TAs in a sticky situation!

Be sensitive and respectful. Students at CMU come from a variety of different backgrounds, so it is important to respect differences and allow diversity to foster a better learning environment. Sometimes it can be hard when CS itself has a culture of exclusivity. That just means you really have to work towards a comfortable learning environment and practice specific strategies such as inclusive discussions, constructive criticism, and treating students' questions with care. There will definitely be students that are just uncomfortable with their learning situation, and that may be out of your hands. However, if you can keep on your toes about your students, you can really shape the whole learning environment.

Keep your goals in mind. My last point was originally going to be "Keep confident", but honestly, I am terrified of talking in front of a bunch of people to this day. However, when I think about the experiences I have to offer that may really help students, things like public speaking become second nature. If you keep the bigger picture or the lesson goal in mind, it will definitely come through in your teaching. And practicing this constantly will empower you with confidence.

Share your energy to share your passion. TAing can be tough, being a student can be tough, and hard days can be tough. But energy is contagious and can really carry you through. It is a crucial ingredient that can really transform any experience into a positive one.

That's all the advice I have for now. I am truly thankful to have been a 15-104 TA and I can't wait to see how future generations of TAs will continue to shape the course.

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