The Alan J. Perlis SCS Student Teaching Award
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)


Thomson Yeh
2016 Undergraduate Student Teaching Award

Effective TAing: Reflections on Three Years of Teaching

When you're caught up in the CMU bubble and the daily grind of schoolwork, it can be too easy sometimes to take for granted the unique privilege of being a TA in SCS. So let's remember to take a step back and think about the immense trust we place in our TAs: it's quite a special honor to, among other things, be the primary point of contact between your students and the course. With great power comes great responsibility, of course, and as a TA, it's an interesting reality that you'll spend enough facetime with students to end up being directly responsible for their learning and their experience in the course. With this in mind, how can you serve your students as effectively as possible? There's a lot to be said for the necessity of practice/raw hours spent interacting with students, but over the years I've been lucky enough to glean some insights that might be able to give you a little jump-start in your craft.

Don't teach at your students; teach for them and with them. Learning is an active process; the more active the better, in fact. This means that your role as a teacher isn't just to spout facts at your students: a much more productive goal is to aim to cause your students to engage in the action of learning. You want to cata- lyze the deeply internal process of discovery by making it a collaborative effort. What this means: maintain a dialogue when teaching. Build a shared train of thought and try your best not to let anyone fall off. Ask questions frequently (striking a balance between meatiness and accessibility). One of the most meaningful units of learning is the a-ha moment - you can't have that moment on behalf of your students, but what you can do is lay a path and guide them to it. Take every opportunity to spark a bit of cogitation that has the potential to lead a student to finally 'get it'.

Strive to understand and act on the meaning behind every interaction. Though the sheer scale of a semester-long course can seem to border on the incomprehensible at times, everybody wins when you understand how things fit into the big picture. Executing well doesn't just mean going through the right answer to a problem - ask yourself why you were doing that problem in the first place. Often there's a bigger lesson, idea, or technique that you and the students will benefit from acknowledging. Maybe a student asks a question whose meaning is clear from context but whose wording belies a deeper conceptual misunderstanding - it's your job to, at the very least, take note of this, and, when feasible, get to the bottom of it. Sometimes it feels like you're jumping down quite the rabbit hole here, but the more fundamental a misunderstanding, the bigger its potential repercussions and the more difference you can make by addressing it.

React and take ownership. This is a rather amorphous and situational skill, but you'll hopefully come to value it hugely. In recitations, office hours, tutoring, etc., you want to nurture a coherent conceptual flow, and the mark of a master is use of the interaction's shape (questions and answers from both sides) to bolster rather than interrupt this flow. Have a plan without being overly attached to it - it's up to you to make things happen in a way that betters the course and makes your students' lives a little brighter. This applies on a larger scale as well: as an administrator of the course, you have a certain obligation and shared responsibility to keep things running smoothly. This can be as simple as volunteering to handle the various administrivia that pop up over the semester, or it can also be as urgent and impactful as being the proctor for an exam, realizing that there's a bug in the version the students were given, and having to decide how to handle the situation. As much as possible, expect the unexpected. Use your experience and your best judgment - as a TA, you're a professional who has the professors' and the students' trust, so trust yourself too.

TAing, and therefore being an authority figure in the context of others' schoolwork and learning, isn't the sort of job you can take lightly or the sort of responsibility you can afford to not put first. The more you care about it, though, the more rewarding you'll find it. When you use your powers for good and embark on the journey of learning with your students, you'll also learn to find great joy in the many victories, big and small, along the way.

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