Spring 1999 CS302 Assignment #11

by Dan Garcia (ddgarcia@cs.berkeley.edu)

Suppose that demand for your course increased to the point where your class consisted of around 90 students and you were allocated 40 hours per week of teaching assistant support.

1. Duties of a teaching assistant commonly include several of the following: running small discussion or lab sections; holding office hours, answering electronic mail from students, or reading and responding to newsgroup posts; producing solutions for homework activities; helping to grade exams; and suggesting exam problems or homework activities. What duties would you assign your t.a.s? Explain and justify your answer.

First of all, many of these issues are moot for cs5 because I'm going to limit the enrollment to under 20 if possible. I can't see any university having the resources to handle 90 animation students. Therefore, I'd probably only have one TA if any at all, and the responsibilities / treatment I give this TA would be different than if the TA were part of a TA team. For example, I'd endeavor to have my single cs5 TA feel as if they were an equal, e.g., have them team-teach with me, have direct input on course structure, syllabus, etc.

If I were in charge of a group of TAs totally 40 hours/week, I would have more freedom to distribute the work. For the following questions, I'll consider both cases: the cs5 one-TA model and the more general 90 student / 40 TA - hours - per - week team-TA model (I'll use cs184 as an example). It's assumed in this team-TA model that each TA has an equal number of hours. Otherwise, duties scale appropriately.

I was fortunate to have a positive experience as a TA with all of the listed activities, so my natural inclination is to have all TAs do all of the tasks. The more things the TAs do, the more they feel like they're equals. This has to be perterbed a bit to suit the experience / abilities of the TAs, but I'll cover that in the next section. Parenthetically, I had understood some of the duties to be mandatory (office hours, for example). Here are comments for each duty:

Running small discussion or lab sections

My cs5 TA would run the lab section on Friday and explain the software and assignment for that week. There would be time during the friday sessions for groups to get together and meet, and then the TA's role would be to float, supervise and work with the groups.

My cs184 TA team would also hold discussion sections once per week, rotating so that one TA taught each section every week. TAs not teaching that week would be encouraged to sit in on at least one of these sections to keep up (and be able to answer questions in office hours, e.g., "What did Dan mean when he said 'The genus of a torus is one'?") as well as offer constructive criticism to the TA (e.g., "I don't think you should assume the students know what radiosity is yet" or "I think you went too fast when you explained hierarchies"). I would allow the TAs to determine amongst themselves who teaches each topic, and they would be able to (in our group meeting) suggest what they think they should teach that week, be it new material, a review or a combination. I'd have final Ok on what gets taught, and I'd also ask them to put their notes on the web for students who miss section that week.

Office hours

For both cs5 and cs184, it's expected that each TA hold weekly office hours. Ideally, between all of the cs184 staff there would be someone having office hours each day of the week. Additionally, the TA in charge of the homework details should hold their office hours near the assignment deadline.

Answering student email and reading a responding to newsgroup posts

The newsgroup should be the central source for questions. Responses to individual email that might be of general interest are forwarded to the newsgroup, possibly with the student's name omitted if need be. My cs5 TA and I would each answer email and the newsgroup, but I'd give him first crack at the easy ones. I'd only answer the high-level cs184 questions, leaving the rest to the team.

Producing homework activities and solutions

Homework is something that could be an 80% TA task. We'd design the overall problem set together in the meetings, and the TA(s) would carry out the details of writing up the homework (to be reviewed by me before going online), answering detailed questions about it online, and creating solutions.

Helping to grade exams

Expected of every TA, but they'd get free food.

Suggesting exam problems

I'd ask the TAs to submit one problem apiece (and more if they wish) for the exam. We would decide in the group meeting which broad topics we'd each choose.

What additional tasks would you have your t.a.s do?

Maintain web pages

I would ask that each TA record their discussion section in a web page, and they would have control of maintaining the homework pages as needed (adding bug fixes, etc). If the TA had desire / skill, I'd allow them to maintain the central course www page also.

Give exam review sections

This is something I'd ask the entire team to do in a tag-team fashion.

Help design the syllabus

There is often flexibility in the schedule, so as often as appropriate, I'd like to ask the TAs what they think should be taught next given several options. This is also useful as sometimes TAs have a favorite topic (in cs184 it was color theory) and it's good to know what should be covered in lecture and what can be covered in lecture.

Take the class pulse

Since the TAs are in the trences with smaller sections than the main lab section, they often have a better understanding of how well the class is doing. Therefore, I'd have the TAs give weekly class feedback. Are we going too fast? Too slowly? Who have we lost and how can we help them? Are they getting bored?

Take student photos and put them on the web

This allows the entire staff to learn student names.

Write demo applets

A picture is worth a thousand words. A well-done interactive applet displaying a difficult concept is arguably worth a thousand pictures. I'd suggest the TAs consider (if interested) writing demo applets to teach difficult ideas to be shown in class during lecture.

"Lab hours" near assignment deadlines

In addition to office hours, I'd like to have the TAs hold "lab hours" in which they would work on one of the computers in the lab and be free to answer any / all questions students have near assignment deadline panic time.

Also indicate how your answer would be different for each of the following:

a. a relatively inexperienced t.a.;

I'd have this TA teach early (easier) sections, and perhaps set up a big-brother style relationship wherein a more experienced TA takes the disciple under their wing. I wouldn't necessarily expect this TA to have the ability or interest to contribute to administrative high-level matters, but any input would be welcome. The only worry is that the TA might not find enough things they're qualified to do, and I would suggest they focus on the homework problems and put in lab hours.

b. a relatively experienced t.a.;

Conversely, I'd readily consult the experienced TA on high-level issues, such as taking an accurate class pulse and discussing the syllabus. I would also suggest they take on the more difficult discussion sections.

c. an eager but relatively inept t.a., for example someone who seems to have trouble communicating with students;

This one is difficult. Is the TA simply a non-native speaker (in which case I wouldn't necessarily call them "inept") or is it not the TA's field or is the TA lacking in brainpower (and is truly inept)? Each of these cases I'd differently. Regardless, if the TA had trouble communicating, I'd suggest the TA work more behind-the-scenes, writing homework assignments, applets, web pages, and adjust their face-to-face contact appropriately.

d. a t.a. who disagrees significantly with your teaching philosophy and course organization.

I'm not sure how much I can control what and how the TA teaches section past asking them to follow a specific design philosophy. Several years ago Brian (Barsky) taught with a friend from industry whose teaching was superb, but we had conflicting pedagogical approaches. He was from Europe and wanted to teach how he was taught - to the top 3 students. I told him I thought he was losing most of the class but he would insist that they'll realize they simply need to work harder if they want to understand. We would have discussions but I couldn't convince him to slow down. Eventually he realized he was swamping folks and apologized in two different lectures for his initial (incorrect) assumption about his teaching style. Throughout this time, I continued to teach my sections the way I thought they should be taught. Unfortunately many of my discussions ended up being spent clarifying his lectures. I would have resisted had he told me how I should teach my sections.

The summary of this story is that I believe TAs should teach their section the way they believe is correct, and the most a professor should do is explain their teaching philosophy, not impose it.

In general, though, I'd ask the TA to "come aboard" to my philosophy if possible. If not, then I'd work with the TA to find things they felt they could do which didn't conflict with their pedagogy. The TA would work on "common ground" duties, if you will.

2. A position as a teaching assistant is ideally a teaching apprenticeship. List some things you would do to help your teaching assistants become better teachers, noting which ones would be most appropriate for t.a.s in categories a-d above.

I like to think of my approach to apprenticeship like feeding a child. Eager TAs are like hungry children who want more responsibility (food). There are some tasks that are unpleasant but need to get done and make the TAs better teachers for it (like eating your vegetables). I would make sure all first-time TAs get a taste of everything. Eager TAs are welcome to ask for (and, in turn, will receive) more duties. Inept TAs (lactose-intolerant) might need to have some duties hidden from them, or at least eat fewer of these undigestible items (the analogies are blurring...). A TA with pedagogical differences is a kid who wants to eat kosher when your family owns a hog farm. You have to work together to find things each is mutually happy to see eaten. In general, then, it's just a matter of feeding the TA more and more food (responsibility) as they mature, and continuing a dialogue of constructive critique and support.

Oh, just thought of something. One great way to help them be better teachers is to have them understand the process an expert (you) undergoes in making decisions, such as how to give partial credit, how to write a good test question, how to do final grade determination, etc. This is similar to our old friend, the Case Study. By allowing the TA to see behind the curtain, they understand the decision process that was used to make the important decisions. This can be done by "thinking out loud", or verbally weighing decision factors in staff discussions.

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