Teaching recitation: observations

This semester, I am a recitation instructor for 6.004: Computation Structures, a foundation class for EECS majors here at MIT. The class demographic is primarily sophomore and juniors, and enrollment is upwards of 200 students. It is a very well-established class whose curriculum has not changed much in the last 8 years and whose course logistics and organization are mostly smoothed out. It is an ideal environment for inexperienced TAs to focus on teaching, learning, and communicating rather than the frustration of system inefficiencies.

Well, I’m absolutely loving it. Every recitation is solving a small part of the puzzle and a storyboarding adventure. Below are just a few observations I’ve made over the past few weeks.

Students are physically drawn towards handouts. The more colors, the less readily available — the more exotic, basically — the more attractive. One time, I made a multi-colored handwritten handout for a topic that I had trouble explaining in words and distributed them during recitation. Word must have spread somehow, because attendance during one of my sections increased by 50% the next class. That day, the classroom was so full of unfamiliar faces that I thought I was in the wrong place.

Tabula rasa
Undergrads here in EECS are quite passive about their learning in recitation. There is some prevalent inhibition from talking at all, even to voice some basic concerns (e.g. please move, you are blocking the board; please write bigger/darker/clearer). At the very beginning, I am presenting to a blank wall of stares that occasionally look down to jot down notes. Students seem to need to be taught to speak, to smile, to frown, to laugh, to raise their hand and ask questions. They do seem to be born with the ability to walk out and to not show up again, but they are otherwise blank slates. It’s up to me to keep them or lose them.

But the real side effect of this phenomenon on me is that I am pleasantly surprised (shocked, rather) everytime students say “have a good weekend” back at me and everytime I don’t hear a lot of shuffling of papers and backpack zippers at 1:56pm.

Pre-spring break attendance
Yay, spring break! Everyone I know (myself included) skipped class today (er, yesterday) in lieu of fancy spring break plans or laundry or just more quality time with the internet. Beyond all odds and to my utmost pleasant surprise, however, attendance in my sections did not deviate much at all. I estimate regular section attendance at 15-20; attendance today was 13-15. We started placing bets before section to guess how many students would show up. My original guess was 5, and I was willing to (but did not) put money on the number being less than 10. Turns out, my students are much more optimistic (and correct) about attendance than me.

The desire to skip class on the last day before a long vacation is a strong force, so I need to think a bit more about the circumstances around my recitations that countered this force (such that I can replicate this effect!). Another instructor, who observed my section, once described my recitation as “very relaxing,” so maybe coming to class was close enough to the feeling of spring break!

The trouble with asking for feedback
Turns out, it is hard to cater to 20 different students all at once. When I asked for feedback on the amount of lecture review versus problem solving preferred, I got back a uniform distribution of the entire spectrum of choices. They did all agree, however, that I ought to make fewer mistakes, So there is at least that bit of feedback on which I can act.

Areas of improvement
Names: I’ve never been good with names, but that is no excuse to not even try. I still don’t know names, for the most part. Knowing names is a key part of engagement in teaching.

Blackboard organization: It occurs to me that my blackboard organization is sloppy, or at least, non-ideal for notetakers. The tradeoff that I am concerned about is that more time spent writing things on the board means less time to explain and interact with students.

The Torch or the Firehose
One last note. Professor Mattuck put together a guide on teaching recitation at MIT, and it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s a great read and points out common pitfalls. It also inspires better teaching. MIT could really benefit from closer attention to excellent teaching.

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