Teaching recitation: post mortem

I wrote previously about my insights as I started teaching 6.004. Well the semester is over, and I think it’s been a semester well done. I had a thoroughly amazing experience, and I just wanted to say a few words as I was reading through the course evaluation results that came out earlier today.

MIT makes some effort to get students to fill out course evaluations at the end of each semester. A majority of the students in 6.004 are silent this time around, but I am pleased that I believe a majority of the students attending my recitations filled it out, perhaps because I asked them for feedback twice in the middle of the semester and continued to ask them to fill out the evaluation towards the end. The takeaways here are that 1) instilling the idea that feedback is important is effective and 2) spamming works!

Anyway, I am pleased with my ratings and feedback. I definitely “Encouraged participation,” and what I need to work on most is “Stimulating interest.” “Defining goals” is another area for improvement, but that’s no doubt easier the second time around. I would have expected lower marks in “Well-organized presentations,” but shhh—maybe they didn’t notice me blundering around the classroom every 10 minutes. I find it so interesting how I have gotten to know some of my students enough to (perhaps!) identify them by the pattern of numbers and the few words they left me. There’s almost a beauty to that — the rating makes sense, and that’s awesome.

I am truly encouraged by the enthusiasm in the comments on my teaching, along with comments in personal emails students sent me after the course was over. I can sort of feel the learning that happened, the insights gained, and the new-found appreciation of the material. I know that probably only a minority of the students came out of 6.004 feeling this way, but I’m almost jealous of these students. I had to take 6.004 twice to achieve what they achieved. But then again, I found the lectures excellent the second time around, and I was certainly motivated by the responsibility to teach it to 50 students.

A lot of the comments on the class struck a deep chord with my sentiments on the course when I took it a few years ago. I did not have a great recitation, and section-hopping just got tiring after a while. Lectures caused me information overflow, and I certainly did not have an intuition on the real-world physical aspects of computer architecture (the EE side of things). The lab work seemed unconnected to the general concepts, and I, like many others, learned that it was quite easy to get an A in the course by pattern matching across old quizzes. This course, though stable, seemed less than ideal.

But I am fortunate to have had these insights into the course before TAing for it. From the very beginning, I knew I would be doing things a bit differently from the other TAs. The TA’s job is to go over the tutorial problems and cover any background necessary to talk about said problems. But I knew I would be trying, every step of the way, to connect these problems to the lectures, the labs, the big picture, the physical world, and anything I could think of, really. In theory, I was doing more than the TA’s job, but in practice, I often forwent half or more of the tutorial problems I was supposed to go over. I often just talked at them, trying my best to tell them a complete story, and yet, the material I presented was very different from lecture. And I hoped that my students could take my simple words and do the rest of the problems on their own. Just as importantly, I tried my very very best to hide the fact that old quizzes were an effective resource.

This combination of not covering the material I was supposed to and not pointing out the resources that would ensure good grades (but also ensure less learning) made me very nervous at first — who am I to come in to this class that’s been run a certain way for the last N years and, without any experience, do things another way? But the results every few weeks affirmed my teaching methods — my sections consistently did great on the quizzes and in the class overall. I certainly understand the typical EECS undergrad here better than some others. I am a typical EECS undergrad here, after all, and I taught how I wish I were taught.

I feel quite fortunate, also, in the students that I had. I do believe that enthusiasm is contagious, and that students enthusiastic about learning will seek out enthusiastic instructors. After a few weeks into the semester, if I kept up the enthusiasm and since students are free to come and go between the 10 recitation sections, I would only have the enthusiastic students left to teach. The students who don’t need recitation and the students who prefer another teaching style filter themselves out, and it no longer becomes my duty to instruct them on a bi-weekly basis. And then, life is wonderful. Teaching enthusiastic students is infinitely easier than teaching unenthusiastic students.

I am grateful to have been a part of this journey working from inside of a 200+ student foundations class at MIT. Through all the ups and downs, these past few months have made me truly realize that I love teaching, and I want to thank all of my students for that. I sincerely hope to teach again soon.

But despite all my new insights and experiences, this TAship has also reminded me to keep things in perspective. MIT is first and foremost a research institution. The professors are here because they can produce good work, not so that they can teach undergraduates. Turns out, the same applies to the graduate students, who serve as TAs for funding, and only the occasional dedicated instructor is going to devote his semester to the students in need. This is no earth-shattering epiphany, and I am no exception. My TA offer for next semester is sadly expiring in a couple days, and I am gearing myself up for the research that I am here to do.

I hope my experiences here are useful to the aspiring teacher, and I will close off my discussion of 6.004 with two fun anecdotes:

First. I daresay that incentivizing my sections with something as simple as food to complete the Beta Processor lab early worked! One of my sections was at a 80% completion rate 2 days before the due date, statistically significantly more than the next best section. I made them muffins afterwards, and a good time was had by all.

Second. I wore a friend’s pedometer a few times during recitation, and learned that I actually pace around a classroom 1 mile when I teach for 2 hours. Crazy!

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.

Handouts
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.