By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director
Like it or not, the first two years of an undergraduate’s education at a research university often consists of large lectures taught by professors, supplemented by discussion groups or problem-solving sessions (sometimes called “recitations”) run by teaching assistants (TAs). Consequently, for many undergraduates, a TA is the first college instructor they get to know on a personal level.
So teaching assistants can have a huge impact on the experience of undergraduates, especially in the early going, where a student’s attitude about learning can take off—or stall out. Luckily, most TAs take their jobs seriously and put a lot of effort into helping their students.
Fostering Real Intelligence and Well-Being
OCW has for the first time provided a glimpse into the thinking that TAs put into their teaching by publishing the TAs’ Instructor Insights for 6.034 Artificial Intelligence. The TAs, Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes, explain how they adhere to a student-centered ethic initiatied by Professor Patrick Winston, where the primary objects are “to help students learn the material and to become inspired.” This ethic informs all the course policies and TA activities, from assignment due dates to grading.
For instance, since the point of assessment is to demonstrate mastery (and not to make fine distinctions in accrued points), the final exam is optional, and four of its five parts reflect knowledge already assessed in quizzes given earlier in the semester. So if a student does poorly on a quiz, there’s a chance for redemption in the final. This relieves the pressure to do well on a single test.
Assignments are due by 10PM rather than the traditional zero hour of midnight to encourage students to get a decent night’s sleep.
Taking It Online
The TAs engage directly with students both in class and out. On an online forum, the TAs answer student questions, and these exchanges are visible for the entire class to see. Over time, the forum functions as an archive of Frequently Asked Questions and helps inform how recitations are taught. But running an online forum can be tricky, and the TAs share how they have responded to the challenges to make the exchanges more productive.
Facing the Challenges
It’s not easy being a TA. You’re just starting out, just beginning to learn how to engage students and foster learning. You have to learn how to plan and manage a successful recitation, for example. Students can ask all kinds of questions that you might not know the answer to. And you have to do this while dealing with the pressures of being a student yourself.
For Noss and Holmes, the point is to show the students that the TAs care about them and about how well they do—that is, how well they learn. That’s an ethic that’s easy to get behind.
** ** **[This is the second of two recent posts on 6.034 Artifical Intelligence. The first post highlights some instructor insights from Professor Patrick Henry Winston.]