Sunday, December 22, 2013

On Being a TA...

The job of a teacher is to help the students learn the subject and that of a teaching assistant is to help the instructor in doing that. But does making the students learn the subject mean equipping them with the required theorems and formula so that they solve the mathematical sum asked to them? Or does it mean telling them the necessary technique to write a good paper or make an impressive presentation?

The responsibility of educators and education system at large is beyond these minute intricacies.  Teaching should be aimed at helping the students see the bigger picture in any subject, be it mathematics, or biology, or history, or literature.

The job of an instructor or a TA is to mediate whenever necessary to help the students see the bigger idea. The first step towards this is not to provide students with the answer but to guide them work towards it. This is something which I learned through the GTA workshop where it was emphasized again and again not to give answers to students’ doubts but help them solve those on their own.

Easier said than done! Working as a GTA for the Circuits & Electronics classes, my biggest challenge has been to prevent myself providing the direct answers to students’ problems and at the same time making sure that they are able to see the larger idea. In other words, I have to help students solve the problems on their own, make them understand the relevance of what they are doing, and equip them to apply what they learn in the process.

The process of following these guidelines has been taxing so far as students come expecting a ready-made answer to their problems. And they are not patient enough to understand the theorem or the formula which they need to apply in order to get the answer.  They just want to know the relevant formula and not the concept involved in how one can derive them. At times even if they want to understand the mechanics behind a theorem, they get intimidated by the mathematical details involved. In such scenario, I make sure that I explain the concept to them by reducing nuanced facts and specific details and rather focus on the primary concepts (the bigger idea!).

An example of focusing on the larger idea is making student realize that current is nothing but a movement of electrons and since electrons flowing in a circuit cannot accumulate at a node and hence all the electrons coming to a node must leave it. This is nothing but Kirchhoff’s Current Law which states that sum of currents at a node is zero, a bit complex statement for students to understand.

Use of analogies also becomes a very effective tool in doing this. For example, many students do not understand how potential gradient drives the current in a circuit (Ohm’s Law). Here I generally ask them to consider the voltage difference as the difference between two heights and current as water flowing from a higher altitude to lower which makes them understand the role of voltage difference in a circuit.

The biggest learning which I had through such experiences is that students are willing to learn if they are able to comprehend what is taught to them. And as instructors (or TAs) it is our responsibility to help them understand a complex concept starting from the basic ones. And the results of this technique are manifest when I see students appreciate learning high-level engineering concepts from the basics and applying them confidently in their homework problems.