Teaching Methods in Computer Science

CSE 599 is a TA development class for incoming TAs in Computer Science and Engineering classes.

Fall 2017
Wednesdays 2pm-3:20pm CSE 1202
Mia Minnes (minnes@eng.ucsd.edu), CSE 4206
Sindhura Raghavan (sindhura@eng.ucsd.edu)

CSE 599 Portfolio

During CSE 599 you'll produce a portfolio of your TA experience this quarter.

You may use any platform you like for compiling your CSE 599 portfolio (Google Doc, github repo, Blogger, etc.) but it must include the following components:

  • TA role log Evidence of weekly reflection on your TA duties and development as a TA.
  • Teaching observations and feedback Documentation and analysis of teaching observations and their connection with principles of how people learn.
  • Optional: CSE 599 themes Use your portfolio to jot down notes on the themes we discuss in CSE 599 and their connections to your TA experiences.

Be as creative as you'd like in presenting your portfolio. Or, if you prefer to keep it simpler, here's a sample template you could use.

TA role log

At the beginning of the quarter, you will use the ASES form to establish your roles and responsibilities as a TA. Documenting and assessing your activities as a TA will help you evaluate if you are spending your time and energy effectively and in line with the expectations of your instructor. On a weekly basis,

  1. Record the number of hours you spent total on your TA duties, and how those hours were divided across various tasks. Each TA job is different, so your hour allocation may be different from others. Typical activities include: discussion section, lab, assignment writeup preparation, assignment administration (grading scripts, turnin scripts), general admin / prep, Piazza Q&A, lecture attendance, office hours, etc.
  2. Celebrate a (small) victory. Find some aspect of your TA job that you did particular well or that worked particularly effectively this week. It's important to reaffirm why we do what we do, and to take time to make note of even small accomplishments. Did you see an idea "click" for a student after you worked with him/her? Did you collaborate with your fellow TAs to come up with well-motivated, well-structured examples for discussion section? Were you recognized by a student on campus? (Of course, these are just a few examples, your victory may be something completely different.)
  3. Plan to refine and iterate. What didn't work as well as you would have liked this week? What can you do next week (or next term? or next year?) to improve it?

Minimum passing threshold: Each weekly entry must address all three components outlined above. The reflections must start by week 2 and there can be no more than a three-week gap between entries on your TA activities. For example, reflections on your week 1, week 4, week 7, and week 10 activities would meet the minimum passing threshold.

Teaching observations and feedback

Observing others teaching and being observed is a great way to get ideas and improve our teaching. In CSE 599 practicum sessions, you'll have multiple opportunities to watch how others present discussion-style content. You can also use classes in which you're enrolled to observe how the instructor or the TA delivers technical material or leads problem-solving and conversation. Pick several of these observations and fill out the Teaching Feedback Form (paper version) to summarize what you saw: what was effective? what did you learn? what areas would you consider emphasizing for continued work? Conversely, collect these observations of your own teaching, either in the CSE 599 practicum sessions or in your own discussion forums. You can use this form to request an observation of your discussion section, or invite one of your practicum group members directly.

Minimum passing threshold: One self-observation (video), at least two peer observations, and give at least two feedbacks (either to peers or by attending a CSE class). Also: one paragraph summarizing trends you noticed about what is effective, and plans for growth.

CSE 599 themes: Group presentations

Each week, one group will give brief overviews of the supplementary resources and readings associated with that week's themes. The presentation should be no more than one minute per resource and should highlight the main take-away message of each.

Assignment descriptions

Micro video: Watch & Reflect (Pre-class assignment)

First, you'll need to record yourself teaching a technical concept. You may choose any concept you wish. Possible examples include (but are not limited to): deleting an element from a linked list, analyzing the Big-O running time of an algorithm, a sorting algorithm, event handling in Java, etc. Make sure your topic is small enough in scope that the explanation reasonably fits into 3-4 minutes. The video must show your body and your voice should be clearly audible. You are expected to use a whiteboard or other visual aids as you would when explaining this concept in discussion section or office hours. The emphasis for this assignment is on basic skills:

  • Board work: make sure to write clearly, large enough, use enough colors, and organize your drawing/writing appropriately
  • Speaking skills: speak clearly, to the camera, use eye contact, state clearly what you are explaining

This video is a starting point that you will build from over the course of the quarter, so don't go overboard making the video perfect. You should prepare, and make sure that you know what you are going to say, but some mistakes and stumbles are OK. Just do your best at this point. Also, if you prepared a similar video as part of your TA application, feel free to use the same one or some modification of it.

Submit your video by placing it on YouTube or another file sharing service (e.g. github). You should all have a YouTube account through your eng.ucsd.edu account. You can make is a private video as long as you share it with me (mminneskemp@eng.ucsd.edu) and our TA (sindhura@eng.ucsd.edu). You may also choose to make the video public. It's up to you.

Next, the hard part. Watch the video. It's always uncomfortable to watch yourself. But remember, everyone in the class will have to do the same thing. Use the Teaching Feedback Form (paper version) to guide your reflection on your video. Relate your comments and observations to the Characteristics of effective feedback at the bottom of the form. In your portfolio, add a screenshot of the filled out feedback form, or write out your observations and reflections to the micro-video.

Elevator Pitch (Practicum assignment)

As a TA, you can serve as a role model and mentor for your students. They may ask for your advice about their career, beyond the specific class you are TAing. It's useful to think ahead to how you'd respond to some common questions.

This week, you'll present a short reply to one of the following prompts:

  1. How does the material in this class (choose the class you are currently TAing) relate to what I'll do in my career after UCSD? [[ Because of the 1 minute time limit, you'll need to pick a very specific example to speak about.]]
  2. How did you know you wanted to be a Computer Scientist / software engineer?
  3. What's your favorite fact in about Computer Science? What's a favorite technological innovation?
  4. How do you choose between graduate school and industry after graduation?

Your goal is to say something meaningful, correct, interesting, and useful within the allotted time frame: one minute.

If you choose, you may use the white board during your presentation. Make sure to rehearse and give yourself lots of time to prepare and polish your oral presentation as well; 60 seconds go by very quickly if you don't plan them carefully.

In the practicum session this week, each of your group members will present their "elevator pitch". If you have more time, try improvising answers to some of the other questions. What are the characteristics of effective answers?

Micro-teach I (Practicum assignment)

This practicum asks you to revisit the presentation you prepared before (in the Micro video) and continue to practice the same core skills. We'll throw in a more interactive component and ask you to present live and handle actual questions from students as they arise.

Prepare a 5-minute discussion section for our in-class practicum. Keep the same topic of your video from last week, and make sure to refine your presentation based on the observations you made when watching the video. Now that you'll be presenting "live", in the middle of your explanation, you should expect questions from the "audience" that will force you to take your explanation in a slightly different direction. This week we want you to continue to focus on good whiteboard practices, while also structuring your presentation to work towards a learning objective you have for your "students": what do you want them to be able to do after participating in this discussion?

To make sure there is time for discussion and feedback, only half the students in each group will present in each of the two weeks dedicated to this practicum assignment. Work with your Mentor TA to choose who presents each week. If you are not presenting, it is your job to make the experience as authentic for the "TA" as possible: role-play as though you were a student attending discussion section, ask questions when appropriate, and participate.

Start the practicum with the presentations. These should take no more than 25-30 minutes (including setup and transitions).

Then, have a group discussion about common themes you observed. For example,

  • What effective whiteboard techniques did you see?
  • As a TA, how can you tell whether you are using the whiteboard effectively?
  • What strategies did the "TAs" use to address questions?
  • In discussion sections, should all questions be answered? Why or why not?

Micro-teach II (Practicum assignment)

As you grow more comfortable and confident presenting, we'll ask you to focus on the organization, interactivity, and inclusiveness of your micro-teaching discussion.

Prepare a longer (8-minute discussion) section for presenting to your group. The content must be significantly different from your previous practicum presentation, but you could keep the same course context if you'd like (e.g. the follow-up topic in the course). In your discussion section you should focus on all of the following:

  • A clear and organized technical explanation
  • Interactivity and ensuring that students understand
  • Addressing different approaches to the material (i.e. writing, speaking, examples, problems to work) as appropriate
  • Mechanics: speaking style, board work
The exact format of your section is up to you, but you need to complete it in about 8 minutes. You might choose to give examples, worksheets, peer instruction problems, group work, a mini-lecture, or (most likely) some combination.

To make sure there is time for discussion and feedback, only half the students in each group will present in each of the two weeks dedicated to this practicum assignment). Work with your Mentor TA to choose who presents each week. If you are not presenting, it is your job to make the experience as authentic for the "TA" as possible: role-play as though you were a student attending discussion section, ask questions when appropriate, and participate.

As before, complete each session by debriefing lessons learned from the presentations of the day.

Grading I (Practicum assignment)

In this session, you'll workshop grading strategies that are effective for the specific type of class you're currently TAing. Coming up with extensive auto-grading and testing scripts is important for classes that are programming heavy, whereas rubrics for large projects or written assignments are used heavily in design or theoretical classes.

As a group, compile a "how-to" guide for grading an assignment for your type of class. Brainstorm the common pitfalls and crowdsource possible solutions. Your guide should include the following headings:

  • Rubric styles and comparison of advantages / disadvantages for this class
  • What makes a question hard to grade? And how to deal with it?
  • Handling regrade requests
  • Essential time-saving tricks (tech, TA/tutor labor division, assignment design, etc.)

Share your guide with me (mminneskemp@eng.ucsd.edu) and our TA (sindhura@eng.ucsd.edu).

Grading II (Practicum assignment)

Select a HW, exam, or assignment question that you graded so far this quarter. Prepare a short presentation including:

  • Context of the assignment: how did students complete the question? did they work individually? how many submissions did you have to grade? how much does the score of this question impact the student's overall grade?
  • Correct solution and rubric: briefly review what the solution key would have been and what rubric you used.
  • Was the grading effective? For example, were you able to complete it in a timely manner? were students generally accepting of the score they received? What changes would you make to the rubric (or the wording of the question) in the future? Illustrate with specific (anonymized) student examples and what grade they received.

To make sure there is time for discussion and feedback, only half the students in each group will present in each of the two weeks dedicated to this practicum assignment). Work with your Mentor TA to choose who presents each week. If you are not presenting, it is your job to thoughtfully engage with the presentation.

As before, complete each session by debriefing lessons learned from the presentations of the day.

Office hours role-play (Practicum assignment)

In this week's practicum activity, you will role-play working with different students in a one-on-one situation (e.g. office hours, or in the lab). Before class, you will need to prepare:

  • In your portfolio, describe at least one question that kept you busy in one of your office or lab hours some week this quarter. This could have been a particularly tricky homework question, a common bug students had in their code, a common misunderstanding about a course assignment, etc. Include the following information
    • Educational context: what had students learned in the class during the week before this question was asked of you in office hours/ lab? What homework question / programming assignment were they working on?
    • What is hard about this question?
    • What were you able to do in office hours to help students overcome the hurdles to solving this question?
  • In the practicum session, you'll roleplay the TA-student interaction, focussing on specific strategies for tailoring your work to specific student needs. Rotate through the group members, picking one pair at a time where one person is acting the role of TA and the other the role of the student. This pair should use the question that the "TA" described in her/his portfolio in preparation for the session. After letting the student look at the question and "get into character", play out the pretend office hours interaction for 3-5 minutes (or less, if a natural stopping point occurs; don't go past 5 minutes so other pairs also have a chance to try out the activity). The rest of the group should be engaged in observing the interaction.
    • When you're the TA: When working with your perplexed student your goal is to get them to understand the problem and be able to generate the correct solution. You should think about how to get them to think about breaking down the problem into something manageable. You might consider giving a simpler example, or having them try to do only part of the problem. Your other main task is to respond to the student on a personal level. Each student has been given a different personality role to play, so part of your challenge will be figuring out the best approach for an individual.
    • When you're the student: You have each been assigned a different "personality". Study your role and try to play it as authentically as possible.
      • Role: The overwhelmed struggling student (Your birth month mod 5 = 0) You are struggling to understand the new material in this class and are down on yourself. You have no idea where to start on this problem, and you are discouraged and just want to give up. You are inclined to become upset and frustrated (though not belligerent). At any moment you feel like you might burst into tears. You just don’t feel like you’ll ever understand.
      • Role: The over-confident student (Your birth month mod 5 = 1) You think you totally understand everything, but for some reason your program doesn’t work / proof won't come together. You’ve come to the TA, but you believe that you actually know more than he/she does. You’re not inclined to take the TA’s suggestions, and frequently make comments about how smart you are and how much you know. You know your code doesn’t work, but you feel that it’s Java’s fault, not your own. You have not taken any steps (beyond running your code) to debug it.
      • Role: The eager but fundamentally confused student (Your birth month mod 5 = 2) You love this class, but you find yourself struggling more than you thought you would. You are desperate to understand and generally good-natured about your misunderstandings. But try as you might, you just don’t seem to “get it”. The TA can explain something over and over, and somehow it just sinks in very, very slowly. In this role, you should get the same question (or type of question) wrong in the same way over and over, but every so often you should get something right.
      • Role: The shy and quiet student (Your birth month mod 5 = 3) You actually have a pretty good idea about what’s going on, and you “get it,” but you are shy and don’t have confidence in your abilities. You’re pretty sure you know how to solve this problem (and with a little guidance you will be able to complete the problem correctly), but you lack the confidence to start on your own. You just need a little reassurance that you’re on the right track and you’ll be fine. You definitely do not need someone to treat you like you don’t know what you are doing or to start over and explain everything from scratch.
      • Role: The student who just wants the answer (Your birth month mod 5 = 4) You aren’t really very interested in this class. You’re pretty confused and you don’t feel like putting any mental energy into the assignment. You have come to your TA because you really just want them to tell you the answers. You are not leaving until you have a working solution to the problem. You are not rude to the TA, but just insistent about getting him or her to tell you the answer. However, you should not be so stubborn that you do not respond to the TA’s attempts to engage you in learning, if you feel these attempts are successful.
    • Once everyone's had the opportunity to role-play as either the TA or the student, debrief the strategies that worked for the different characters that were played. Were there any effective tools that worked for all students? Were there techniques that worked very well with some, but very poorly with others?
    • If you have more time, switch roles and switch characters.