Teaching Assistant Handbook

Compiled by Prof. Gary E. Ford, September 1999
Revised by Prof. Richard R. Spencer, July, 2000

Assisting Students

The most important function and responsibility of a TA is to assist students to learn the material presented in the course, primarily through answering their questions in office hours or laboratory sessions. The key is to assist their learning, as opposed to doing their assigned work for them. While this may sound like a clear distinction, you will find that this is not always the case. In this section, an attempt is made to clarify the role of the TA.

To effectively educate future engineers, the academic environment should emulate an industrial environment to the extent possible. The TA should function as a senior engineer, who has worked on problems or projects similar to those of the students (junior engineers), but who is not actively working on their problem or project. Thus, the TA should provide advice as to the approach that should be taken, mention key elements that should be considered, but should not provide details of the problem solution or project development. This will often be a frustrating process for the TA, who will often know the answer to the problem, or the best approach to a project design, but who must allow the student to discover this answer or approach on his/her own.

An important element of engineering education is to encourage students to become independent learners. Electrical engineering and computer engineering are disciplines that are changing and evolving rapidly, requiring engineers to continually learn new concepts, approaches, and technology. For many of our students, this is a significant change in approach to education and learning, as they are accustomed to receiving a substantial amount of detailed guidance in high school or community college.

One objective of an engineering educational program is to teach students to "think critically". A "critical thinker" is one who is proficient at assessing and analyzing facts, approaches, and concepts, and uses this ability to solve complex problems. The problems often require a significant level of synthesis of related material. Many researchers believe that critical thinking can be taught. Although a thorough discussion cannot be given here, a few comments are provided. It is hoped that you might become interested and investigate further.

Encourage students to take time to struggle; it is an important part of learning to think critically. When questions are asked, require that they be precise. Students have a natural tendency to look for a quick answer, to find an appropriate question and blindly plug numbers into it. Discourage their belief that your job is merely to "spoon-feed" them all the necessary facts they need to be engineers and that their task is to simply regurgitate that information during exams. Engineers must have critical thinking skills. It is insufficient to merely find an appropriate equation and have a calculator or computer handy.

Closely related to critical thinking is "learning strategy." Encourage students to analyze their strategy. The following points are suggested:

  • Many students pack away information as one would put eggs in a carton: each item carefully packed in its own isolated compartment. This is an unproductive way to learn. Encourage students to build as many connections as possible between the pieces of information they learn. Learning is easier if you integrate the facts into a framework as you go.
  • Information is recalled more easily if all the facts are stored as part of a system of ideas.
  • Problem solving mostly consists of stringing ideas together in new combinations. Thus, practice in finding connections between ideas can be a big help when confronting a new problem.

Teaching Problem Solving

One of the most important and difficult tasks of an ECE TA involves assisting students with problem solving. Often we assume that a person who is good at solving problems will be a good problem solving teacher. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Knowing how to do a problem yourself is very different from teaching others how to solve a particular class of problems. The reasons for this can be found in an examination of the skills involved. When presenting a problem solution, problem solvers tend to aim for neatness, precision, elegance, etc. But such an approach actually hinders teaching because all the mental steps which go into the examination and solution of the problem are essentially concealed in favor of elegance and impression. It is important, therefore, to shift your emphasis. As a teacher, your goal is to make problem steps as obvious as possible, thus enabling the students to see every step along the way to the solution. You should also avoid taking anything for granted, because a computation or explanation you consider to be obvious is often quite alien to your class. The key is to clarify all of the steps needed to solve the problem. The following is a list of suggestions for becoming a good problem solver.

  • Read the problem assignment carefully and write out all the information given (concentrate on meaning).
  • Figure out which information is relevant and which is unnecessary.
  • Don't start to work the problem before reading all the material.
  • Use prior knowledge and experience to clarify confusing ideas.
  • Understand the problem in terms of what is being asked and what you are looking for.
  • Systematize problem steps; make a flow chart.
  • Work backwards from the problem goal to highlight intermediate steps.
  • Determine whether the procedure you are following will actually help reach the goal.
  • Use diagrams.
  • Translate word problems into equations or vice versa for clarity.
  • Decide what aspects of a theory you are likely to need.
  • Break problems into their component parts.
  • Do easier and more obvious steps first and look for clues to solving the rest of the problem.
  • Restate the problem in terms of models or types of problems that are already familiar and hence more accessible.
  • Determine whether the answer you derive is reasonable in terms of the problem.
  • Make a rough estimate of what the solution might look like, and use it to check progress.
  • Re-check the accuracy of all derivations and calculations.
  • Solve the problem in more than one way and compare the answers obtained.
  • Develop a list of assumptions about the problem and determine whether they are reasonable.
  • Once you have developed a procedure for solving a problem, try the procedure on another similar problem to determine whether it is consistently useful.
  • Maintain a positive attitude about solving the problem.
  • Be persistent in pursuing the solution.
  • Take periodic breaks to let your unconscious mind process the information.
  • Write down all steps in solving the problem so that you can check your procedure completely.
  • Explain the problem to someone else to clarify thinking processes and assumptions.
  • Analyze difficult points as keys to solving the problem.
  • Keep a record of difficult problems and use it to determine consistent problem solving weaknesses.
  • Summarize the solution after finishing a problem to help in retaining the process, thus preparing for similar problems.

Here are some suggestions for helping students with their problem solving:

  • Ask students to think aloud.
  • Ask specific questions about their approach:
  • What do you know about this problem?
  • Can you break the problem into smaller steps?
  • What are some strategies you could use to solve the problem?
  • Why did you do that?
  • How did you get from step 1 to step 2?
  • Will you please explain your reasoning behind that step?
  • Is there a simpler or alternative method?

Office Hours

In many courses, the TA will be asked to schedule regular office hours to answer student questions about all aspects of the material presented in the course. It is generally best to invite all students into your office together and to allow all of them to hear the questions and your responses. For two or three students, you can meet around a table and answers can be sketched out on paper. If more students are in attendance, it is better to stand at a white board to present your responses.

During office hours, the TA must respond to numerous questions from students about problem assignments and it is important to develop a strategy for responding to these questions before meeting with the students. Review the problem assignment and the solutions if they are available, or think through the approach to the problems if the solutions are not yet available.

Before the problem assignments are due, you should only clarify the problem assignment and resist answering detailed questions about problem solutions. You might discuss examples of solutions to related problems, but these should not be so similar to the assignments as to reveal the solutions. Respond to many questions with questions of your own. Ask what approaches they have considered, what mathematical, analytical, or design tools could be employed. You can suggest a general approach, but do not provide the details of the approach. Resist commenting if the students ask you if they have taken the best approach, or if they have gotten the correct answer to a problem. Encourage students to question and guess. Students learn best when they formulate questions and attempt to devise their own answers. They should be strongly encouraged to think first and to ask later. Some students will come to office hours with the thought that you will jointly work out the problem solutions. You must firmly explain that this is not the purpose of office hours and that the student is expected to solve the problems independently.

You should attempt to spend the majority of your office hours explaining solutions to problem assignments that have already been submitted by the students. At this point, you are free to discuss all aspects of the problems and to discuss solution techniques in great detail.

Attendance at office hours will increase significantly immediately prior to an examination. You should be prepared to review all material to be covered on the examination. You should allow students to guide the session by asking questions, but if they run out of questions, you should be ready to discuss some relevant examples. If you have reviewed the examination prior to the office hour, you should be careful not to divulge the questions on the exam. However, if a student asks you to solve a problem that happens to be very similar to a problem on the exam, you should answer in as much detail as necessary.

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