Instructor Insights

Challenges Teaching Assistants Face

In this section, Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes share challenges teaching assistants in 6.034 Artificial Intelligence encounter and advice for addressing those challenges.

"Students don’t expect you to be a genius of the highest order all the time. They expect you to do your part to help them learn."
— Dylan Holmes

Jessica: Caring for Hundreds of Students

One of the main challenges I’ve had as head teaching assistant is caring too much about everything. I really like the student-centered ethic of the course, and I care a lot about the students and want every single one of them to succeed. But sometimes I forget that I can’t personally take care of 400 individual students.

Fortunately, we have exceptional teaching assistants, so I just have to remember to delegate to them. For example, if a student comes to me with a question that their assigned teaching assistant could answer just as well, I might refer the student to their teaching assistant. By asking for help, I can more effectively balance the demands of helping individual students and managing a large course.

Dylan: Not Knowing the Answer

I think one of the biggest challenges teaching assistants face is simply standing in front of a group of people and delivering a recitation on a topic. What happens if a student asks you a question and you don’t know the answer? That’s a really hard situation. And, of course, it comes up!

One way to cope with this situation is to anticipate it: You will get asked questions to which you don’t know the answers. It helps to realize that you don’t have to know absolutely everything in order to be an effective teaching assistant. All you have to do is demonstrate that you’ll find the answer for the student, that you’re there to help them get the information they need. Students don’t expect you to be a genius of the highest order all the time. They expect you to do your part to help them learn. If someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer, you can say, “I can’t think of that off the top of my head, but I’ll come back with an answer next time.” It’s an opportunity to model problem solving for students and to demonstrate what they might do if and when they run into questions they can’t answer right away.

Both: Teaching New Material

In some other courses, lectures and recitations cover the same material, so recitations serve mainly as review of lecture. In 6.034 Artificial Intelligence, however, Professor Winston dedicates lectures to inspiration, high-level concepts, and big-picture ideas, while teaching assistants cover technical details during recitation. Thus, teaching assistants are called not only to speak in front of students, but moreover to plan recitations that take lecture material to another level.

Teaching assistants manage these responsibilities by helping each other. For example, throughout the semester, we share advice about how to effectively engage students. Furthermore, experienced teaching assistants deliver sample recitations to model what to say and how to teach during recitation. By supporting each other, as well as our students, we achieve what would be impossible alone.

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