Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A year of TAing

I just finished a year of TAing an intro physics course for pre-med students.  And how do I feel about that?

Teaching is fun sometimes.  But it's also a lot of work.  This is especially true of the class I taught, which involved 8 hours in class each week.  This is probably better than 8 hours grading each week, but the downside is I have to be all energized during those 8 hours.  Good thing they pay me for this.

Yes, one major advantage of the class I was teaching was that there wasn't much grading.  The homework was all automated, so I only needed to grade tests.  I hardly need to say it: grading isn't fun.  Some undergrads think that graders are cackling evilly over every red mark they have opportunity to make.  This is not true.  Sure, I enjoy writing zeros on blank tests.  But I also like giving full points to perfect solutions.  My least favorite situation is when they get things nearly right, but I have to scan their work to find what errors they made and give them partial credit.

It's hard to come out of a class of pre-meds without becoming at least a little cynical about the whole deal.  A lot of these students come in with math-phobia.  And they don't care about the material one bit.  They care about getting a grade so they can fulfill the requirement, pass the MCAT, and get into a good med school.

And what good does it do them?  In my last few discussions, I covered a few "extra" topics like superconductivity and particle physics, and those seem to interest even the pre-meds.  But only a few topics can be fascinating, and those two weren't even part of the official curriculum.  What use will a medical student ever have for the Ampere-Maxwell equation?

Would you want a surgeon who doesn't even know what light is made of?  You know, I think I honestly don't care.

I suspect that it's all part of the ridiculous bottleneck for pre-meds to get into med school.  Throwing a bunch of pointlessly difficult hurdles at the pre-meds might lessen the bottleneck.  (I mean, I think this class is really easy, but the students don't agree.)

On the plus side, the course does go a little ways to curing math-phobia.  By the end of the year, most students seemed comfortable with simple algebra.

I was also very cynical about the effectiveness of the professors.  Every week, the students attend three hours of the professor's lectures, and four hours of lab/discussion with TAs.  The students kept on complaining to me that the lectures were worthless.  I never attended the lectures myself (I'm not paid to do that), but based on the powerpoint slides I'm inclined to side with the students.  Don't tell my students I said that; I'm not supposed to disparage the professors in front of them. 

Mainly, I just wish the professors would invest a little more time communicating with their TAs.  As in, more than zero.  Many students felt they learned more from the discussion than the lectures.  So it would really help if the professors told me what they wanted me to teach!

That said, teaching was a very valuable experience.  And I look forward to next year, when I will not do any teaching at all.

1 comment:

Secret Squïrrel said...

There's a lot to be said about how a teacher goes about teaching. When I was at uni, I had two different lecturers for maths in first year. Altho' both the presentations were reasonably dry, one lecturer was engaging and connected with his audience (the occasional corny joke, saying "bless you" if someone sneezed) while the other droned on in a monotone, rarely looking up from what he was writing on the overhead projector (yes, it was the Dark Ages before the turn of the century).

With the first, I learned as we went along and usually didn't need to put in any more work on the subject matter, while with the other I seemed to have trouble grasping a lot of the concepts and would have to actually read the text book!

I understand that tertiary level lectures are just that - lectures - and are not meant to be the equivalent of highschool classes (that function being better fulfilled by tutorials) but, presumably, the intention is to transfer knowledge as efficiently as is practicable. That objective can surely be better served by having whomever is at the front of the class (lecturer/tutor/teacher) connect with their students and engage them in the subject matter.

Anyway, my 2¢.