Electrical Engineering
      and Computer Sciences

Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences


UC Berkeley


2008 Research Summary

Teaching Tips We Wish They'd Told Us Before We Started

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Dan Garcia, Owen Astrachan1, Nick Parlante2 and Stuart Reges3

By learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn
-- Latin Proverb

Once again, things that could've been brought to my attention YESTERDAY!
-- Adam Sandler as Robbie Hart in "The Wedding Singer"

When we started teaching, our more seasoned colleagues were probably ready with pearls of wisdom to share with us. They no doubt pointed us to several of the excellent resources on teaching as a new faculty member [1-5]. As an instructor, there were so many hats to wear: lecturer, teaching staff mentor, exam / project / lab author, grader, and leader of office hours. It was a lot to take in, and even with all that counsel, it was probably still quite daunting!

Years later, what have we had to learn on our own? What egregious mistakes could have been avoided had we just known a single fact? What advice has stood the test of time? How can we share these with each other?

The purpose of this project is to gather together the favorite teaching tips of seasoned educators. We offer a random sampling of a few of these "hidden" pearls below. When possible, we've tried to tag them with relevant categories: Lecturing, Office (hours), Staff (mentoring), Exams (authoring & administering), Labs (authoring & running), Section (TA-led discussion), Projects (and homework; authoring & supporting), and Meta (advice spanning categories).

The Tao of TALC (Office). The Astronomy Learning Center (TALC) on campus runs large, collaborative "watering holes" where students gather to work on their homework in an informal, open setting. While I did not duplicate their very successful center, I did adopt some of their strategies for my own office hours. The most significant was to let the students drive as much as possible. It's so easy to lapse into lecturer mode when a student asks an innocent question, like "I don't understand ____". TALC suggests biting your tongue, avoiding the chalk, and instead spending your efforts supporting the inner teacher in the other students. You act more as a facilitator between the confused student and their "peer instructors." Once one student has explained the answer, you ask a second student to give an "instant replay" for the benefit of all. You are allowed to step in for a "slow motion instant replay" when appropriate, but only as a last resort. There are other subtle points TALC mentions, like standing within a group (not in front), avoiding getting bogged down with a single question or individual, and having the "driver" recap whenever a student joins in the middle of a discussion. One role I sometimes assume is that of a very confused student. I'll sit in the back and ask very fundamental questions and all the students in the room act as a single entity to explain things to me.

Slip Days (Projects). The tired "my dog ate my homework" excuse probably isn't used much anymore, but I've certainly heard my share of "the network / system / RAID / database was down." These are a thing of the past, thanks to slip days. Slip days are one-day virtual tokens (students are usually given three at the start of a term) that can be used to grant themselves a single day's extension for any homework or project deadline. They could have a single day's extension for three assignments, save them up to use all three at once, or anything in-between. Our submission script automatically keeps track of how many slip days they've used to date, so there's no extra bookkeeping overhead. Whenever someone approaches with a sob story when they're clearly fishing for an extension, one can cut them off and suggest they use a slip day token.

K. Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004.
R. Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members, Allyn & Bacon, Needham Heights, MA, 2000.
B. G. Davis, Tools for Teaching, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 1993.
W. J. McKeachie, Mckeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, 2005.
D. Royce, Teaching Tips for College and University Instructors: A Practical Guide, Allyn & Bacon, Needham Heights, MA, 2000.

1CS, Duke University
2CS, Stanford University
3CS, University of Washington