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Mark Miyashita


Student, Software Engineer, Teacher, Aspiring Entrepreneur

Lab Assistant Tips

Here are some tips and tricks of things that I’ve learned over the years about teaching (with an emphasis on helping out in labs, discussions, and office hours). These are not official and are solely my opinion.

  1. It’s okay to not always know the answer. Something that lab assistants often struggle with at the beginning is being afraid of not knowing the right answer every single time. Relax, you’re not expected to. When the situation does come up, it’s always better to be honest and straight-forward with the student. They would much rather hear that they asked a good question rather than finding out later that you gave them a wrong answer. Just politely tell them that you’re not 100% sure and that you will get back to them either later in that lab or in the next lab. One method is that you can try to figure out the answer with them. Other option is that you can go look up the answer, learn something new, and then let them know what you learned next time you see them. Either way works depending on the type of student that you’re working with.

  2. Try to walk around the lab and not get stuck standing in one place waiting for hands to go up. Some students will be very active and will raise their hand as soon as they have a question. Others will wait for a TA or lab assistant to walk by in order to ask their question. If you don’t walk around, you limit the opportunities that a student will be able to grab you for a second and ask their question.

  3. Don’t touch the keyboard (or the mouse)! One thing that lab assistants realize is that as soon as they touch the keyboard for the student, they begin fixing the problem and the student has no idea what you did to fix it. It’s always better to have them “steer” (use the keyboard) while you “drive” (by explaining to them what you would do instead of actually doing it). That way, they’ll have a good understanding of what you just did together, and you’ll also have a better understanding becuase you just had to explain the concept to someone else which is always a lot harder than fixing it yourself. Trust me on this one. One method that I find very useful is just keeping my hands clasped behind my back, that way I’m not tempted to touch the keyboard or the mouse.

  4. Try not to be condescending (and realize when you accidentally are). It’s easy to get frusturated when you’ve explained a concept over and over again and a student just isn’t understaning or making that one connection that will lead to a better understanding. Just take a deep breath and calm down. One of the worst experiences for a student is being talked to like they are a child just because they aren’t understanding something. Try not to do this. If you find that you are having trouble helping a particular student with a particular topic, try explaining it from a different perspective with a different example and if that doesn’t work, see if there is another lab assistant or TA around who can help.

  5. Kneel down when you are helping in lab. This goes along with the keyboard one. For me, it’s better if I kneel down so that I’m at eye level with the students instead of looking down at them while they’re sitting down. This is just a personal thing, but I thought I’d mention it here.

  6. Use whiteboards whenever possible. Drawing diagrams is always a helpful way in solving most problems. If you’re working on a functions problem, try drawing an environment diagram for the student. Or, better yet, have them draw it! When we get to object oriented programming, drawing a little “object” with it’s attributes will help with inheritance. Box and pointer diagrams (remember those?) are usefull for Rlists, streams, etc. Also, if you’re working on a problem on one of the boards, chances are some other students are stuck on the same problem and will come up to watch what you’re doing.

  7. Encourage students to work together. If two students sitting next to each other are having the same problem, have them work together to try to figure out the answer. Just helped a student with that same question? Have the student that you just helped help out the next student with the same question. Let them know that being able to explain something to another person is the best indicator of mastery of a subject. If they can explain something to another student then they successfully understand the topic! This really comes into play when you are helping out in office hours (especially before a project or homework); getting students to work together in groups will make your life (and their lives) easier.

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