On the first day of class, the small classroom was crowded with fresh faces, most of which I’ve never seen before. When the professor started his lecture, I sat in the corner and looked at the students—some looked curious and carefully taking note, others starred at the blackboard with a slight frown, and a few seemed overwhelmed by the abstract concepts that the professor just introduced. I had never carefully observed a whole class of students before. But this time, I sat in the classroom like a bystander because I am not one of them.
This semester, I become one of the Teaching Assistants (TA) for Intermediate Mathematical Economics, a course that I took with the same professor last year. My job is to help students with Matlab (a computer programming language) and homework problems. This is not only my first on-campus job, but also my first time participating in a course from a brand new perspective.
I am no longer the one who learn new course materials, but the one to help others learn. I am no longer the one who struggle with computer programming to solve homework problems, but the one to help those who are struggling. I am no longer the one who ask all kinds of questions from how to solve an equation to how to prepare for the exams, but the one to answer those questions. To be honest, as free as I am from the many worries as a student, a teaching assistant’s job brings me a host of unpredictable challenges.
One of the biggest challenges is to teach students who have never learned computer programming before to use Matlab. The professor focuses on teaching economic concepts in class, so it is us –the TAs – who teach students the practical tools for doing homework. During the first week, many students came to me with the newly downloaded app on their laptops, hoping for some guidance. I know how to use Matlab myself, but how should I introduce a new programming language to students in the easiest, simplest way that also includes all the useful knowledge they need to solve homework problems?
Faced with these questions, I tried to find answers from my own experience last year as a student. As a beginner who barely had any programming background, I found the programming environment completely new when I opened the app for the first time, so this time I first helped the students get familiar with the environment. Last year, I was also overwhelmed by many Matlab functions that seemed abstract without a specific context, so this time, I used more concrete and simple examples. I also remembered getting confused while reading the professor’s sample script for the first time. So this time, I explained to the students in detail every step the professor did in his program. This way, I drew lessons from my own experience to teach others to use Matlab.
In addition to programming skills, I also draw upon my own experience to encourage students. One day, a girl asked me how to do well on this course. She seemed a little nervous because she had never used Matlab before but she really wanted to take this course. I looked into her curious but anxious face as if I saw myself last year. I had the same fears and anxieties when I did this course last year and I had even thought about giving up. However, it turned out that I not only made it, but also found it a rewarding experience. Thus, I gave her many genuine suggestions and encouraged her to keep going on and be confident of herself. I wasn’t sure if my experience also works for her, but when I saw her smile, I knew that she would stick to this course just like the way I did before.
Being a teaching assistant not only offers me a different perspective on the same course, but also requires me to put myself in the shoe of a student and constantly draw from my past experience. It’s not just about switching to a new perspective and abandoning the past one, but more about incorporating my past perspective as a student into my current position in order to do the best on my job.
Fang is a senior at Brown University. You can contact Fang Guo at firstname.lastname@example.org.