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What I learned as a Teaching Assistant

By Ramona Neferu, 4th-year Engineering Chemistry student

For two years, I have been a teaching assistant for a first year engineering course where students design a product or service for a local organization. This experience has made me become more critical of myself as a student, and I would like to share a few things I’ve learned:

1. Teaching others is a great way to retain information:

As part of my contract, I had to teach a few workshops on physics concepts. Because I chose to study Engineering Chemistry, I had not seen these concepts in more than two years. I found that I had to brush up on the material to an extensive degree to be able to teach it to others. By teaching others, I now have a much more solid grasp of the material because it has been engrained in my knowledge base.

Tip for students: When you’re studying for that exam that is very concept-heavy, try to teach someone else those concepts. This exercise consolidates your understanding of the subject by forcing you to retrieve those thoughts from your memory to organize them in a logical, coherent manner for someone else.

Use analogies to make connections and to help your listener understand the material and to help you remember it better. For example, if you are a Biology student trying to describe a metabolic process to your friend who studies English, finding a creative way to portray how a molecule is broken down in the body would be beneficial. For example, enzymes could be portrayed as monsters that strip away carbon atoms from a sugar molecule. The more ridiculous the story is, the more you will remember it later on an exam.

2. Asking good questions is a skill everyone should consolidate:

As the students I was teaching were explaining their design process to me, I found that at times, I could not follow their logic. Because each project is different, it was tempting to pretend to understand their logic and move on to other activities. However, this approach would be risky when it came to the project’s safety in later stages. As such, I had to listen very actively and ask necessary questions to be able to direct and guide the students appropriately.

Asking questions as a teaching assistant was necessary. But soon I realized that asking questions as a student is just as necessary to get the most out of our university experience. As students, we are in class to learn, so we should make use of our opportunities to ask as many questions as needed. This skill is also valuable in the workplace, grad school, or wherever we will end up after university.

For most people, asking questions is not easy. “What if it’s a silly question?”, “What if the professor just explained it?” are some of the thoughts that race through our minds when we want to ask a question in class. However, other students are often relieved when someone works up the courage to speak up and ask for clarification. Also, the general consensus from professors is that when they’re asked questions, they feel that students are more engaged with the material.

To ease your worries that the question might sound “silly”, here are some tips:

1)   Arrive to class on time! Then you won’t be wondering whether the professor just explained that concept and you missed it by being late to class.

2)   Practice active listening. Put away all distractions like your phone or open tabs on the Internet. Sit near the front of the room, and take notes as the professor is teaching. This will keep you focused and will avoid zoning out. Smile and nod if appropriate, as this will keep you engaged in the lesson. You can then be confident that your question is valid and has not been explained a few minutes ago while you were zoning out.

3)   Practice asking questions in a coherent and logical manner. The way you present yourself matters, so speak clearly and logically when framing the question. Show that you’ve thought of possible solutions to show you have made an effort to understand the problem. This will also give the listener some context into how you’re approaching the question. Most importantly, smile, be confident, and enjoy the learning process.

Best of luck!

Photo courtesy of Chase Elliott Clark under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.