First-year teaching experiences at Waterloo

A panel discussion held during the September 2013 Faculty of Mathematics teaching workshop raised some interesting points about first year teaching experiences at University of Waterloo. Here's a sample from:

Dan Lizotte, Computer Science (CS)

Background in teaching - I TA'd as a graduate student, with the odd guest lecture here and there. In Spring 2007 during my PhD I taught an "Introduction to Machine Learning" course at the University of Reykjavik in Iceland.

Biggest challenges I experienced in my first year of teaching - calibrating the difficulty of material. CS 136 is all about problem solving. The thing I found most difficult was trying to help students without giving too much away, particularly when they are working on assignments. Independent learning is one of the most wonderful things about computer science - students can have a genuine "a-ha!" moment where suddenly they "get" a problem. Figuring out what is blocking the "a-ha!" without taking that moment away from them is a difficult but important problem.

Best thing(s) that happened in my first year of teaching - struggling students trying hard, passing (barely sometimes) and still giving positive feedback.

Best piece of advice to a new instructor at Waterloo - learn about your support network. There are many units on campus (Library,
AccessAbility, and so on) that are dedicated to helping you and your
students with teaching and learning. Learn about the role they play so
that you know how they interact with you and you know how you can make use of them. It helps to have a senior faculty member to go to for help with this.

Martin Lysy, Statistics and Actuarial Science

Background in teaching prior to coming to UWaterloo - I took a year-long teaching class as a requirement for completing my PhD, followed by 6 semesters as a TA in several undergraduate and graduate classes. But that was all little league compared to teaching my first class of 150 students at Waterloo!

Biggest challenges I experienced in my first year of teaching - adjusting my material to the students' level. As an ambitious new faculty member, I wanted to challenge the students with "beautiful" problems that would reveal deeper connections between the topics we covered. However, this often resulted in weeks of me proving theorems on the board at which point the students had forgotten what the purpose of the theorem was. I also had to cancel a number of homework problems because they were simply impossible to do. My lowest moment was right after the midterm, which before (fastidious and painstaking) adjustment, had an average just below 40%. I had shown them steps one, two, three in class, and on the midterm I asked for step four. What was I expecting?!

Best thing(s) that happened in my first year of teaching - by far the best thing about teaching at Waterloo was the quality of the students. I like to think of students as being either 'teachable' or 'unteachable', based on two further binary subclassifications: smart/works hard (yes/no) and cares/wants to learn (yes/no). Only students with no-no are unteachable for me, and there were virtually none of those students in my class. Office hours were a pleasure, and especially instructive. That's were I learned most about which problems work and which ones don't, and what material from class was especially confusing. I am immensely grateful that most of them did not drop my class and continued to work hard till the end of the semester. Thanks to their continued input, I was able to come up with a final exam that was much more reasonable than the midterm. I consider their success on the final to be my own greatest success in teaching the class.

Best piece of advice to a new instructor at Waterloo - my advice is based on personal experience, which may or may not apply more generally. Besides, there are a multitude of effective ways of teaching which might vary depending on the course, the instructor, and of course the students. But if I had advice to give myself right before I started teaching, it would be:

Repeat to yourself over and over again: how can I teach this material so that the students will learn? In my case, this meant generally lowering the level of difficulty of the course, but specifically, I would have done a much better job if every week, I included a "bobo" problem in class or tutorials. Most of my students were able to start right from the second rung of the ladder, but I lost all those who needed that very first step. Your experience might be entirely different, but if your focus is less on the material itself but rather how the students absorb it, you will surely be an effective teacher in your individual way.

Yingli Qin, Statistics and Actuarial Science

Background in teaching - I taught in Singapore for two and half years before coming to Waterloo. One course I taught was "Clinical Trials" for third-year statistics major undergraduate students; the other was "Mathematical Statistics" for statistics major PhD students. During my last year of PhD study, I taught an introductory level statistics course to engineering major undergraduate students.

Biggest challenges I experienced in my first year of teaching - there are really smart and hardworking undergraduate students here at University of Waterloo. There are also students who come into my classroom without solid background in calculus and statistics. I found it really challenging to strike a balance for these two groups of students. If I spend much time reviewing background information before teaching new things, some students may think the background information is obvious, and they want you to focus on the "more" important topics. However, if I lightly touch the background information, there will be students who get lost even before I teach them the real thing.

Best things that happened in my first year of teaching - Cyntha has helped me a lot during my first term of teaching, including offering me advice on writing the course outline, scheduling assignments and exams, and also communicating with the students. The Department of Statistics & Actuarial Science also has some very helpful information which helps new faculty members prepare their teaching more effectively.

Several students who did well in my class told me in person that they learned a lot and they have very strong interest in statistics. Later on, they applied for the master's program at the University of Waterloo and accepted the offers from our department.

Best piece of advice to a new instructor at Waterloo - talk to your TA's at the beginning of a term, and schedule and assign duties fairly among them. Then you can focus on teaching and preparing course material and let the TA's take care of grading and proctoring exams.

Ruodu Wang, Statistics and Actuarial Science

Background in teaching prior to coming to Waterloo - I worked as a TA at Georgia Tech for three years and taught one first-year linear algebra course there.

Biggest challenges I experienced in my first year of teaching:

  1. switch of discipline. I was educated in a math program and the audience at Waterloo is actuarial science students.
  2. Management of large classrooms. At first it was difficult.

Best thing(s) that happened in my first year of teaching - the students eventually got to like me.

Best piece of advice to a new instructor at Waterloo:

  1. prepare clear notes, and
  2. show the students that you care about them.