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The Joy of Tutorials

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The Joy of Tutorials

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									The Joy of Tutorials

The Joy of Tutorials
OR

Sharing the art of finding mirth and abundant joy in the noble endeavor of teaching, without getting overly disencombobulated when perilous exigencies arise due to unforeseen circumstances rearing their distasteful heads, by one who has immersed himself body, mind and soul in this delightful environment for a number of years By Colin Tan ctank@comp.nus.edu.sg
1. Introduction This is a transcript of a talk I had meant to give at the Teaching Methodology Seminar on 5 November 2001, had I not been felled by bad crab meat. The title you see above is the original title of my talk, which Gary had rather unceremoniously shortened to “The Joy of Tutorials”. The subtitle (the portion after the “OR”) doesn’t actually mean anything; it’s just padding to make my talk look smarter than it really is. You will see that this practice is common especially in books written during the early 20th century. This talk is targeted at my new Teaching Assistant colleagues. This transcript is going to be expanded a little (maybe more than a little), since I’m no longer constrained by the 25 minutes that was given to me, so now I’m free to be as verbose as I want to be *8=). I won’t pretend to be able to teach you anything new today, but I will share with you the myriad insights I have gained over the last couple of years working here in SoC. This talk is meant to be light-hearted, but if I come across as arrogant or too much of a smart-aleck, remember than 80% of my message is being lost by the fact that you are reading me rather than listening to me, and that you cannot see the expressions that I am trying to convey. Before we begin, remember the wise words of one who is possibly the most unsung philosopher of all times, Austin Osman Spare: Nothing is true, all is permitted. In other words, don’t believe anything I say but try it out for yourself, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Here is yet another pearl of wisdom, this time from yours truly: If the crabmeat doesn’t smell too good, it’s not edible. 1

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2. Gene ral Tips for Public Speaking One of the most obvious aspects of our job is that we’re public speakers. We stand in front of groups of 20, sometimes more, and we try our best not to baffle our audience, the students. Some pointers I’ve found useful include: i) Mind Your England

For better or for worse, most of the University has chosen to make English not just the primary medium of instruction, but the sole medium of instruction. This means that it doesn’t matter how good your Hokkien or Singlish is, only English is officially acceptable. And unless you plan to teach your computer science or information systems topics solely to Japanese Studies students, even an impressive mastery of Japanese won’t cut it. If we’re going to communicate effectively with our students we’re going to have to do a little work to ensure that we can express ourselves as clearly as possible in that mish-mash of languages that we call English. There are many ways in which we can improve our grasp of the English language, but the best way I’ve found is by reading a lot of books outside of Computer Science, particularly in the humanities. For some reason people in the humanities speak and write really good English, better than most of us Computer Scientists, and if you immerse yourself in their writings and attend their talks, some of it is bound to rub off on you. My favourite humanities fields are psychology and religion, and I’ve found books written by authors like Carl Gustav Jung (“Boundaries of the Soul”, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”) and Morton Kelsey (“Adventure Inwards”, “The Other Side of Silence”) extremely helpful in improving my command of the language. Magazines like Newsweek and Time are good too, but I’ve found many local magazines to be quite atrocious. To give you an idea, this passage came from a local automotive newspaper. The article was about the new Lexus LS 430. And From a really big car that has garnered a huge reputation but is far smaller in physical dimensions. No, I’m not quoting a part of a paragraph, I’m quoting an entire paragraph that just seems to be fragmentary. “Smaller in physical dimensions”? We’re talking about a 2,350 kilogram car! I’ve not seen very many cars that are “larger in physical dimension”. Oh, wait, they meant “smaller” in terms of “physically less pleasant looking”. Yet another local magazine consistently misspelled “retro” as “retor” throughout an entire 2 page article. My point here is that you do have to be a little more discerning in choosing the materials you read, because some materials could actually set your English back. Don’t rely on the grammar checker in Microsoft Word either.

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Incidentally you should discern the good English from the bad even in this transcript; I am after all not a humanities major, so I have terrible English too. ii) Imitate, imitate, imitate I’ve found it tremendously helpful to choose positive examples of great public speakers, watch how they speak, then imitate them. Some people I’ve found inspiring include the late Dr. Sung Kah Kay, Prof. Hsu Loke Hsu who has since retired, Prof. Tan Chew Lim, Dr. Gary Tan, Mr. Aaron Tan, and of course my most amicable supervisor Prof. Lua Kim Teng. Other inspiring speakers include our grande savant par excellence Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. In particular watch how he handles questions, sometimes abrasive ones, from his audience or from reporters. By “imitate” I don’t mean that if you see a good speaker habitually picking his teeth while talking, you should pick your teeth too. Nor should you mimic his every movement from day to night, because he will get very cross with you when he realizes what you are doing. Rather I’ve found it useful to analyze what is it about this person I like (clarity, kindness, loudness etc.), and then I work in these things that I like into my own presentation style. So then what you see of me is not any particular speaker I admire, but an amalgamation of the speakers I like and my own peculiar style. iii) Avoid, avoid, avoid

Just as you might have lecturers and speakers who inspire you to dreams of oratory greatness, we often encounter speakers who by all appearances desire to inspire us to greater depths of sleep. Don’t write them off too quickly though, because they provide us with great negative examples of the habits and affectations that we want to avoid. For example, if upon reading what I’ve written you decide that I’m much too boring, then learn to summarize what you want to say. If you find a particular speaker annoying because he talks down to his audience, or because he mumbles to t e ceiling, then you will do h well to ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes. iv) Take your Training Courses Seriously

If you have not already attended the Teaching Assistant course or the Induction Program organized by the Center for the Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL), then I would like to re-assure you that these courses are important to you and that you should not view them as a waste of time. I learnt a fair bit about facilitating discussions, delivering talks and managing classes from t ese courses. If you should be lucky enough to be nominated for h these courses, take them very seriously. At the end you will accumulate the

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The Joy of Tutorials seeds of what you need to be an effective tutor, and add to that you will also get a very cool certificate and a very handy clipboard. 3. Getting Ready for Tutorials So now that you’ve found your positive and negative role models, read the complete works of Jung, Shakespeare and Marlowe three times, attended your courses, joined the Toast Masters’ Club, followed our venerable Senior Minister everywhere while evading the ever-growing suspicion of his bodyguards, it’s time for you to get down to work on what you’re hired to do: teach. But before we appear in class we will need to prepare ourselves: i) Do your tutorials

Will be helpful if tutor reads up more before coming. -- Actual comment from one teaching evaluation I had. It’s a reality that students are not the only people who have to do tutorials; we TAs have to do our share of tutorials too. While most Course Coordinators will provide a model-solution to you before the tutorial, I’ve found it helpful to actually attempt the tutorial myself before looking at the model solutions. This gives me insight on the difficulties the students might encounter doing the tutorials, but more importantly it gives me depth in understanding the model solution, and to spot any mistakes before they end up on the classroom whiteboard. We’re all humans who make mistake, and Course Coordinators, as omniscient as they might be, are no exception when it comes to preparing model solutions. They might make fewer mistakes than us mortals, but they do make some mistakes. ii) Rehearse Your First Class

One of the least satisfying and least fair truths of our profession is that the first tutorial we conduct is never up to par. I call this the “first-class effect”, which I define to be the phenomenon where we make the most mistakes and tell the least useful and most confusing things during the very first tutorial that we hold each week. Subsequent tutorials do get better, but I always feel a twinge of regret that I missed sharing some insight with my first class, simply because I picked up those insights too late. There is no way to avoid the “firstclass effect”, but we can minimize it by mentally going t rough what we want h to say before going for tutorial. There is no need to book an auditorium or cajole your friends into being your mock audience for your rehearsal, but you will probably find it useful to note briefly on your tutorial sheet the salient points you wish to bring up in class, and the questions you want to ask your students (more about this later).

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iii)

It’s Alright to Be Nervous

I have taken various classes since 1997, but till today, four years later in 2001, I’m still nervous before tutorials, especially with classes I have never taught before. This is a natural reaction to having to face many critical and highly intelligent undergraduates, and even Dale Carnegie once said: If you are as cool as a cucumber before a talk, you are most likely going to be as interesting as one. So being nervous isn’t bad at all. The trick here is not to allow your nervousness to creep into your lessons, because the students can sense your nervousness and begin to doubt your capability to lead and facilitate the class. If you find your nervousness overwhelming, deep rhythmic breathing exercises like this one helps (learnt this from my Teaching Assistant course organized by CDTL): a) b) c) d) e) Breathe in slowly to the count of 6. Hold your breath to the count of 4. Breathe out slowly to the count of 6. Hold to the count of 4. Repeat (a) to (d) until you feel better.

Other psychological aids help too, like chanting “Om mani padme hum” if you are Buddhist, “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” if you are a Christian, or some other sacred equivalent from any religion you follow, like Islam or Hinduism. If you are atheist, a koan like “The more I own the less I have” or even “The sky is a big purple butterfly” might help. The point here is to distract your mind from your nervousness. Alternatively you can close your eyes for 20 minutes and escape to your own fantasyland, with waterfalls and running streams, beautiful flowers and a sun that shines without scorching. Oh, and avoid caffeine a few hours before tutorial time. 4. Conducting Tutorials You are now standing in front of your class, and 20 or more very eager pairs of eyes are set on you, while one or two other pairs are closed in deep contemplation (or sleep). This is your class, you are now the boss. This is your world for as long as you remain an academic staff member in a university. Some things I’ve learned about managing this world of tutorials include:

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i)

Project Your Voice

There is nothing more annoying to a student than a tutor s/he cannot hear, so try to remember to project your voice. This is easy with practice, and the key thing here is to look straight, don’t slouch, breathe deep, and speak from your stomach. I don’t actually know how to describe this, except that instead of trying to generate your voice using only your throat, you should also take a deep breath and breathe out while speaking. Did that make sense? CDTL periodically conducts classes on voice control as well, so you might want to attend them if your students say that they cannot hear you. Don’t overdo this one though; one student wrote this of me last semester: Tutor’s voice is so loud that we don’t dare to sit in the front row. ii) Construct, don’t teach

Tutor encourages students for discussion during tutorials -- Comment from student Our role here is (surprise!) not to teach the students per se, but to facilitate discussion between the students and to help them to construct their own solutions. This may sound insane given that we have more tutorial questions than time, but it really does benefit the students and many of them do appreciate it. Don’t tell the students the answers, but rather ask them questions to help them to arrive at the answers. The questions that you had planned earlier in your rehearsal will come in very useful here. If any of your students asks you anything, turn his question into a discussion by re-directing it to the entire class. This is a lot harder than it sounds, because most students in SoC do tend to be rather reserved, while other students tend to dominate the classes. To cope with this problem I try to encourage shy students to speak up by looking directly at them (it works if they are not too shy), asking a particular student to give his or her views (helps if you know all their names) while at the same time tactfully declining answers from students who have dominated the tutorial too often (“Yes, thank you for your contribution. Let’s hear from another one of you what you think”). iii) Compliment, then correct

If a student (particularly a shy one) contributes a wrong answer, don’t be too quick to correct him or her, because that might discourage the student. One particular lecturer still with us in SoC has a very good way of dealing with wrong answers. He’d first compliment the student by saying something like “Yes, that’s a very good answer”, and then proceed to gently correct him or

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The Joy of Tutorials her by saying “It would be correct if we assumed < insert wrong assumption here that created wrong solution>. However, we learnt that < insert correct assumption here>, so if this is the case, how would you modify your answer?” His style of tutorial was sensitive and encouraging, and my classmates and I didn’t feel too bad or foolish about making mistakes. iv) Be sensitive

Speaking of sensitive and encouraging lecturers, it’s also important for us to be sensitive to our students. For example, in one particular tutorial a tutor ( It wasn’t me – Shaggy) used the phrase “no-brainer” to show that a tutorial question was particularly easy to do. A student (mis)interpreted “no-brainer” to mean that the tutor thought that this student had no brains, and complained to the course coordinator. Needless to say this was a completely unnecessary episode that could’ve been avoided if the tutor had been more careful with his choice of words. Humor is excellent in tutorials, but again be sensitive. I found out recently (recently here means after September 11 2001) that jokes about airliners and skyscrapers are funny to some, but completely unfunny to others. v) Don’t Be Afraid of Mistakes

As I had said earlier, we all make mistakes, so don’t be afraid if you do make a mistake during tutorials. The important thing here is not to make too many mistakes, and most of all to correct the mistake as quickly as possible. So if in one tutorial you asserted with all conviction, supported by impeccable logic that it is a bad idea to put live toads in your mouth, but later discover that it actually gives you great breath and complexion (thus making it a good idea after all), then by all means possible correct yourself over email or at the next tutorial. Likewise don’t be afraid not to know the answer to a question posed by a student. If, after re-directing, you are still not able to produce a solution, apologize, promise to check with the lecturer, and then present the answer in the next tutorial. 5. After Tutorials I’ve found that despite my repeated encouragements many students are still too shy to raise questions during tutorials. These students, and I know that you will meet them, will often come to talk to you after the tutorial. So unless you have a really pressing engagement after your class, mingle around with your students until they have all left in case anyone wants to talk to you.

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6. The Parts of Ten We have finally come to the end of this talk, and I would like to close up by talking about some things that don’t seem to fit anywhere else (“Parts of Ten” is a fancy way of saying “miscellaneous topics”): i) Manage your Time Properly

You have no chance to survive make your time -- Cats, in Zero Wing, an excellent counter-example of how to speak English. This is a skill that I have yet to learn, and my lack of time-management ability is probably my greatest weakness. But nonetheless we aren’t in this university merely to teach, but also to fulfill other roles like that of doing research or helping out in some other way. In any case, you will find yourself having to balance your time between your social life, marking assignments, arranging consultation times with your students and actually teaching classes, so you do need to learn to manage your time properly. Books like “Time Management for Dummies” might be useful. What I would like to emphasize especially at this point is that if you are a research student, please do not neglect your research. Make it a point to spend at least 2 hours a day or more doing your research. Lock yourself up in your room if you have to; these 2 hours are sacrosanct and no one should interrupt you while you are in your research time-slot. Disconnect your PC from the network if you have to. If a student wants to talk to you during this time slot, courteously suggest another time, on the same day if possible. Ignore this at your own peril; I did, and got the following letter from the School (reproduced verbatim): Dear Mr. Tan, PhD (By Research) Programme: Warning of Academic Performance I refer to the recent review of academic performance for all postgraduate research students in the School of Computing. In reviewing your progress, the review committee has expressed concern that your research contribution, thus far, has been minimal. We would like to remind you that a reasonable level of progress in research work is expected from all postgraduate research students. We hope that you will strive hard to improve your research work from now on.

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We look forward to hearing positive news from you and your advisory committee during the next semester’s review. Yours truly,

(Particulars of signatory deleted to protect those doing their job)

This letter is the result of no one’s fault but my own, so if you are also a postgraduate student with dreams of attaining a higher degree, don’t neglect your research work. ii) Managing Frequent Consultations

Bother bother bother. Oh bother! -- Winnie the Pooh If you find that you have to repeat yourself many many times with different groups of students seeking consultation from you, it helps a lot if you put up a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page on your own website, and to encourage your students to look at the FAQ before coming to see you. I’ve never done this before so I cannot assert with any measure of confidence its effectiveness, but it’s a strategy that seems to make sense. The alternative is to hold special “help sessions” for your classes where you can go over all the points that students find difficult. Properly conducted, a help-session is highly effective in reducing the number of people coming to ask you the same question.

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iii)

Have Fun

Our life is over like a sigh. Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain. They pass swiftly and we are gone. -- Psalm 89(90) As a parting shot allow me to emphasize something that many of us seem to have forgotten: Do your best in your work, but don’t forget to have fun! There are no courses, no books, no amount of talks by allegedly good Teaching Assistants and no one who can help you to be a great tutor if you hate your job, and if you see tutoring as a boring and dead thing that you do simply to earn some money while studying for your postgraduate degree. No one will doubt that there is great fun in leading a whole class of eager undergraduates in their quest for knowledge, but even uncooperative classes can present a learning opportunity for you. At the very least you can make it a personal challenge to get these classes to get into the swing of the lessons! One particularly difficult class I had some years back loosened up when I said “Don’t be like that leh, you are here for a tutorial, not for a funeral”. They got more cooperative that day, and from that day onwards. So no matter what, always maintain a positive attitude when you conduct your classes, projecting your enthusiasm on your students, and I guarantee that you will have a fulfilling teaching career here in SoC!

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