What can the Undergrads teach you?

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @kipunsam.daily

Being a teacher’s assistant (TA) can be hard work. As a TA you’re a font of knowledge, the solution to their problems and the keeper of their GPA. You’re also figuring out things as you go, putting out fires as they happen (hopefully figuratively!) and generally trying to keep up the aura of authority. So whether you are lecturing in a seminar, running tutorials or supervising a lab, like me, it’s as much as learning experience as a teaching experience.

So what have my students taught me? Well, I think you learn different things depending on what kind of teaching you are doing. Fannie described her experience leading seminars and I can only speak to my experience as a TA for a lab course, but here are a few lessons I’ve learned. (more…)

Styles of teaching: a typology of teaching assistants based on the TV series “Scrubs”


Characters from the show “Scrubs”.
Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrubs_%28TV_series%29

This week they start again: “conferences”, which, in the Arts Faculty lingo, refer to smaller classes that give undergraduates the opportunity to discuss course readings and assignments. These conferences are led by teaching assistants, usually graduate students from the relevant faculty, who guide discussions and answer questions.

Conferences can be pretty demanding, and how TAs cope with the vagaries of teaching life varies. Having been a TA for a while, I have come to realise (imagine?) that the various “types” of TAs around match the wide variety of characters that the relatively famous (and brilliant!) American medical comedy series “Scrubs” puts on display. The series’ characters are all odd in their own ways, much like us TAs, and all get to teach doctors more junior than them, a task they carry out in a variety of styles. So, want to know what kind of TA you are (or have in front of you)? Read on for an introduction to the staff of the hospital! (pardon: the university).


Teaching: it’s not a paycheck, it’s a responsibility

Me (left), sorting through aquatic arthropod specimens with some ecology students at Lac-Saint-Louis

I’ve been extremely fortunate to be a teaching assistant throughout my graduate career, both as a Master’s student and here at McGill where I have been leading introductory zoology (Organisms II) and ecology (St Lawrence Ecosystems) labs.

Teaching – working with, supporting, and learning from students – is something I love to do.It’s a big part of the reason I decided to quit my old desk job and pursue an academic career. I get a real kick out of seeing students get excited about course content, watching them have “aha!” moments when a new concept finally clicks, or hearing them say, “thanks for your help”. (more…)

Gradlife: Being a Teaching Assistant (TA) at McGill

Georges Choundohas helping two students

Being a TA forms an integrated part of my life as a grad student and has been one among my best and most cherished memories at Macdonald Campus. Though some considered doing the same course repeatedly over semesters boring, every semester felt like a completely new and enriching experience for me for a number of reasons:
1. New minds to shape with group of students exhibiting different pre-cognitive perceptions
2. It is stimulating to observe how new students familiarize themselves with laboratory settings and enhance their skills as the labs grow progressively more challenging.
3. Most of the times, this experience is rewarding with students saying or giving Thank You cards at the end stating how happy they’ve been to experience the Biochemistry Labs.

The twins

Interestingly, this semester, a new lab was designed and incorporated in the biochemistry lab manual – DNA Extraction. Simple in the process, part of the lab involved crushing strawberries and using kitchen chemicals such as liquid soap, water and sea salt as extraction buffer to coax DNA from its confinements.

Though sceptical at first that DNA can be extracted from strawberries with simple kitchen chemicals, at the end of the lab, the students were beaming as the thin, thread-like DNA aggregated in the ethanol layer. Excited comments resounded in the usually quiet lab:

“Oh My God, there’s DNA…?”

“I guess it’s the soap which has maybe weakened the phospholipid bilayer of the cell membrane…what could be the role of salt?”

“I can’t believe this is DNA…”

“It’s so gel-like …”

For me, it has been equally exciting to observe students standing at the realms of their own “discovery” with eyes glittering in awe, and brains actively trying to locate the how and why of biochemical processes.

As far as I can remember, while I walked down the lab answering questions, instructing good laboratory techniques and verifying results, boring has never been my sentiments. Though it is with great sadness I’m saying adieu to my cherished biochemistry labs and warm animal science department, these labs will always hold a special place in my heart as because of my TA experiences, I discovered my passion to shape young minds in science and I am looking forward to carry research in making science education more accessible for all students…

I hope being a TA has transformed your life too.

Neerusha Gokool Baurhoo

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