April 10, 2008

Thoughts on tutoring

My tutoring schedule runs one week on, one week off. This week is on, and so it’s pretty teaching intensive, which means PhD write-ups tend to drop off for a few days as I use my energy towards teaching

Part of the problem work wise is that I’m teaching a fourth year course (Computer Vision). Despite how good you think you know the material it’s always hard to teach a third year or above course as the material is never trivial. You invariably have to relearn things and then think about how to explain them. In my case I have to learn some things for the first time, as most of my computer vision knowledge was self-taught for the purposes of my research and I’ve focused on the areas I need.

My favourite subject to teach/tutor is second year algorithms and data structures. There’s usually an equivalent in every computer science course. It’s one of the first purely computer sciencey subjects a student will learn after getting to grips with a programming language. As a topic it’s also the sort of thing a good programmer will already need to know for their work, so it’s a breeze to refresh on the theory. You can then concentrate on figuring out the best way of teaching it to students, which is the fun part.

I’ve tutored first year introduction to programming classes too, and while the subject matter is easy the teaching is a lot harder. The problem is that if you’ve been programming for a while you most likely cannot remember what it was like when you first learnt a language, and with programming its one of these things where student go through stages where they need a flash of insight to get from “just don’t get it” to “now I do”. But if you’ve been programming for a while or from a young age you just can’t remember what the bits were you don’t get, as you’ve been breaking problems down into programs all your life. It’s like teaching early algebra to kids (something I’ve also done); it’s really hard to understand exactly why the students are having trouble because you’ve been using letters to replace numeric unknowns for as long as you can remember.

I’ve also been out of the teaching schtick for a while, so my voice isn’t up to the task. On the weeks I’ve got on, I tend to be talking nearly non-stop, and as a generally quiet individual my vocal chords aren’t geared to that kind of use. By the weekend I’ll have probably lost my voice again. Good thing most of what I do tends not to require it.

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