Making a case for Teaching Assistants

After two decades in school, probably the most significant of my frustrations is knowledge gap. There are things I failed to pick up here and there due to several reasons ranging from having skipped a class to having skipped the class where the pre-requisites were discussed. More often than not this goes unnoticed because the stuff never comes up again; rather it never comes up in a test. On the contrary, when it does come up in the future, either in the form of a question in a quiz, or during a discussion among friends, it almost always quickly gets resolved when someone explains it.

A variant of the above scenario has been playing out throughout my life with the role of someone played by my peers — I look at my parents as my peers as well because the setting is informal (not simply because we’re working towards the same goal: my success). There are plenty of studies that suggest learning from peers is one of the most efficient forms of learning, and that people learn better from someone who doesn’t have authority over them. This is widely attributed to the success of Massively Open Online Course platforms like Coursera, and edX.

Having taken advantage of teaching assistants, and also having experienced being one, led me to wonder why this model is not popular back home in India. With that in mind, I am going to try and make a case for introducing the TA/Office hours model in my alma mater. [I write this with CEG in mind, but I see no reason why other institutions cannot also adopt this model. In fact, I believe this is a reasonable model that would work everywhere.]

  • There are qualified students, several of whom are interested in helping their peers learn.
  • CEG is one of the handful of colleges in the state of Tamil Nadu which follows a credit based schedule (i.e.) there is enough time to accommodate office hours in between classes.
  • It is time we addressed the fact that classroom instruction is in itself not sufficient. I believe office hours are an excellent way of dealing with students who are otherwise not motivated enough to ask questions in class.
  • Office hours with peers are particularly important because sometimes an alternate perspective really clears things up.
  • We can finally move out of a test based curriculum to a problem set based curriculum. Reform has to start somewhere.
  • Expanding on the previous point, tests make it ridiculously easy to plan 11th hour work. Problem sets would keep students engaged through the semester in chunks, and also make them spend more time with the material.
  • I got my first job (a part time job) when I was 22. I think being a TA would be a really good way for someone to get into the workforce, and perhaps learn to manage money.
  • Ultimately, we can address the problem of poor instructors. If institutions can’t avoid hiring poor instructors, at least presenting ways to circumvent the problem would benefit students.

It might seem hypocritical for me to have coasted through the 4 years and suggest measures to provide more work, but looking back I feel I would have immensely benefited from this model. I know for sure that sooner or later this model will be adopted. I say this because we’ve been aping the west (in this case for better) but not soon enough. I think it would be a really interesting experiment to try — may be trying it first with an intro to programming class and take it from there. If there ever is a win-win model, this is certainly a good candidate, in my opinion.