CSC148 Head TA Experience: UTM
I’ve had the pleasure of working as the Head Teaching Assistant at the University of Toronto Mississauga for CSC148 (Introduction to Computer Science) in winter 2021 under the coordination of Professor Larry Zhang. In this article, I’ll describe the system I created for running labs.
Labs were a 2-hour slot. Every lab had three teaching assistants, and around 70 students enrolled. I had access to lab solutions and pre-made quizzes. The lab component of the course is ungraded. We used Blackboard Collaborate (BB collab) to run the lab activity.
I wanted to create a lab that would:
- Allow students to get their questions resolved
- Be Fun
- Allow students to collaborate and work together
- Not be awkward
I spent a few weeks before the course planning the structure. I talked with Larry and a few other TAs about the organization and delivery of the labs. By taking advantage of the positive features of online and in-person labs, we came up with the following system:
- Create the maximum number of breakout rooms allowed in BB collab (20) and allow students to switch between breakout rooms.
- Allow students to work in groups in rooms 1–16
- Set TAs at breakout rooms 17, 18, and 19 to answer questions. There was at least one TA in these breakout rooms at all times throughout the lab.
- Make breakout room 20 a quiet breakout room for people who prefer to work individually.
- At the start of the second hour of the lab, we played a Kahoot with the students. The Kahoots were made based on the lecture content of the current week.
- Following the Kahoot, students had 20 minutes to work on the quiz activity provided to them, to simulate a test environment.
- Finally, we went over the quiz with the students and finished the lab.
To encourage students to work together we created an official Discord for the course where they could talk and work together. The winners of the Kahoot received the “Kahoot winner” role in Discord.
I thoroughly enjoyed running the lab sessions with my fellow TAs, and our students enjoyed the system as well. We’ve always had groups of students who would work together in the breakout rooms. Everyone enjoyed the Kahoot, and students tried their best to win. Students took advantage of the breakout room system, and they often came to our breakout rooms and asked good questions about the lab. I’ve also noticed that the students who consistently completed all labs did well in the course, so I’d say the lab system helped keep the students on track.
One place for further improvement is changing the quizzes. This semester, we re-used the quizzes from the in-person offering of the course. While it worked fine, the pdf format doesn’t simulate online tests for students. I think it would’ve been better to convert the quizzes to .py files so they follow similar formats to our tests.
Moving to an online setup requires changing the way things worked in person, and taking advantage of the newly available features online. I am honoured to have been a second-year Head TA, and I’m looking forward to TAing more courses in the future.