Becoming More Involved in Teaching (GAANN Report #3)

My desk at home. The only place I saw this semester.

Fall 2020 was my first fully online semester due to the pandemic (last semester was also online, but we had to transition from in-person to online partially through, which was also a challenging experience in itself). Here, I will reflect on the semester in terms of our goals and progress towards learning how to teach.

“Study without reflection is a waste of time; reflection without study is dangerous.”

–A Chinese Proverb

My plan for the Fall 2021 semester included:

♥ Conduct problem sessions in ITCS 6150/8150.
♥ Give a guest lecture in ITCS 6150/8150 class (Intelligent Systems) on Introduction to Data Mining.
♥ Prepare to co-teach the ITCS 3162 class (Introduction to Data Mining) in Spring ’21.
♥ Complete another teaching seminar course: ITSC 8665.
♥ Continue developing my personal website and teaching portfolio.
♥ Attend two CTL (Center for Teaching and Learning) Seminars and write a report reflecting on what I have learned.

Conduct problem sessions

This semester, I gained more experience as a teaching assistant to Dr. Ras’s Intelligent Systems course. Once again, I supported Yuehua in proctoring and grading exams and the project. I also helped add all the course content to Canvas and created submission areas for the exams and the project. I remembered the difficulty of keeping up with email submissions in the previous semester, and the use of Canvas greatly helped with both organization and returning grades to students quickly.

Along with this, I had the usual office hours to help any students with their questions or confusions. I then provided additional review sessions before each exam outside of the class time. When talking with some students, they seemed to struggle a little bit with the online format. However, working with them through all the problems on a virtual whiteboard (e.g., the one provided through Webex) seemed to help clear their confusions and help prepare them for the exams.

Give a Guest Lecture

I then had to prepare a guest lecture for the class to teach them topics on data mining. This was definitely an experience (a stressful, but good one) that taught me a lot. The class had been organized as a traditional, lecture-based one. When I started preparing for my lecture, I thought it would be interesting to try to give the students some hands-on experience with the material rather than simply demoing them.

I started off the lecture by talking about classification and decision trees. I explained the general idea and gave some examples, trying to get students to participate and answer questions throughout (it remained very quiet, unfortunately). Then I tried to be creative by giving them the activity I prepared. I gave a brief demo of the open-source data mining tool, Orange, and then began the activity. There was allotted time for the students to (1) download the tool, (2) look for a dataset, (3) make a decision tree, and then (4) interpret their trees. I provided each step at a time, mentioning the time given before we would come back as a group to discuss and move on to the next step together.

In this class, students followed along to lecture and then worked together through problem sets. It was rare for students to have their webcam on or to speak in the chat. I think this was something I was unprepared for and didn’t take into account beforehand. There were many times where I tried to ask students how they were doing in terms of the steps or to comment in the chat when they had finished. But it was a bit quiet and awkward in the silence (I can probably say that the 10 minutes where they were looking for their own dataset was one of the longest 10 minutes of my life).

After the activity, I continued to the rest of the lecture to discuss rule discovery strategies and worked through a problem by hand.

At the end, Dr. Ras provided some feedback. One of the biggest things I learned was about the emphasis on theoretical learning for the graduate courses versus more practical learning for undergraduate courses. I think I also overestimated the amount that students would engage with the material, and then didn’t know how to react when they weren’t participating. This is something I will definitely keep in mind in the future – to try to be prepared for different situations instead of just feeling stuck when things don’t go entirely as planned.

The slides I prepared for this class can be viewed here.

Prepare to Co-teach

Finally, I had to prepare to co-teach the undergrad Introduction to Data Mining course (ITCS 3162) in the Spring 2021 semester. For this, most of my efforts were done over the Winter Break and currently, as the Spring 2021 semester progresses. Right before the semester started, I uploaded the course material from Dr. Ras onto a Canvas page for the students and started reviewing them myself so I’d have more confidence with the material. I will also be creating course content and activities for my own lectures days, but will reflect on this more at the end of the Spring 2021 semester.

Teaching Seminar

This semester’s teaching seminar was led again by Dr. Maher. Rather than having group presentations like last time, the focus of this semester was to (1) create a CCI teaching assistant handbook, and (2) get more familiar with CS education research.

CCI Collected Wisdom: Handbook for TAs

For the teaching assistant handbook, my chapter was on Dealing Difficult Situations and Academic Integrity Violations. A list of all the chapters worked on can be viewed here.

When Dr. Maher first asked if I’d be willing to work on this chapter, I said yes a bit reluctantly. In the past, I hadn’t really enjoyed reading material on how to deal with academic integrity violations (though it is still very important to know how to handle). As I got more into learning about this topic myself, though, I found many resources and discussions that I wanted to include in my writing and share more with others. When discussing this topic previously, so much focus is often on the “what do we do once it has occurred,” rather than “why is it happening” and “how do we prevent it in the first place.” I found that the last two questions mattered a lot to me and I enjoyed digging deeper.

For my chapter, I focused on three questions to begin with:

  1. What are academic integrity violations?
  2. Why do students cheat?
  3. What can we do to prevent it?

To answer the first question, I used resources such as UNC Charlotte’s code on academic integrity. For the second, I gave out a survey to both instructors/TA’s and students. To instructors and TA’s, I asked why they thought students cheated. To students, I asked if they knew anyone who had violated the academic integrity in some way and why they did it. For the third question, I referred to resources such as a podcast on Promoting Academic Integrity and various CS education research papers.

One of the biggest things I took away from working on this chapter was the importance of creating an environment where students are less likely to cheat. If we are able to understand why it could occur in the first place, have empathy, and then use that knowledge in designing the course, course material, etc… then we may not need to deal with academic integrity violations as much in the end anyways. For example, I really liked the discussions on empowering students in order to reduce cheating, such as by emphasizing the learning gained through tasks rather than just focusing on grades. I’m sure this may be easier said than done (preventing all cheating from happening in the first place), but I still think they are very important conversations to have and ideas to keep in mind when designing a course.

“…Recognizing some of the things that motivate or will prompt people to misbehave in other walks of life is also useful for helping us understand why some students may cheat or commit other forms of misconduct. You know they’re under pressure. It’s that the opportunities are there for them to do it. And when you create an environment where things are possible and there’s a strong motivation, then it’s going to happen…

– Phil Newton on the Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast #157

My writing on this topic can be viewed more here (as a post format) or here (my submitted chapter).

CS Education Research

The second goal of this teaching seminar was to get more acquainted with existing CS education research and their methods. To do this, we were tasked with reading and summarizing twelve papers. We found the papers through the Pique recommender system. In this system, we select a keyword or combination of keywords, and it then presents to us about nine or so papers to choose from. When categorizing my twelve papers, the groups were: (1) modeling success, (2) diversity, (3) collaborative and social skills, (4) gamification, and (5) miscellaneous (one paper on ethics education). One of my favorite papers was titled “Integrating role-playing games into computer science courses as a pedagogical tool,” just because their course design seemed so unique and fun to me. It was also interesting to see how their course design supported personalized student learning and also team-building and other soft skills development.

My summaries can be viewed here.

We also presented our research paper summaries at the end of the semester. My slides on this can be viewed here.

Develop Portfolio

We must continue developing our personal website and teaching portfolios.

I’ve added the “Blog” section, as writing helps me organize and keep track of my thoughts. I’ve attempted using this a couple of times to, again, keep track of my thoughts and their progression. However, I need to either stay consistent with this or perhaps find some other way to document my progress.

My “Service” page remains quite empty for now. I’ve added that I reviewed papers for the FIE 2020 conference, and will also include Journal Paper Reviewer for JIIS (Journal of Intelligent Information Systems) once I have completed it.

Under “Research,” I am thinking about how to include more details on each project listed (whether to have a short excerpt for each, or a separate page). I am also wondering if I should include links to various presentations here. I will work on this in the upcoming semester.

I have also updated my page on “Teaching Experiences” to include ITCS 6150/8150 and a description of my responsibilities. I am not yet sure if I like how this page looks and is organized, so I may try to redesign it in the upcoming semester. I think I’d also like to be able to display course content created in a better way (though I’m not sure yet!).

Attend CTL Seminars

Lastly, we were required to attend two CTL (Center for Teaching and Learning) seminars. The two seminars I attended were:

  1. Active Learning Webinar: How Virtual Whiteboards Level the Playing Field for All Learners
  2. Cognitive Empathy in the Classroom (here)

In the first, we learned about two virtual whiteboards, (1) and (2) Miro Board. Virtual whiteboards are tools allowing students to “connect through a link and draw on their own personal virtual whiteboard.” I also attempted using one of these whiteboards in my own presentation for my Intro to Research class. With everything being online, it was a fun way to try to get some more engagement from everyone in the class. I reflect on this seminar and my own experiences here.

In the second, we learned about the importance of empathy, “why human-ness matters”, and some important questions to help us lead our interactions with students. I reflect more on this seminar and what I learned here.

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