I spent the Winter 2021 semester as Head Teaching Assistant for ELEC 270 (Discrete Mathematics with Computer Engineering Applications). We knew ahead of time that we would be delivering the course remotely, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of my main tasks was to adapt the course’s existing tutorial materials for online, synchronous delivery.
This semester was my third time as a TA for the course, so I had a good idea how the tutorials had gone in the past. My goal during these tutorials had been to engage students while walking them through solutions and to have them feel comfortable asking their own questions. Unfortunately, a single TA was assigned per tutorial in a class of 120-150 students. Even with reduced attendance this placed severe limitations on what could be done in a 50 minute period – for example, every student asking a one-minute question would leave no time for any answers. I know that despite my efforts, some students were discouraged from participating because I could not offer an environment where questions could be effectively asked and answered.
I was also unsatisfied with the lecture style of delivery, since when it came to marking exams I could see that students had difficulty with the reasoning and writing required for mathematical proofs. Granted, this is a challenging topic but as I wracked my brain trying to figure out how we could do better, I realized that my answers to students had often included a reference to my own intuition—developed over several years and countless proof attempts of my own.
From this, it was a short hop to realizing that I wanted to reshape these tutorials using active learning methods. I’d found these methods helpful as a student and found that they kept my tutorial group engaged during the previous semester as a TA for an Introduction to Programming course. Since I was already adapting the tutorials for online delivery through Zoom, it seemed the perfect time to introduce this new approach as well.
After explaining the approach during the first tutorial, we had students divide themselves up into 12 different tutorials groups. Each the course’s three TAs was assigned four of these groups, with the aim of fostering TA-student relationships and spreading the workload around. Then at the beginning of each week, I’d post the question set for the current learning objective: one question per TA for three questions total. This gave students the opportunity to look at the material whenever they wanted before Thursday’s tutorial slot.
Once we were in the tutorial’s Zoom meeting, one of the TAs would start off with a 10-minute introduction to the types of problems we would be tackling. Then it was time for breakout rooms! Each tutorial group had its own pre-assigned breakout room, making this relatively painless. TAs would then circulate through their groups to provide guidance and answer any questions as the groups worked through their problems. Students could also ask for help through Zoom and flag their group’s TA down. The last 15 minutes saw the TAs provide overviews of “their” problem to the whole class, ensuring that every student got to see how three different, but related, problems were solved.
How well did it work? See Part 2.