I spent a fair bit of time in grad school working as a teaching assistant (also known as a TA). That experience allowed me to do some lectures on second and third year topics in fluid dynamics and numerical methods. I especially enjoyed being a TA for numerical methods. Because it was a topic that had a wide range of engineering applications, it was often poorly mastered by my peers; meaning if I got really good at it I’d have some great opportunities in the future to solve some problems few others could. When I was first assigned the numerical methods TA job I thought that preparing tutorials and exams for the course would be a really good learning opportunity for me, but those activities were not the best opportunities for mastering the subject in my TA experience.
The best deep learning I gained came through helping students at the bottom end of the grade distribution. Helping strong students get stronger was fine and was rewarding as it made me feel productive, but sometimes, a student would come to my office hours that was going to have a hard time passing the course. Working with those individuals felt less rewarding at first because I often had to reword a concept three or four different ways before understanding started to appear. Over time though, I started to learn to enjoy the challenge of exploring what a student currently understood and then to try to move them to the next level of understanding of a concept or to correct a misconception that was holding them up. In the end, the most rewarding type of experience was working with a struggling student for a long time to finally have their light bulb come on and have them exclaim “I get it!”
Why I hated high school
I was a pretty strong student In high school. When group work was assigned and we got to choose our groups, the natural groupings typically had students of similar skill together. My friends were pretty academic, I chose to work with my friends, and we all “pulled our weight”. Sometimes we didn’t get to choose our groups so I ended up in a groups where I was the most savvy member. To use the slang I grew up with, usually our group was divided into ‘keeners’ and ‘slackers’. Because of who I am and how I find fulfillment, I was usually a ‘keener’ and in those cases I’d typically grown about how much of the work I was going to end up doing and then knuckle down and do it all while leaving my less motivated or skilled classmates to watch and wonder how they could be helpful. That approach rewarded me with good grades on group projects, but it always left resentment with me feeling put-upon and the others feeling undervalued or disrespected.
A better way
I was wrong.
Looking back, I missed out on some huge opportunities that went past grades. I would have learned the topics better and I would probably have made more friends if I had seen group work with differently skilled peers as an opportunity to bring them along and to help me master the topic at hand.
In undergraduate studies, I started to diversify my study partners, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes because I was starting to discover the value in helping a peer to learn. When I found a classmate that was struggling, sometimes I took the time to come along side them and help them through. Instead of resentment on both sides, I discovered that I found fulfillment in seeing my classmate learn and they were typically exceedingly grateful for the help. We had entered a difference set of roles, helper and helpee. In some cases, I found myself in a place where I was struggling and others around me were feeling confident. Having helped others in the past, I was able to find the help I needed to pass classes I struggled with. Often, after a few reversals of helper/ helpee roles, the roles started to blur and were replaced with an new, label, friend.
I’m not friends with every person with whom I’ve exchanged academic help, but I am friends with many of them. It is often said that the value of college or university isn’t what you learn, but who you meet. Since finishing school, I’ve had classmates approach me with job opportunities in areas that I’ve helped them with and I’ve got a list of people I can reach out to if I ever need to hire someone for a job I know I’d struggle doing myself.
Help your classmates. You are in this together, not just in school but throughout the rest of your life. A little bit of time helping a classmate may pay off big time in the future and it is a lot easier to do happily when you realize that when you help someone learn, you learn too.
I work at Minute School as a web developer and I love that my work is helping others learn. We hire top students and we are grateful for the contributions they make to our team. If you enjoy education and you feel like you have something to share, consider applying to a co-op position at Minute School and taking your understanding to the next level.