Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Why I don't like Tuesdays

This semester I spend Tuesday afternoons at a computer/tutoring lab. My primary purpose for being there is to work with a group of students in a class I'm teaching. The students are learning about calculus through numerical and graphical work using computer software. (This counts as their third day a week; the other two class days meet in a regular classroom.) I give a brief introduction to techniques they need to know, then send them out to work on a worksheet in small groups at a computer. I (supposedly) answer questions when they are stuck.

Unfortunately, my students end up scattered across the computer lab (which is large), and I'm not always sure where they are. Also, while working there, I'm supposed to answer questions from any student in the lab, about any math class, and not just the students I'm working with. So I spend most of my time answering questions from the elementary calculus class which is now entirely on-line. (They have one teacher to cover about 1,000 students, so it's not surprising that she can't cover all the questions.) When the department has several large classes over there with many confused students and only one teacher, and the department insists that (a) students from the class cannot all be seated in one area, and (b) everyone has to answer all questions, then I begin to suspect that my real teaching load is actually a few more classes than show up on my course schedule.

Days vary with that class, but yesterday was a bad one. Students had an quiz problem to practice that was very difficult for them, so I saw the problem many times. One reason it was so difficult was that it required remembering how to divide polynomials, which was covered in the previous course.

Yesterday also included a fair number of people who had a list of questions ready for me when they got my attention. When this happens, I end up answering questions from one student for 20-30 minutes as it continues with "Wait--I had another problem I didn't know how to do." (Help available at the lab is supposed to be brief help with whatever the student is having trouble with at the moment. More detailed tutoring is available elsewhere.) I'm not a fan of the list-keepers. Maybe I need to learn to give more confusing answers to the first question so they will send me away and try to get someone else when I'm gone.

Truth be told, I'm more comfortable working with a student for an extended period than just running from student to student answering quick questions. In fact, on days when I just have to work the lab in general (and don't feel responsible for any particular groups of students), I sometimes regain my sanity by ditching the rules and handling the help in my own way. I sometimes just sit down and spend some time with a student going over everything they're doing in detail. No one is really keeping track of how long I spend with a student, so no one probably notices that I haven't moved in a while. I may get some slack on this anyway, since I seem to be known as the answer guy. I'm one of the only people working at the lab who has a PhD (most of the staff are undergraduates, graduate students, or instructors with masters degrees), and I seem to be one of the few people in the department comfortable with answering software questions.

But yesterday I had students I was responsible for, and so I tried to keep moving. It didn't help much. All told, I spent very little time with students I actually came with yesterday; most of my time ended up with the online calculus course. I can only assume someone else helped students. Maybe it was the teacher with the online calculus course.

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