AY 300 - GSI Basics

There are a few basics that are essential to being a good GSI. Different people will phrase these slightly differently, but here's the general consensus:

Go to Lecture

You CANNOT be a good GSI if you are not attending the course lectures regularly. Even if you think you know the material well, different professors explain material in different ways, and emphasize/de-emphasize certain material. In order to be able to field student questions and present a coherent course structure to students in section, you must know what happened in lecture (sometimes including mistakes made by your professor, which you should be prepared to correct).

Many professors will tell you that lecture attendance is not required; We are telling you that it's highly, highly encouraged.

However, you're not expected to attend every lecture, especially when you have other important commitments, but a few hours a week is a fairly small time investment and you can always work on other things if necessary during the lecture.

In addition, you may find it useful to skim the assigned reading for the class you're teaching. Similar to going to lectures, even if you think you know the material, the book might explain things in a different way or use different analogies or examples. Many students won't do the reading, but many will and they will sometimes have very specific questions from the reading.

Prepare for Section

You must come into section with a plan. “Winging it” will not work. The best sections happen when the GSI has clearly laid out, step by step, what they want to accomplish before getting to the classroom. This doesn't necessarily mean you need a fully drafted lesson plan each week, but having some notes on the order in which you're going to do things is quite useful. Things to do beforehand include (but aren't limited to):

  1. decide how to break up your 50 minutes (i.e. what are you going to do and for about how long)
  2. have a clear idea of what information you want to convey and what you want your students to take away from the section
  3. decide how you want the students to work (groups, individually, as a class, etc.)
  4. make photocopies of any handouts or worksheets, but not right before section, and always make sure you have a few more than enough copies
  5. gather up anything that you need for that specific section (markers/chalk, laptop & projector, demo materials, homeworks/papers to return to students, name tags or index cards, etc.)

Furthermore, the worksheet is arguably the most important part of section. It is essential that the students have a clearly written, hard copy of what you're asking them to do; simply telling them what to do won't work. Coming up with your own good worksheet generally takes less than an hour, especially if you borrow from other GSIs' worksheets (found in the electronic Big Red Binder).

Learn Your Students' Names

People work hard for bosses they like and don't work hard for bosses they hate. For this reason, it is essential that you develop good rapport with your students. With only one hour of section per week, this task is very difficult. A good starting point, however, is to learn your students' names immediately (within the first week or two of section). We know this is tough, but trust that you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Some ways to learn students' names are:

  • take roll for each section (whether or not attendance is mandatory, usually it isn't) - There are a variety of ways of taking roll (calling names, handing out index cards or name tags, etc), but each one allows you to associate a name with a face in your section.
  • pass back homework assignments individually - This is great unless you're really crunched for time, but you can usually do this as students trickle in during the first 10 minutes of the hour (before section actually starts).
  • use mnemonics
  • study pictures of your students outside of section. (Well that sounds creepy, doesn't it?) You can obtain these in several ways:
    • Course listing - If your Head GSI has instructor access to bSpace, he/she should have access to a sheet of ID pictures for all the students in your class. You might ask if you can get copies of the ID pictures of your students.
    • Take a digital photo of each student - this can get into some iffy legal areas and will take quite awhile with a decent sized class. If you do not have a digital camera, the department has one that you can reserve; e-mail central@astro well in advance of your section to let them know that you'd like to use the camera. This should be a last resort, we feel.

Make Yourself Available to Students

Set aside a few hours each week to help students outside of class. (Your course head will almost certainly require you to do this to some extent via office hours and TALC duties.) Many undergraduates are intimidated by professors but are more willing to talk to GSIs. For the shyest students, you are the only source of personal help for the course. It is therefore imperative that you make yourself as approachable and available to students as possible. Generally 1-2 hours of scheduled office hours plus one night of TALC per week is plenty.

You should announce your office hours, either unilaterally or after polling your students on times/days they'd prefer, as early as possible, preferably during your first section. You should also remind your students that they are welcome, nay, encouraged to make an appointment to see you outside of your scheduled office hours, if they so desire. (With even a moderately large section, at least some of your students will likely have conflicts with your scheduled office hours and be unable to attend them even if they really want to.) Remember that if you're teaching freshmen some of them may not quite know what office hours are! Feel free to take a moment and explain this concept to them. Many won't need this, but you don't want to leave those few that do hanging out to dry.

Get Help and Advice If You Need It

We are certainly here to help you and give you advice if (and when) you need it; that's the point of Ay 300! However, we're not your only line of defense. Your Head GSI is a great person to talk to if any issues should arise. Part of his/her job is to make sure that all of their GSIs (including you) are doing well and that all sections in the course are running smoothly. Also, don't hesitate to talk to other astro grads; they've pretty much all taught before and no matter how old and creepy they might seem, they were once new GSIs too! Finally, there's always the professor of your course that you could talk to, but be forewarned, profs can sometimes be tough to get a hold of during the semester and, because they tend to be in less direct contact with their students, may have a less-than-accurate perception of what's going on.