Suggestions for Future Course Consultants
For three semesters at UC Berkeley, I worked as a course consultant for the Cal VIEW
distance learning program. Here are some thoughts on what I learned from the
experience and what I'd recommend to others thinking of applying for a course consultant
position. For the record, I was a consultant for Prof. Dave Patterson's CS 252 (NTU
course number CA714-CA), Graduate Computer Architecture. The syllabus roughly
matches the CS 252 syllabus taught at UC Berkeley, but when I taught the class there was
no final project.
- CA714CA course homepage from the last time I taught it
- Cal VIEW home
- Dave Patterson's CS252 homepage
And now, some ruminations...
- Use real life examples. You're teaching working engineers, to
whom real-life examples are supremely relevant. Sometimes they'll get really excited
and suggest some similar examples from their own line of work. It's very gratifiying when
this happens because you know they're directly using knowledge from the class. If
this doesn't float your boat, ask yourself if you're teaching for the right reasons.
Similarly, if you're following industry trends in your field (and you should be),
keep a course web page with interesting "gossip" related to the class, the
topic, specific assignments, whatever. See my CA714-CA pages for a simple example of
this. A little bit of this effort goes a really long way.
- Be reasonable. These people have difficult schedules and their
lives are not like those of grad students. Let's face it, grad students can goof off
from time to time and still do well, and their milestones are far apart and not very
structured. In contrast, working engineers have day-to-day commitments that may
crowd out classwork time, or force them to cram classwork in over the weekend. Keep
reminding them that it's best if they do the work incrementally and don't leave it till
the last minute, but be understanding when this occurs.
- Be firm. There's always one or two who will try to slide.
Don't let them. Repeated late homeworks, shoddy quality work, and
communication "blackouts" (no calls during your office hours, no email asking
questions in between) should be early warning signs. Nip them in the bud before they
escalate to real problems.
- Keep a paper trail. Save every piece of email and every relevant
paper communique. In the event a situation does arise where an arbiter is needed,
you'll want to be able to show what happened. Also, it's instructive to periodically
review emails from particular students to watch their progress.
- Keep your office hours steady. Try to arrange for your office
hours to be convenient for your students, and then hold to them religiously. This
can be tough since some students are on the East Coast, and having your office hours later
than about 1PM may mean they can't call you from work. Again, try to accommodate
them--your schedule is probably more flexible than theirs. Don't change your office
hours at the last minute; people with real jobs have day-to-day calendars and they may be
scheduling other things around your office hours.
- Communicate often. I used email a lot, and required students to
do the same; outside of office hours it is just too hard to get me by phone. Be sure
students always know what is expected of them, and when. They tend not to mind the
extra attention and in my experience they don't perceive it as nagging; on the contrary,
they get the impression that the instructor really cares about their progress in the
course and is willing to closely track what is going on to make sure all the students are
on the same page at any given time.
- Be a resource. Surprisingly often, even long after the class is
over, you'll get email from students asking you questions that may or may not be directly
related to the class material. Where can I go to learn more about X? Can you
recommend a good textbook or reading list for topic Y? We're having a guest lecturer
talk about foobars next week, and I noticed he is a professor at your school -- can you
tell me a little background about his work? Company Z just announced the
following...what do you think? All kinds of stuff. As busy as you no doubt
are, try to answer once in a while. (I file these in a lower-priority folder which I
go through in the evening.) You will be amazed at how receptive they are to keeping
a dialogue open with you.
- Respect their knowledge. Even though you have a Master's and are
most of the way to a Ph.D. and most of your students will not be, they know a lot,
especially as a group, and this comes out in the conference calls. You will learn as
much from them as they do from you. This is especially true in fields like computer
architecture, where people tend to have very specialized roles--I learned a lot about
cache design from one of my students, even though I was supposed to be teaching them this
stuff! So stay alert and exploit the opportunity--everyone, including your students,
likes to have a chance to share their knowledge and show their stuff, and you should
- Justify everything. Before you grade homeworks or exams, have a
consistent policy in mind and be prepared to articulate it. Corollary: When
creating new homeworks or exams, watch out for ambiguous or ill-posed questions and know
in advance how you will grade the responses. Similarly, at the beginning of the
course, make your grading and late-submission policies crystal clear, and then stick to
them. If a student is in danger of failing because of poor homework grades, and you
have established that homeworks will count 50%, then get on the phone with that student
and warn him or her that you will not change the grading criteria just to pass them if
they do well on the exams. Be consistent and fair.