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.

Related links:

And now, some ruminations...

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 encourage it.
  9. 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.