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How to Deal with Students

Back in the old days, when LAs were called Lab TAs, when all we had were ones and zeros, when Atlantis ruled the Earth... anyway, the point is that missing T in LA, the one that stood for Teaching. Remember what your function in the lab is? Fnord! Helping students, dealing with their problems and answering their questions, however easy/hard/stupid/ridiculous they may seem (we all know by now Fnord! that ALL questions are good questions), trying to make them understand.

Helping a Student

When you are helping students, don't do their work for them. Ask them to show you the different pieces of code and to try running it for you. Do not take over at the keyboard for them. Although this may be frustrating when the student is slow, that is the only way they will learn. When the students are off on the wrong track, try to guide them onto the right track, but don't solve the problem for them. Don't let students badger you into telling them the answers--that's not your job.

Try not to spend a lot of time helping a single student, especially if the lab is busy. Point the student in the right direction and let him/her think about it some more.

Collaboration Policy

It is a very good idea to get students to help each other, especially when the lab is crowded and the LAs are swamped. 6.001 collaboration policy states that "we are very much in favor of collaborative work: students working together in small groups on problem sets--in working through problems, planning programs, and programming in the lab--so long as everyone is involved in all aspects of the work." Take advantage of this. For example, when you encounter a person with a question or problem similar to the one you just answered for someone else, ask the person you just helped if (s)he would mind helping another student. You will find that most people are quite cooperative in this respect. Besides lessening your workload, this technique actually aids the students, who may understand the issue better after explaining it to someone else.

Do not Get Angry

Do not get irritated at students, or, at any rate, don't show it when you do.(14) Helping them is not always easy and can be frustrating. When you think you are about to lose your cool, don't take it out on the student--that will only make the situation worse. Take a step back and try another approach, or if there is another LA on duty, see if (s)he can help.

In general, it helps to be relaxed and armed with a sense of humor. Instead of blowing up when you are getting frustrated, laugh.

What to do When you Feel Like you're in a Bad TV Show

Here is the (paraphrased) text of an e-mail message sent to 6001-feedback by a student (we'll call him Bruce) after one of the 6.001 quizzes:


i came to mit because i wanted to graduate from a decent college and get a reasonable job. your test is going to stop all that. i can't believe you did this to me. what am i supposed to do now? i can't take any more. i hope you are below me. this is on your heads.


This is the kind of message you should not dismiss as an ordinary flame, as we (a couple of us LAs on duty) once did when "Bruce" came in to the lab to write it. As it turned out, this particular bruce was just flaming; some students, however, may be quite serious in their suicidal tendencies. If you encounter anything of the sort, start acting as if you were a character in Beverly Hills 90210: try to find out how serious the student is and, if you think there is even the slightest chance that (s)he is serious, call the lecturers, the CPs and/or anyone else you think could help or should know about the situation. Please take this seriously; MIT is a stressful place, and 6.001 can be a stressful subject, and things like this do happen.

Quick Questions

All questions are good questions; however, no question is a quick question. On the slowest and on the busiest nights, at the end of the term as well as at the beginning, invariably, you will have students coming up to you saying: "Can I ask you a QUICK QUESTION?" You should learn that that in itself is the only quick question anyone ever asks. There are no others. This is ok if the lab is not busy and noone is waiting on the queue. Even when there are a couple of people waiting for help, you might try to answer the question on the fly--if it is truly quick, you will not need to go to the student's terminal (if, on the other hand, (s)he starts by "I wrote this piece of code, and it doesn't work," throw up your hands in disgust and tell him/her to enqueue him/herself and wait for his/her turn just like everyone else). The situation does not improve on the busier nights. In short, pretty soon you find that the only workable answer when someone says "I have a quick question" is "I have a quick answer... NO(15)" Just make sure you have a nice friendly grin on your face the entire time.

All Hail Discordia! and now even I am finished, and the only quick question I have left is: did Joe Malik ever have any dogs? and if he did, how many? and what happened to them after he went underground? and what did he do with the dogfood? and if he didn't, what were the neighbors complaining about?

The rest will be printed in Heaven.

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