UNSW CSE Casual Tutoring Experience – 18s1 Lab Assistant

In Semester 1 of 2018 I took on a job as a casual lab assistant to COMP1521 Computer Systems Fundamentals. Before applying I looked online but I couldn’t find any resource on what the experience would be like. So here it is, the guide and review to UNSW CSE Casual Tutoring.

Application

The first step is to apply. The main pathway to applying is via the email that CSE sends out to everyone around the end of each semester. I got in without any prior tutor recommendation, but if you can get one that’s even better.

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Application email that I received on December 22, 2017

In my experience, most of the tutors at CSE are actually undergraduate students themselves, especially so for the first year courses. This is pretty unique in UNSW since other faculties’ tutors tend to be professionals or postgraduates. Whatever the reason, this means there’s plenty of opportunities for student-tutors in CSE.

The application form itself isn’t very long. Here are some of the questions and what I wrote.

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Work and teaching experiences and skills

First it asks for your work and teaching experience. I wrote down PHP contracting as my work experience, making sure to focus on the communication aspects like extracting requirements. It was brief, around two sentences.

Then for the teaching skills, I put down my experience tutoring for the NCSS Challenge in 2017. A specific teaching skill I wrote down is how I was taught to make sure the students enjoy the feeling of discovery, instead of telling them step-by-step. For example, I had a student with Python code that printed out lists of strings with boilerplate (with brackets and quotes) when she didn’t want them. Instead of telling her where to fix her code, I showed her a snippet of the join function. A while later, she had figured it out herself.

If you’ve been through your first semester of computing at UNSW, you should pretty much have an idea of what a tutor or lab assistant does so write here what you think is relevant. You’re kind of expected to hit the ground running, so some practice with teaching definitely helps.

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Video demonstration of communication skills

The next part is a short video “interview” to demonstrate yourself. I think it’s best to be brief like they tell you, since I doubt lecturers want to spend 10 minutes looking at your (presumably) amateur production on topics they already know.

Since I was interested in COMP1521 the most, the topic for my video was the LRU cache eviction policy. I thought of using a whiteboard to explain things, but I didn’t think they wanted a detailed explanation so I didn’t use any writing implements.

For language proficiency, I wrote down COMP1511 experience for C and open source experience for Python and others in brief sentences.

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Course preferences

You get a choice of which courses you’d like to tutor. I put them in the order of my grades in the courses.

I’m not sure how strict they are on grades. But like they say, you probably need good grades unless you’ve been recommended by a tutor. Personally I felt confident because I got above 90 marks for COMP1521. After all, you need to understand the content if you want to tutor.

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Success!

I submitted my application later than I should’ve, but I received my response on February 19, 2018. It was pretty close to start of the semester, so don’t fret if you don’t hear from them for a while.

Tutoring / Lab Assisting

If you get accepted, there is a training workshop / induction day for first time tutors run by Richard Buckland. They really drill into your head that being friendly is the most important thing for teaching outcomes. Apparently from myExperience survey responses, the keyword most correlated with successful outcomes was “friendly”.

If you’re a first time casual academic, they assign you to be a lab assistant first before you move onto becoming a tutor. Since this was my first time, I was assigned to one class as a lab assistant and later an additional help consultation session.

In addition to the hours allocated to you for demonstrating, CSE allocates you an extra hour per week for preparation. I used this time to re-do the labs and refresh my memory from lecture notes. I would recommend doing the labs again since it’s much easier to answer questions and catch bugs if you know what your students would be trying to do, and you have all the steps, quirks and shortcuts close in your mind.

As a lab assistant, my job was primarily answering questions.

One thing I noticed was that there’s very little direction given to you. Apart from the initial 2-hour induction, there was little feedback and little resources on learning to educate. And the tutors are not professional educators themselves, so they can’t really properly mentor you on how to do your job.

More to come…

I also worked as a tutor in 18s2, but I’ll write about that along with reflections and resources and guides for new tutors, some other time…

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