Experiences As a C++ Lab Instructor

This post was originally from the blog site Binary Girls that my friends Abbey, Sarah, and I started. I’m saving it here for archival reasons.


Computer lab classroomI was asked this past semester to be a lab instructor for the intro to programming 2 (CS 201) lab. At first I was under the impression I was a student that would be helping the teacher with the class. I later realized that I was the teacher.

So for years I’ve tutored people in assorted subjects. In high school and my first university it was mostly math. People have also hired me to help train them in assorted software products over the years. So I’m not really new to teaching. But generally tutoring is a one-on-one activity. I’m with someone who I am helping to learn something. After learning that my “lab instructor” position was just me, by myself, instructing a whole class, I started to freak out a little. Could I do the public speaking thing? Could I adequately instruct up to 20 students (the maximum number of seats in the room)? Would I be able to help them all with problems? And then there’s grading and coming up with labs and…. AHH!

The first week I was nervous. I did everything I could think of to portray confidence (maybe some for the students, but also for me!). I dressed nicely, I made up notes of what to talk about ahead of time, I tried rehearsing it all in my head, I made sure I gathered up the book and everything ahead of time, and left my backpack and other things in my office, and just tried to be nice and down to earth with them, but yet, still act like I had been a teacher for years.

It didn’t work.

I was crazy nervous. I felt like my heart ran out of my chest. This is usually my reaction to having to give any sort of public speaking thing, whether in front of 5 people or 500. The “ums” and “uhs” came out. But after getting through the initial talk of what lab would be like, how I was grading it, and attendance policies, I talked a little bit about myself and my involvement in school. That helped loosen myself up a bit. I also jumped into the actual topic of class, which was an introduction to Visual Studio and how to create their first project. And all of a sudden the magic just flowed. I taught those first seven students just like I would teach one. Interestingly the second section I taught happened the same way. Nervous during introductions, then the lesson just came out well. My second section had over twice as many at 16 students.

What made this also a unique experience was that this was really the first time the department had these labs. Normally it was a C++ class and you went to lecture and then you did your homework. Too many students were struggling so they decided to add in the lab section, so in addition to my first time teaching, it was also the first time this lab was offered. In the beginning, I was mostly handing out lab assignments that I had created, but started realizing that I needed to teach some lessons too. At the beginning of classes, I would review what they should have learned in their lectures. I was hearing comments that they needed more examples, so I was coming up with new examples that weren’t in the book, or asking them questions and coming up with examples based on what they were saying. It seemed to be a pretty good system.

I think the greatest validation came when the Computer Science/Electrical Engineering department head saw me one day and stopped me in the hallway. He said that after looking over the student evaluations, I had some really great reviews. Practically all comments were positive, and some students even saying they learned more from my lab than from their lectures. The goal of the lab was that they would learn the language and how to problem solve better, so I suppose I did my job just fine!

There were several things I got out of my experience as a teacher:

  • It’s a lot of work! For the 4 1/2 hours I spent in labs, I did at least that much work outside of class answering questions, grading labs, coming up with new labs, having meetings with the lecture teachers. I give props to the other professors who do this all the time!
  • I definitely need to review topics at the beginning of the semester. It’s been a while since I was a beginning programmer, and I have forgotten how easily one can get confused and have a hard time absorbing so much information so quickly.
  • I need to learn to grade faster. Partly because if I don’t grade an assignment one week, I quickly get behind. Partly also because students generally expect grades back quickly, and I have to admit I expect the same from my professors.
  • While I love helping others and enjoyed my experience teaching this semester, it’s not something I would do as a career. I’m a software developer at heart and plan to stay that way. Now, maybe teaching a small class on the side isn’t out of the question…
  • However, the department has said they would hire me again, and I already have signed on to do it again! And my labs even have more students than they did in the fall!
  • I can do C++ a TON better than I could before class starts. Since you’re expected to answer any of those questions students can throw at you, it means you get to learn the language very well.
  • My confidence has grown leaps and bounds. For someone who is naturally quite quiet and shy, I didn’t do a bad job of speaking out and working with the students.

There are some sillier things I figured out too:

  • I’m instantly assumed to be a graduate student (I’m an undergrad). In fact, they list me all over as a graduate student, including the school’s faculty/staff directory.
  • In the hallway, one student was calling out “Professor! Professor!” then “Instructor! Instructor!” then finally “Miss Withee!” Apparently I have to get used to being referred to as such. I’m not technically a professor, and besides, “Professor Withee” sounds a bit weird to me.
  • It’s weird teaching some students who are also in another class with me. It makes me feel like I have to be a teacher there too.
  • There are definitely an interesting array of quiet and loud students, motivated and not motivated students, students with prior knowledge and students with no knowledge, and more. It’s interesting to watch how they change and morph throughout the semester.
  • This is probably the best paid on-campus job I could possibly have as an undergrad!

Overall, it was good. I look forward to this upcoming semester, both with funner classes, but also because I get to teach again.

Have you had any great experiences with student teachers? Let me know in the comments below!

~ Sarah

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