GSI Workshop for EECS and Interdisciplinary Studies

Workshop Leader: Andrew Begel

University of California, Berkeley

January 14, 2005 @ 10:30am to 12:00pm and 12:45pm - 2:15pm


This is the online version of the notes for a workshop for the Spring 2005 Teaching and Orientation Conference for Graduate Student Instructors in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.

This latest version of this document will be at

Introduction to the morning

Continuum Activity! (Activities are fun!)

GSIs will stand up and position themselves along a continuum whose boundaries are given below, one at a time:

  1. Experience Teaching: A lot / A little
  2. Desire to Teach: Raring to go / Dread
  3. Career Goals: Teaching and Research / Industry

Name Whip

Each GSI will introduce him or herself to the rest of the group.

  1. Name
  2. Class you're teaching
  3. If you could make a class on any topic, what would it be?

Why are we here? What is the job of a GSI?


Fears and Preparations Exercise

Mechanics of Teaching Section


Close your eyes for one minute, then open them. Notice how a minute is much longer than it seems. Give your students time to answer you questions. After asking, wait at least 30 seconds for people to answer the problem. Given that you know the subject and the answer to your question, and they know neither, they're going to need some non-trivial amount of time to figure it out.

Tact and Sensitivity Discussion

You are an authority figure whose words have significant impact on your students. If a students asks a "dumb" question, remind yourself that this student would not ask this question unless they did not understand the material, which should make you worry about the effectiveness of the course.

In this exercise, we'll come up with a list of words that could potentially be damaging psychologically to your students. As we come up with each, we'll discuss a situation in which it might arise and brainstorm tactful ways to resolve it.


Department Resources

Before you go to lunch...

On an index card, write down one thing you've learned this morning, and one thing you still have a question about. Please turn these in to me before you leave for lunch.

GSI Dilemmas

Each of these scenarios may arise in your own sections. Get together in groups of 3-4 people, choose one of the dilemmas, and develop a skit to act it out. When we reconvene, each group will act out its skit, and the rest of the class will attempt to deconstruct the skit's meaning, and try to extract the lesson you were trying to get across.

  1. Scenario It's a week before the final exam, and you receive and email from George, a student in your class who has been struggling. Going into the final exam, George is averaging a D- for the course. The email is as follows:
    Hey -
    I'm totally freaking out about this final, and I'm completely unprepared. I've been studying the material, attending review sessions, and I haven't slept in 3 days. If I fail this class, my parents are going to make me drop out of Berkeley. I'm really freaking out! Is there anything you can do?!?! I'm afraid I'm going to do something crazy if I don't pass this class. I think I'll just die.
    Dilemma Do you respond? If so, how?
  2. Scenario It's a beautiful day outside, and all of your students are clamoring to go outside. You've prepared a relatively non-chalkboard intensive discussion for the day, and they're right -- it is beautiful outside. The students seem antsy, and it's time for discussion to begin.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  3. Scenario You're at lecture, and the professor in the course has just made two factual errors in the same lecture that directly contradict the material you presented yesterday in section. You look around, and it's clear that your students appear puzzled/confused, but no one asks the professor to clarify. It's now the section after that lecture (with the two errors), and you students start the discussion by asking "What the hell was that? Professor X sucks rocks!"
    Dilemma What do you do?
  4. Scenario It's a week after the first midterm, and you've met with the professor and your fellow GSIs to discuss overall performance. The average score in the class was 85%. Your students, on average, scored 60%. You are surprised and disappointed at their performance.
    Dilemma You have just walked into discussion section and everyone is asking how they did on the midterm. How do you reveal the news?
  5. Scenario One of the groups in your section comes to you with a problem. The two of them say they cannot continue working with one another.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  6. Scenario You're grading problem sets, and you notice that Lila and Jane's are identical except for the name at the top of the paper.
    Dilemma What do you do when you next see Lila and Jane in section?
  7. Scenario It's the first day of section, and you notice one of your students has brought her boyfriend to class. During class introductions, she introduces him as "my sweet thing -- he's just coming with me to classes this first few weeks to be with me and see what it's like." This behavior continues on the 2nd day of section. And on the 3rd...
    Dilemma What do you do?
  8. Scenario It's the middle of the discussion in the 2nd week, and one of your students asks you a question about a figure you just drew. While you know the answer to the question, you've just drawn a blank. The class is waiting for you to reply.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  9. Scenario One of your best students, Kwok, comes to your office hours and tells you, "Dude, section's boring."
    Dilemma What do you do?
  10. Scenario Pat is one of your best students: performs well on midterms, participates in discussions, and is likeable among classmates. Pat approaches you the week before the final, and asks you to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school.
    Dilemma What do you do? Why?
  11. Scenario It's the 4th week of class, and section has been interrupted (in your interpretation), again, by a student who keeps asking questions that are beyond the scope of the class. The student is clearly brilliant, but the questions are messing up your rhythm.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  12. Scenario After class, Susan asks to speak to you. She seems very nervous and won't speak above a whisper. She says that her lab partner has been sexually harassing her.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  13. Scenario It's Saturday night, and you're out with your friends at the bar. You see one of your more attractive students dancing. The student notices you, comes over, and starts not so subtlely hitting on you.
    Dilemma How do you behave?
  14. Scenario You are filling in for another GSI. About six minutes after the start of class, a student in the back says, "You suck! We want Anthony back!" Several students then say, "Yeah," and more nod.
    Dilemma What do you say or do to alleviate the situation?
  15. Scenario You've just handed back midterms, and Ketan, one of your students who was not doing so well going into the midterm, performed very well as the result of increased study effort and attendance at your office hours. Ketan approaches you after class with open arms and big smile. You're happy for him.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  16. Scenario You are walking around lab and you notice that one of your students is almost in tears. When you try to talk to her, she claims to be OK.
    Dilemma What do you say or do?
  17. Scenario You've noticed for the past three discussion sections that Mike, one of your students, has been nodding off towards the end of class. Today, it's especially egregious, as Mike has fallen asleep within the first 10 minutes of class. It's now 15 minutes into the section, and students around Mike are clearly noticing.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  18. Scenario One of the groups in your section comes to you with a problem. Out of three people, one of them has disappeared. They received an email one day saying, "Gone to L.A. Be back later." The project is due in 3 days and the student who disappeared has not done his part.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  19. Scenario It's the middle of the discussion in the 2nd week, and one of your students asks you a question about a figure you just drew. You honestly have no idea what the answer is. The class is waiting for you to reply.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  20. Scenario One day in section, you tell an annoying student in your class to just shut up and let other people answer the questions. Later, she comes to your office hours and tells you that she thought what you said was really rude and she feels hurt.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  21. Scenario It's the first day of discussion, and in walks a co-worker from your summer job, Julia. You genuinely like Julia -- Julia's a good person. Julia comes up to you and says "Hey - it's so awesome that you're my GSI! That's great! This is going to be a good semester." 
    Dilemma What do you do?
  22. Scenario It's the middle of the discussion in the 2nd week, and one of your students asks you a question about a figure you just drew. You know the answer. The question is a good one, but requires a level of understanding and knowledge that goes beyond the scope of the course. You think, however, that if you tried to explain it, that student could understand the basic idea. The class is waiting for you to reply.
    Dilemma What do you do?
  23. Scenario A student comes to office hours and says "I don't undertsand anything," and appears to expect you to teach him the entire course again. It's the 9th week of the course and second midterm is next week.
    Dilemma What do you do?