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Concha Gomez Testimonial

Concha Gomez has taught Math 1A for PDP over five thousand times. (7/2/08. Concha is now directing the Wisconsin Emerging Scholars program, UW’s version of PDP!)

Getting Started

I knew a graduate student who had taught the PDP section (Mark Laurel). He told Lana about me, and he didn’t tell me about Lana, and they requested me and assigned me to a PDP section. But PDP didn’t know that I had never TA’d before, so they found out at the orientation and they were a little nervous, but they kept me. So I didn’t learn the TA thing, the way most graduate students do. I didn’t have a regular section until the following section, because I accidentally said I’d be a head TA, so they immediately made me Head TA. I didn’t know that being willing to do it meant I HAD to do it.

Making Mistakes

The thing that rattled me the most has to do more with first time teaching, than PDP teaching: getting nervous about making mistakes. I got REALLY embarrassed if I made a mistake, really just overly sensitive. And now I make mistakes and it’s FINE, in fact students can learn from them. I mean, I prepare my lectures and everything, but sometimes you just can’t help it. But that first semester, especially the first few weeks, I was practically in tears whenever I made a mistake and somebody caught it before I did.. If I give myself some advice before the first day, I’d say, “Don’t be rattled if you make a mistake. It’s going to happen and they can handle it.”


Another thing, I had a lot of hotshots that semester. I mean I have a lot of hotshots every semester, but that semester I really noticed it. They were really challenging my authority on every level. You know, my knowledge of the subject, my authority in the classroom. I became really really tough, not very nice. With everyone, just to show they couldn’t push me around. And then I later started getting evaluations saying I was intimidating, so I had to find the balance between being scary and being a pushover. The hotshots thought they were better students, they were always arguing with me, they always had a better way to do it. They would tell me I was wrong about something. I liked them actually, but after the first midterm they started mellowing out. Maybe it was the second midterm, but eventually they started realizing they weren’t all that on top of the material. They were doing okay on the quizzes, but the quizzes were easy.

My first couple of semesters teaching, they knew it was my first or second time teaching. By my fourth or fifth time, they just knew that I knew more than they did and I knew what it was going to be like for them. I think the more experience I had and let them know about , the more confidence they had in my ability.

Quiet Students

In my second time teaching PDP sections, I would give out a worksheet and go around the room and kind of hang back, and wait for people to ask me questions, or look at me as if they were confused. I thought that everything was fine and the students who wanted help or needed help were getting help. Towards the end of the semester, Lana had a chat with me. A student had complained that they thought I had a problem with African-Americans. I only had 3 African-American students and they sat at the same table. So I got pretty upset. I didn’t address them directly, because I didn’t want them to be uncomfortable. But I realized they needed help and weren’t asking for it the same way other students were. I thought everyone was happy, because I was seeing or hearing any complaints. So I started hanging out at their table whether they asked me or not. Usually they wouldn’t ask me, but I would just hang out. Eventually they started asking me questions, but they just weren’t as aggressive as the other students. So now I just make sure I spend equal time with each group and I make sure the UGA’s do too. If they don’t ask me for help, I’ll just sit down at their table and I won’t say anything until somebody eventually asks me something. And they usually do if I sit there long enough, because it kind of makes them nervous that I’m just sitting there. Or I might just listen in. But I don’t just walk around and wait for someone to pull on my sleeve.

Mixing Up Groups, or Not

I think the idea is that their social groups and study groups coincide more than they would without PDP. And part of the thing for minority students is that they’re isolated in the big lectures. So I let them group however they want to group. Whoever they want to hang out with, I let them study with. In my class, I’ll have people go to the board and present a problem or I’ll present a problem and have everyone talk about the problem. The class as a whole does a lot of interacting. They’re just sitting with whoever they like the most, or whatever. It’s not like they aren’t interacting with the rest of the class.


Almost everybody finds a group, but every now and then there’s a student who refuses to work with anyone. I don’t have a problem with that as long as they’re not missing out on the material. I try to encourage them to join a group. They actually were usually pretty good. I never had a student who worked alone who was failing or doing badly. They just feel like they can work at their own pace better. Sometimes I might have them explain something to someone else. I don’t push it. Sometimes people are just loners, but they want harder problems, interesting work, and a TA to ask questions.

Upper Division

The upper-division classes were kind of weird. One was algebra and one was complex analysis. I love algebra and I hate complex analysis. It just turned out that all the algebra students were in the same class and really into it, and the complex analysis students were in three different classes and everybody was miserable. I couldn’t tell if I was somehow giving them this message that complex analysis was a horrible subject and they should be miserable, or if it just turned out that way. So we were all miserable in complex analysis and fairly happy in algebra. In algebra, we always had something to talk about, and we always had fun. The people in complex analysis usually had homework due THAT day, and they came in panic and they didn’t want to talk about anything else. The algebra students didn’t usually have homework questions, but they would just kind of say, “Well… what about those abelian groups?” and we’d just talk.


I hardly ever lectured. Back in the old days, we had six hours a week of section and I might have lectured twenty minutes total that week. If I felt something in the lecture wasn’t clear or if a lot of people asked about something in office hours, I would prepare a little ten-minute thing or an example. Other than that, the only time I was at the board was to present quiz solutions for the quiz last week or the one they just took. Homework problems I would almost always get volunteers to do at the board. If I couldn’t get volunteers, I would do it myself as a last resort. Maybe twenty minutes of lecture, twenty minutes of homework at the board. Less than an hour of me at the board per week.

Doing Homework in Class, Grading Homework

The year that we stopped having readers… actually we’ve always had the PDP UGA’s to grade so it wasn’t that. I don’t remember why I started doing this but I started allowing people to ask homework questions right before they turned it in. So I would write on the board all the problems on the board that people had questions on, and I would pick three or four or however many I thought we had time for that would be presented. (The time would depend on what kind of worksheet we were doing that day, whether we had a quiz, and also the type of problem. For instance, those max-min problems can go on for an hour.) So I’d ask for volunteers to do them. People might say, “Well, I did it, but I don’t think I did it right, because I didn’t get the same answer as the book,” so I’d say, “Great! That’s perfect! I want you to go to the board. So I’d get people to go up there, even if they didn’t think they knew how to do it. If nobody had done it, I might do it myself. Then they’d be allowed to write down the solution and turn it in. Of course, those wouldn’t be graded, and they knew those problems wouldn’t get graded. But I gave them credit for turning in as much of the homework as possible. For instance, a ten problem homework might have two problems graded for three points each, but then you’d get four more points just for turning in answers to all the problems. So there was a little incentive to write the solutions and try to understand them a little bit. And I never got any complaints about that system. Before I started doing that people always complained that they never had enough time getting help on the homework before it was turned it.

Midterm Conferences

After the first and second midterms, I would hand back the midterms, go over the solutions, or maybe not, because they’d have a solution sheet given to them, and I would call each student out of class for a few minutes. We’d go to another room with their midterm and have a five to ten minute conversation with them about how they felt about the midterm. I’d also ask them, “Are you surprised? How long did you study? How did you study? Did you study with anyone?” And they would be like “Ohhh… I started studying on Tuesday.” And it seemed like it worked to scare them into doing better on the next test, into studying more. If the student did well, I’d give them a big pat on the back and I’d tell them I was proud of them and they’d better do that well next time. I spread the conferences out over two or three class sessions. And I liked it because I got to know the students a little better, especially the shy ones. It did take some time, but it gave me a better feel for the students.

Before the midterms, say in 1A, they have no idea how badly they’re about to do. They just don’t think they’re going to get a C or D. After the midterm, they get shocked. They go “Ohhh… I didn’t think it was going to be that hard. I studied all this stuff and I didn’t think any of that stuff was going to be on it.” And sometimes I can figure out what happened on the midterm, I can give them advice. “Oh! You didn’t budget your time right. You spent way too much on this problem and you could have gotten these five problems if you’d gotten to them.” So sometimes, I would have concrete advice for students.

Using Lana

I talked to Lana a lot about the students. I would just go in and say, hey what’s with so-and-so, he did really well on the first midterm and he bombed the second midterm, I don’t what’s going on. And she usually knows! You know, he broke up with his girlfriend. And if she doesn’t know, she’ll find out! She’ll get right on it. And sometimes, I’ll tell the UGA’s to call someone who hasn’t been coming to class. And they might call, but not follow up. But if Lana knows, she’ll make sure the student follows up. And she never ever seemed like she didn’t have time for me! I would just sit in her office and talk for a really long time about everybody in the class. And I never felt like she didn’t have time for it, or didn’t want to hear about it. She would also give me feedback from the UGA’s. If they thought I was talking over the students’ heads , or going too fast, they would tell her before they would tell me. If they thought I was a bitch, or whatever, she’d tell me. If a student did badly or really well, I’d tell her.

Learning to Make Worksheets

I picked a lot of problems from old worksheets my first semester. And then I started finding my own, depending on what they needed or what was interesting. And then eventually I started using my own old worksheets almost verbatim. A lot of the old worksheets were fun and abstract, but the students might not be getting integration-by-parts. I would try to find problems that were more relevant. Or some of the old problems were a little too routine, so I’d try to find them something a little more challenging. Nowadays, I might cut and paste here and there, but I haven’t really added too many problems over the last couple of semesters. I have all the worksheets I ever made. I TeX'ed them up. PDP should have them all, printed up and on computer.

Sharing the Worksheet Workload

If you’re new, it’s best if you’re not making worksheets by yourself. It’s good if you check with someone a little more experienced. I think people should hang out, before they start teaching PDP. Just sit there, walk around with the undergrads. Take my old worksheets as a base, pair up with someone else teaching the same class. With two TA’s, you can share the workload, get feedback and still reduce your work. But with more than two people, it was almost like doing the same amount of work, because you have to meet these other people. There was so much meeting time, the sections might not be doing the same thing, there might be MWF sections and TuTh sections. But with one other person, it’s always been fine.

A Story about a Stubborn Professor

The last time I taught I didn’t do the midterm conferences, because I was teaching for , and he just had too many things he wanted us to do in section. We had that oral exam we had to prepare for. I do think the students learned a lot, but it was just too much work for the TA’s. It was a burnout semester. And he didn’t listen to his TA’s when we had suggestions. I mean, some of us had been TA-ing 1A for five years and he just wouldn’t listen. He put this ridiculous problem on one of the midterms. Of course I didn’t see the problem until students were taking the midterm. And it was a weird ambiguous question: mark the following true, not true, or sometimes true. And to me that didn’t make any sense, because if something is sometimes not true, then it’s not true! He should have said Always True, Sometimes True and Never True. And when I got the midterm, of course I started taking it and marking it and then I thought what does “Sometimes True” mean? So I told him, I’m having trouble with the question and I don’t expect my students to figure out the difference between sometimes true and false, and a good student is going to get them all wrong. And he said, “No no no no, there’s no ambiguity!” I said, “I don’t think this is fair because a good student is going to get a lot of points off this exam, “ but he just waved me off. And I talked to the other TA’s, and they said “This is awful!” And when we graded it, he saw how many people were getting this wrong, so he revised his scoring.

Another thing, he always told the students “You have to read the book! You have to read the book!” And one day he told them a theorem in class that completely contradicted something in the book! There was a problem in which you HAD to use L’Hopital’s, there was no other way to do it, but according to what he said, you couldn’t use L’Hopital’s Rule. And of course the book says, “This is when you should use L’Hopital’s.” So I went to him after class and said, “I just want to point out to you that the students are being told that they have to read the book and it says this in the textbook and you just said this.” So he says, “But that’s absolutely wrong! You can’t do it that way! Think about it!” So I said, “Okay, well how would you do this problem, then?” “Well, of course you have to use L’Hopital’s on that, but how often does THAT come up?” I said, “That just came up on the homework! How would you tell the students to do this problem if they can’t use L’Hopital’s Rule.” He said “Have you read Rudin’s Intro to Real Analysis, intermediate value theorem, etc.” and I said no, and he said “Maybe you should read that chapter!”

He was really mad at me for coming up and asking this very relevant question. The fact that he just wouldn’t listen to me, every time I had a suggestion. My concerns were always, “Students are going to be mad about this problem , students are going to be confused by this, I know students are going to ask about this, they’re going to be confused by what you said in lecture,” and he was always denying that there was a problem.

I think he kind of labelled me as a troublemaker. I also didn’t like how he graded the exam, how he made up the curve, so I was always complaining. And I know I was speaking for more than half the TA’s. They would come to me with their complaints and then I would just complain out loud. I think they were all more intimidated than me, they were almost all first-year graduate students. It was a kind of friendly hostility between him and me. I think he respects me more than I thought he did that semester. Now he asks me for advice on stuff. He’ll stop me in the hallway and ask me, what do you think if I do this in my 1B class, how would you change the oral exam. During the semester he was really defensive, but afterwards he asked for feedback from me.

Another thing, he has this weird notion that PDP is for students who are extremely underprepared. He thinks it’s remedial. And I had several conversations with him, where I tried to explain it to him, that the material wasn’t remedial in any way. And he said, what is it for? And when I tried to explain the purpose to him, he said, “Oh! So you think this sort of special treatment is fair!” He was completely missing everything. After a couple of these conversations with him about PDP, I got some of the highest scores in the section on the midterm. So I made sure he noticed that. And then he trivialized it, saying, “Well… this wasn’t… curved well.” He just wouldn’t give the students the credit they deserve for the work they did. I was trying to show him these weren’t bad students, and he said, “Well, they get six hours a week with you.” I couldn’t show him that some of these students were well-prepared academically, but needed a different environment to work in. (PDP TA Reference Handbook, 8-23-96)