Superman, Spider-Man, and Me

I really liked Superheroes as a kid. Okay, I admit it- I still really, really like Superheroes. I’m one of those people who will stand in line for hours to catch a midnight showing of a new Superhero movie.   I like that they lead ordinary quiet lives, but when needed, take on their alter egos and use their powers to help people. My favourites are Superman and Spider-Man.


I lead a pretty quiet “Clark Kent” life. I’m a design engineer for a small company that makes motor controllers for electric vehicles and am pretty much a “stereotypical” engineer: detail-oriented, analytical, and meticulous in my work.

Recently, I was presented with an opportunity to work a few hours a week as a Learning Services Instructor in a drop-in help centre offering help in Physics, Computer Science, and Technical Writing. At first, I was reluctant to take on this challenge. It’s been over 20 years since my own “university student” days, and I was concerned that I had forgotten how to study and learn, let alone try to guide others. But my spouse works in A-Z Learning Services at Brock, loves the job, and thought that it would be a good idea for me to get out of my comfort zone and share my knowledge, so I agreed.

I was pretty nervous the first day of work. What if I didn’t know how to solve a problem? What if students didn’t understand my explanation? What if they asked me about a lab I hadn’t done?

I have to say, it was a good learning experience for me (hopefully for the students as well). Here are some of the things I learned over the two terms.

  1. Physics and math haven’t changed in 20 years, but technology certainly has! With the software that professors have available, students can often get instant feedback on their answers. While that’s great, I find it leads to impulsivity. When students get three tries to get an answer, they tend to guess the first two tries and then read the hints before really starting to think about the problem.
  2. The problem solving techniques that got me through university and that I continue to use in my day job, still work. I’ve always approached every big problem as a bunch of smaller problems linked together. So if I can break a bigger problem down into its smaller sub-problems, then it seems less daunting. Solve the smaller problems, and the bigger problem practically solves itself, kind of like putting a puzzle together.
  3. Students don’t take the time to “show their work”. Since they often only get marks for the correct answer, they think it saves time to not put in units and show their work. Unfortunately, this often leads to the incorrect answer.   I tried to model problem-solving including all the units, showing all the steps, and explaining my thinking to help students see the value of showing their work, regardless of whether they got marks for it.
  4. Students are appreciative of the help, either from me or from other peers who had grasped the subject and were enthusiastic to share their knowledge.
  5. Offering learning support is an energizing and rewarding job!

Admittedly, I’m not “Faster than a speeding bullet”, “More powerful than a locomotive” or even “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”, but I can help students calculate the speed of a bullet, help them figure out when the locomotive will arrive at the station given its speed and distance traveled, and guide them to the formula to calculate how much time it will take for an object to land from a tall building. Not really superpowers- but I am happy that I was able to help students learn.

Now that my contract is over, it’s back to my quiet “Clark Kent existence”. I’d welcome the opportunity to take on the role of Learning Instructor again, a little wiser about what to expect.

For those of you who have more experience working with post-secondary students, what is the best piece of advice you would give to someone new (or relatively new) to this field?

SupermanIdentify withheld to protect writer’s alter ego

Part-time A-Z Learning Services Instructor (Physics, Computer Science, Technical Writing)

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