TA Spotlight: Halie Olson

December 9, 2020

TA Spotlight: Halie Olson

by 

Tristan Davies | Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

"What I get every time are these little nuggets of insight that people come up with that I really learn from or think about later," says fourth-year graduate student and teaching assistant Halie Olson.

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Halie Olson got an early start in teaching. “I started running a summer school summer camp for my brothers when I was in fifth grade. I think I got $10 a day for running a whole summer camp with reading and math and Spanish and all sorts of things.”

Pretty good money for a fifth grader!

Now a graduate teaching assistant, Halie brought her skills to 9.00, Introduction to Psychological Science, which attracts students from multiple majors and all class years. Spring 2021 will be her third time TA’ing the subject. 

“One of the first things I always do on our first day of classes is ask people why they’re taking the course,” she says. “Some people just think it sounds cool, and some people have really interesting nuanced questions about the brain or psychology that they hope the class will give some insight on.” 

Halie, a fourth-year graduate student in BCS, teaches one of several recitation sections in the popular course, which is led by one of her thesis advisors, Professor John Gabrieli. “The point of those recitations is really to be the students’ touch point to discuss the material. It’s not so much trying to help them memorize a bunch of information, it’s about connecting what they’re learning in lecture and from the textbook to what they see in their lives.”

Sharing moments of discovery is especially rewarding. “One of the coolest things about psychology is that people have a lot of intuitions about how it connects to their lives, so it’s really fun when we talk about different psychological phenomena that subvert those expectations.” She points to the retinal blind spot as an example—the way our brains fill in the missing part of our visual field so we don’t even notice. “It’s so fun to see students discovering their blind spot for the first time. You think you know your mind. You think you know how you see the world. I think for a lot of people, taking an introductory psychology course can be the first time some of those things are flipped on their head and they’re challenged to think about how their brain is actually interacting with the world around them.”

Halie has developed her teaching style over the years since that fifth-grade summer camp. One of the most important experiences was in the summer after her first year as a Harvard undergraduate.

“I taught a class of six- to eight-year-olds,” she recalls. “It was exhausting. I had to come up with the curriculum and engage these kids all the time and make them feel like coming to a summer school sort of program was fun.”

Perhaps a little unexpectedly, those skills transferred well to MIT. “Not that I treat the students in MIT’s recitations the same way that I would treat six- to eight-year-olds,” Halie is quick to say. “But I think a lot of the same principles and lessons that I learned from that experience apply.” Beyond pedagogy, Halie puts a lot of weight on seeing each student for who they are. “No matter who you’re talking to, I try to come in with a level of respect and feeling that I can learn something from them. I think that is important.”

Being attentive to her students’ individuality means that being a TA has also changed Halie’s perspective. “What I get every time are these little nuggets of insight that people come up with that I really learn from or think about later. So for me, it’s actually really fun.”

TA Spotlights is an occasional series featuring BCS’s most outstanding teaching assistants to hear about their work and journey as educators. To suggest someone for a future spotlight, email bcs-info@mit.edu.

Image credits: top photo by Caitlin Cunningham/Mcgovern Institute; camp photo courtesy Halie Olson.