When Mary Farner ’16 prepared for her first CS50 section, she was nervous. She had never before taught a Yale course section in front of her peers — now her students.
Three weeks into classes, all 510 students enrolled in CS50, or “Introduction to Computing and Programming,” have experienced their first classroom sections, many of which were led by undergraduate learning assistants, or ULAs: Yale undergraduates who function as teaching fellows by leading sections, grading papers and holding office hours. While many peer universities, including Harvard and Georgetown, have student TAs, CS50 marks the first Yale course taught in part by other Yale undergraduates. The new ULAs face many challenges in adapting to the new role, but all ULAs interviewed described the experience as fulfilling.
“[Teaching] is not a skill we teach our students, so we spent a long time working with the staff,” said Brian Scassellati, who teaches the CS50 course at Yale.
Jason Hirschhorn, a former Harvard CS50 TA and CS50 staff head, said the team spent two weekends in the spring and a significant portion of time before the start of classes training the new ULAs. The team heads brought the ULAs into New Haven high school and elementary school classrooms to teach computer science to young students for a sort of test run.
“The most difficult part of being a TA is managing different levels of student comfort with the course material,” said CS50 ULA David McPeek ’17. “I suppose this is one of the main challenges for all teachers. It’s difficult to put yourself back into beginner’s shoes and remember that the most basic elements of a subject you think about for hours each day are non-obvious to beginners.”
Each week, the ULAs receive an agenda of topics they should cover in class, but the team heads understand that there are multiple ways to teach a subject. As long as the ULAs abide by the staff’s philosophy and put in the time necessary for the job, the team heads are satisfied.
ULAs interviewed said they were surprised to find that teaching their peers has come more naturally than expected, and similarly, students said being taught by ULAs of their same age has not been awkward.
“I originally thought that having a peer as a TA would be a bit weird,” said CS50 student Katherine Watson ’18 in an email. “However, that hasn’t been the case. I’ve been very impressed with my TA. She is definitely a peer, considering that she is both in my class year and residential college, but it doesn’t feel awkward. In some ways, it makes her more approachable than the alternative.”
Haohang Xu ’18 agreed, saying that she thinks her students are more comfortable with asking her questions than they would be with, for instance, a graduate student because she is their age.
CS50 has 30 sections that are each one and a half hours long — 40 minutes longer than the normal Yale section.