After four months of free cake and live DJs, the first semester of CS50 at Yale has come to a close, with both students and teaching staff considering the class a success.
Although CS50 — officially CSPC 110 in Yale’s course listings — has been part of the Harvard curriculum for more than three decades, Yale students piloted the class this semester after the joint initiative was approved both in New Haven and Cambridge last fall. One of the most popular classes this term, CS50 had a total of 1,213 students at the beginning of the semester, 510 at Yale and 703 at Harvard. This semester also marked the first time a class at Yale employed a team of undergraduate learning assistants in its staff, which students highlighted as a major reason they enjoyed the class.
“CS50 was tough, time-consuming, intense, yet fascinating, rewarding, satisfying and truly inspiring,” Peter Wang ’18 said. “CS50 gave me the best experience of working with friends ever at Yale.”
All students interviewed said the CS50 course load was far more intense than they expected coming in, with problem sets and midterms significantly harder than those for other classes in their schedules.
Students interviewed indicated that the weekly problem sets often took upwards of 15 hours to complete, and many said they attended office hours and sections several times each week to get additional help.
“Each problem set took quite a lot of time but overall I don’t think the difficulty was too high, and they really do provide a lot of resources and people to go to for help,” Damla Ozdalga ’18 said. “I went to office hours two to three nights a week, every week, for three hours each time.”
Otis Baker ’19 had a similar experience, noting that he often had to dedicate “massive” amounts of time to problem sets. He added that he always had a more skilled student assisting him.
James Landefeld ’17, who took CS50 Credit/D/Fail, added that the hours he spent on CS50 every week were roughly the same as the hours he spent on his four other classes combined.
“I think my overall experience with CS50 was that I did not know just what I was getting myself into,” Landefeld said. “I assumed that it was kind of breeze because of being a class for beginners, but it ended up being the most time-consuming class that I have been taking this semester.”
But despite the class not meeting students’ original expectations, all six students interviewed said CS50 was an overall enriching experience, and that they did not regret their decision to take the class.
Students said the support system of undergraduate learning assistants was one of the most important reasons for the class’s success.
CS50 had a team of 29 teaching assistants and undergraduate learning assistants who led sections for an hour and a half each week, although most sections at Yale meet for 50 minutes. In addition to sections, TAs and ULAs also staffed office hours and worked individually with students when necessary.
“I don’t think you’ll find another class where you can show up to office hours with 20 people on hand ready to help, or a class where you have 150 staff members moderating a Piazza-like forum on which students can ask any question they would like,” ULA Brahm Gardner ’17 said. “Most importantly, I know you won’t find another class with a TA your own age.”
Since many of the teaching staff were undergraduate students, they well understood students’ struggles, such as having problem sets and midterms in other classes, Landefeld said. He added that it was easier to talk and approach the undergraduate learning assistants because of their similar age.
ULA Summer Wu ’18, who is also a computer science major, said it would have been impossible to teach CS50 the same way if the class were taught only by graduate teaching assistants, because the Computer Science Department is “woefully understaffed.”
“With several hundred students at office hours every night, sufficient TA support is integral to making such a difficult class more accessible to beginners,” Wu said.
Lead CS50 instructor at Yale Brian Scassellati said the CS50 teaching staff was the “absolute best part” of the class, adding that the undergraduate learning assistants were well-received by students.
However, much like their students, the ULAs often struggled to find enough time to dedicate to the class.
ULA Evan Hellmuth ’16 said he was surprised at first with how long it took him to grade problem sets and quizzes and prepare for each section.
“Juggling my own academics and my commitment to [the crew team] took organization and maturity,” ULA Mary Farner ’16 said. “It’s not just like having another class to get work done for, because the work I do for CS50 has a direct impact on my students.”
Unlike with other extracurriculars, ULAs could not lighten their commitment to the class during a challenging week, Gardner said. He added that the time commitment often reached upwards of 15 hours a week.
But like their students, none of the five ULAs interviewed regretted taking the position, and all who were not seniors said they would be interested in teaching again come next fall, highlighting the multiple skills they learned teaching the course these past months.
Hellmuth, who is considering being a high-school teacher in the future, said his ability to teach improved dramatically. The teaching staff had weekly meetings during which they often discussed how to improve the effectiveness of sections, he said.
All sections were recorded, and halfway through the semester CS50 course head Jason Hirschhorn met with each individual ULA to discuss how they could improve their teaching styles.
“I’m really proud of [ULAs] for the work they’ve [done] this semester,” Hirschhorn said. “We set high expectations, and the staff lived up to them.”
In addition to improved teaching skills, ULAs gained other valuable lessons from the course.
Farner said for her, the most important lesson she learned was about the schooling system itself — seeing a class from the perspective of an instructor rather than a student allowed her to realize what is most important about education — acquiring new knowledge.
“We, as students, so often hyper-focus on the numbers, the grades, the GPA, but a course like CS50 really shows you that it’s about the learning and the growth a student has over the semester,” Farner said. “Regardless of the end result or the grade you get, what you learn and how you grow are what’s important in a class.”
Lead instructor of CS50 at Harvard David Malan said the staff found no significant difficulties or setbacks in teaching a class from two different campuses. He highlighted that the joint initiative sets an exciting precedent for further collaboration between the two universities.
Scassellati said dealing with two academic calendars, two sets of administrative hurdles and two sets of course requirements was “quite an undertaking,” but that these struggles went unnoticed by students, which was the staff’s goal.
“That two universities have come together to collaborate not only on research but on education in this way is a wonderful precedent,” Malan said. “As such, that the course in question is CS50 is just an implementation detail.”
The CS50 Fair at Yale, where students present their final projects, will be held on Monday, Dec. 14 in Commons.