Ken Yanagisawa

Undergraduate Learning Assistants — who worked for the first time in a computer science course last term — will be a presence in the department’s other courses in the coming academic year.

In a faculty meeting Thursday, faculty members passed a proposal to expand the employment of Undergraduate Learning Assistants — at first used only in CPSC 100, a class more commonly known as CS50 — to all other undergraduate courses in the department. An appeal for the use of ULAs was first approved by the faculty in November 2014 for a three-year trial so that they could teach in CS50, a course structured around an undergraduate teaching presence. The Thursday vote extends the ULA experiment to the department’s other undergraduate courses. Before November 2014, undergraduates were allowed to serve as graders or peer tutors, but never for the same course. 

Department chair Joan Feigenbaum said the fall semester course evaluations for CS50 have reflected such enthusiasm about the ULAs that the department decided to expand the program to its other classes. She noted, however, that the decision is not a final one — the experiment will run for two more years, when the entire ULA program will come under review. 

“My Yale computer science colleagues and I are delighted finally to have the opportunity to involve our brilliant undergraduates more fully in instructional support,” Feigenbaum said. “We hope to learn a lot from the remaining two years of the experiment and then continue with a more polished form of the ULA program.”

The approval makes all undergraduate computer science courses eligible to employ ULAs under the same terms as are used in CS50. Selected students will receive training from the Center for Teaching and Learning and may run discussion sections, hold office hours and grade assignments.

The expansion of the ULA program may go a long way toward filling the gaps left by a small graduate student population often unable to properly staff all department courses. Still, unlike graduate teaching assistants, ULAs may not work during reading period or final exam period.

Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said the approved proposal does not change the fact that the entire ULA program will be reviewed in two years.

“The debate mainly involved the truly fine details of the program,” he said. “Bottom line: There’s no substantive change to the ULA program except that it will be available in more CS courses.”

Computer science professors have spoken highly about the undergraduate learning assistants and peer tutors, and said they were excited about the expansion of the ULA experiment.

However, Feigenbaum noted that the expansion of the ULA experiment will not affect the positions of peer tutors and undergraduate course graders, who will still be available for instructors and students who prefer those arrangements.

Computer science professor David Gerlernter ’76 said ULAs are a great idea and added that undergraduates are more than capable of serving as teaching assistants.

“Undergrads can do this job and, at their best, they do it superbly,” he said. “They understand what it’s like to take these courses — they see practical problems clearly that a grad student … might not see at all.”

Others have also highlighted the department’s “cutting edge” role in developing the ULAs.

At a recent town hall meeting, computer science professor and lead CS50 instructor Brian Scassellati said the department should put time and energy into the project because the experiment could be replicated across the University if successful. However, he noted that the proper training sessions for undergraduate assistants may be substantial and time-consuming.

Last fall, CS50 had a team of 29 teaching assistants and ULAs.