In the days following the approval of a proposal to expand the role of Undergraduate Learning Assistants in the Computer Science Department, professors and students have expressed overwhelming enthusiasm for the decision, though much work still remains to be done to ensure the quality of the incoming ULAs.
ULAs, who could initially only be employed in CPSC 100, commonly known as CS50, this past fall, may now work in any undergraduate computer science course. Still, not all computer science classes will have ULAs, since individual professors have the option of whether to hire ULAs for their classes or to continue working with peer tutors and graders. Computer science professors and students interviewed agreed that the expansion is necessary, given the department’s rapidly growing undergraduate interest and small number of graduate students who serve as teaching fellows. But professors noted that the CS50 ULAs had to undergo significant training sessions, and incoming ULAs for other courses may need similarly rigorous preparation.
“The more student contact you have, the more training is required. ULAs are trained not just about the rules, but also about how to be effective teachers,” said computer science professor Brian Scassellati, who taught CS50 in the fall. “You need to spend time training if you want good ULAs.”
Still, computer science professor Daniel Abadi, who is in charge of training graduate-student teaching fellows, noted that though the specifics for training have not yet been finalized, the training for assistants working in other department courses will probably be “a little bit less intense” than the CS50 ULA training.
Abadi added that the department is planning to meet with the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning in the upcoming weeks to finalize a training plan and determine how the application process for ULA positions will work.
ULAs were first approved by the faculty in November 2014 to teach in CS50, a course that relies on a strong undergraduate teaching presence. Before the approval, undergraduate students could serve only as peer tutors or graders — either holding office hours or grading assignments, but never both. Course evaluations for the fall of 2015 showed positive feedback about the new undergraduate teaching system, which offers a more structured support system.
CS50 Course Head Jason Hirschhorn said that based on his experience in CS50, he sees a demand for even more quality student teachers to help them with their coursework.
“Our department is understaffed and to get the optimal teaching outcomes for the students in our department we need a bigger teaching staff,” Abadi said. “Peer tutors and graders are nice programs but they don’t have the full, 360 view of the student that the ULAs will have.”
Scassellati said peer tutors are meant to help individual students, whereas ULAs have to deal with a whole class of 30 to 100 students and answer any of their questions. It is a whole different level of commitment, he said.
Students noted that ULAs are often more approachable than regular teaching assistants, who are typically graduate students.
“I think this can actually be great for the department because I think there will be less intimidation for some people when talking with an undergrad than a grad,” computer science major Yehia Saleh ’18 said. “Also, the fact that the TAs are in the same stage as other undergrads [means] they can tell the students about their experiences and internships, which is a huge plus.”
Other students also praised the structure and seriousness of the ULA system, compared to the peer tutor structure.
David McPeek ’17, a CS50 ULA this fall, said he was drawn to the program because it offers more formal training compared to the peer tutoring system. For CS50, students had to undergo more than 40 hours of training sessions before they could take to the classrooms.
“The reason why I think this would work is because being a ULA requires a level of commitment and seriousness that attracts a lot of people. I really identified with the role and it became my main extracurricular activity,” McPeek said. “I feel a deep sense of responsibility as a ULA, whereas the peer tutor role is more of a student job.”
The Computer Science Department is aware that the policies could also be a future template for use in other departments.
During the computer science town hall hosted last week to discuss the current state of the department, Scassellati noted that the department was the “cutting edge” of the Yale campus in terms of involving undergraduate students in teaching roles.
“With CS50, we are the prototype and test case for how this is going to work in the future,” Scassellati said. “It is worth us putting time and energy because it could get replicated across the University whatever we end up doing.”
CS50 ULAs are trained in the spring semester in preparation for the fall term.