Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Olivia Graham - Blueprint for Action


As mentioned in my Story of Us, my interest in this area was sparked by interactions with new TFs on my course staff. I remember chatting with a new TF early on in the semester, and having them turn to me and say "I feel like I am learning so much about how to teach well, but I worry that my learning is happening on the job, at the expense of student learning." This inspired me to take a closer look at staff training across the department - while I had helped to train dozens of new CS51 TFs, I was unsure about how other classes approached this problem.

Project Abstract:

My research question asks: how can the Harvard CS department best support and train undergraduate teachers?

Existing Forms of TF Training:

By interviewing friends who taught CS, I quickly identified disparate training practices across various classes. Here are a few examples of how CS classes attempt to train their undergraduate Teaching Fellows.Immediately, it became clear that the CS department has not settled on best practices for training Teaching Fellows. However, I was still unsure about whether or not others saw this as a problem. So, I set out to learn more about how well prepared TFs felt for their work.

Takeaway: TF training is inconsistent across the department, and sparse at best.

My Research Process:

In order to learn more about the TF experience in CS, I leveraged a survey, as well as expert interviews with professors and head Teaching Fellows. While I hypothesized that current training was inadequate, I wanted to learn more about other issues that TFs might face before coming up with concrete recommendations.

Survey-Based Data Collection

My first goal was to further understand the problem space. I created a survey and asked undergraduate TFs the following questions:

These questions highlight three main areas of interest: understanding the current TF experience, assessing current training practices and requesting general feedback about the overall experience of undergraduate teachers. I posted the survey to the Women in Computer Science Slack, the Computer Science discussion board and sent it to various professors and teaching fellows in the department. Ultimately, I got twenty responses and was very grateful to my respondents for their honesty in responding. 

Key takeaways are highlighted in the infographic below, as well as striking quotes about the current training of TFs.


Existing Models of For-Credit Training:

Based off of the data collected in my survey, I noted that many TFs reported feelings of insecurity or unpreparedness when it came to their first semester of teaching.

I considered a couple of ways to remedy this: Ultimately, I decided that the last option was the most interesting to me. If the CS department were to create for-credit opportunities to train undergraduate TFs, learning to teach would become an integral part of new TFs onboarding experience. 

Teaching to Teach at Stanford:

At Stanford, all first-time undergraduate TFs enroll in a for-credit course titled CS198: The Teaching of Computer Science. The history of this program is quite interesting! A journal article titled The effective use of undergraduates to staff large introductory CS courses highlights the work done at Stanford to train and support undergraduate teachers. This work, published in 1988, highlights the scaling constrains that the CS department underwent in the early nineties. As a way of cutting costs, they turned to undergraduate TFs (called section leaders here). And, to ensure that there was sufficient support for undergraduate teachers, they then created CS198. Ultimately, training for new TFs grew to include simulations of grading, group discussion of various topics, and teach-ins with more experienced TFs. Rather than lecturing, the emphasis was placed on creating “environments and opportunities for the new section leaders to look at their own teaching/communicating skills through a mirror” (Reges, Stuart, et al, 1988). This paper also highlights techniques by which the professors were able to institutionalize this program and allow students to obtain credit.

Similar Programs:

In my research, I identified similar programs at Berkeley and Princeton. Additionally, it appears to be the case that similar programs exist at Harvard for graduate students in some departments.  

CS198 at Stanford:

I set up a meeting with the coordinators of the CS198 program (Erin, Kara, and Trip) at Stanford, who proved to be a wonderful resource! They spoke at length about the positive impact that the program has had on their teaching experience, as well as the value that it provides for undergraduate teachers, professors and students. Shown below are my notes!

In the words of the CS198 coordinators, this program:And is a key factor of why so many students at Stanford choose to teach! Something to note is that this program is only for TFs in the intro courses (CS106A and CS106B), and is rather specialized to these two courses. 

Summary Infographic:

This document highlights key aspects of the research process for this project, as well as actionable recommendations which follow from it. 

Takeaways + Justification:
Let us quickly go through my 3 suggestions for better supporting and training undergraduate teachers in a little more detail.
  1. Develop a curriculum for Pedagogy x CS, preparing enrolled undergraduates to teach for the first time. 
  2. Invest more heavily in support for undergrad teachers, and in developing a community across course staffs (ie: Slack). 
  3. Harvard, institutionally, must acknowledge the contributions of undergraduate educators + invest in their development.

Pedagogy x CS

My conversations with first-time teachers, professors at the Graduate School of Education and administrators of the CS198 program at Stanford led me to this conclusion. While TFing is a fantastic opportunity for undergraduates, they must be provided with resources to help them succeed. This will meaningfully improve the experience of TFs, as well as the experience of their students, who benefit from having more confident, assured teachers. At Stanford, the CS198 program is beloved by TFs and professors alike, as it provides a shared foundation of pedagogical knowledge and teaching skills. 

The work that undergraduate TFs do is simply too important for it to be done on the fly. While mandatory workshops might have a similar effect, many TFs are already extremely busy, as during their first semester of teaching they will be enrolled in 4 classes and present for another. Providing this for-credit opportunity to think more deeply about education would provide a stronger floor on TF skills, while freeing up some much-needed time in an already hectic schedule. 

The CS198 program is a fantastic example of how this can work at scale - and I will be working within the CS department to try and figure out how something like this can find a place within our course offerings. Key topics would include: DEI in teaching, public speaking, how to provide meaningful feedback and more. 

Focus on Community

While many course staffs are tight-knit communities, there does not currently exist a community of educators in CS in a larger sense. Our communities and our learnings are siloed. The department should invest in ways for TFs to get to know each other, share information and bond. Perhaps a beginning of the semester social might encourage TFs to get to know each other better. Alternatively, a communal Slack for TFs could be a way of encouraging the sharing of resources and best practices. 

I have loved being a CS51 TF because of the community it has given me - and I think that broadening the scope of this community would be beneficial for all undergrad TFs. 

Recognize our Contributions 

In a way, this project highlighted the need for the University to acknowledge the efforts of undergraduate TFs. For too long, the University appears to have looked the other way, essentially pretending that no undergraduates teach at Harvard. In the CS department, this is simply a blatant falsehood. And while resources exist for graduate student TFs, the same cannot currently be said for undergraduate TFs. The University must amend the Faculty Guidebook to reflect the roles that undergraduates hold today, offer Bok Center programming for undergraduates and think deeply about how to make undergraduate teaching a well-supported institution at the College. 

The End?

Well - not really. I hope to further pursue this blueprint for action over the summer, developing the complete syllabus for a CS91R course, liaising with the department and the Bok Center about designing resources for undergraduate teachers and more. This is a real labor of love for me, and the work is just beginning! 

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