Olivia Graham - Blueprint for Action
Motivation: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.
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.
- CS50: This course has a huge staff, numbering more than 50 undergraduate TFs and CAs. Staff training consists of 1-2 mandatory workshops offered during the spring semester, where soon-to-be TFs simulate interacting with students in OH and more.
- CS51: Hires 20 undergrad TFs, and conducts one day of staff training. We release an instructional handbook written by the professor, and take the day to go over OH/CR/more.
- CS124: 16 undergrad TFs, no formal staff training. TFs are expected to run sections, and come up with problem set/midterm questions.
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:
- What classes in the CS department have you taught?
- How has your experience been overall?
- What made you want to be a CS TF/CA?
- On a scale of 1-5, how well prepared did you feel to start your work as a TF?
- How were you trained to do your role?
- If you feel that your preparation was insufficient, why?
- How could the training have been improved?
- On a scale of 1-5 , how well supported do you feel as an undergrad TF?
- What do you think could be done to improve the undergraduate CS TF experience on the whole?
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:
- Departmental guidance for professors to run staff trainings at the beginning of the semester
- Workshops through the Bok Center
- Mandatory training sessions at a department level
- For-credit academic opportunities to engage with pedagogy ++ teaching CS
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:
- Motivates people to do and teach Computer Science
- Fosters connections between new Teaching Fellows
- Is crucial to ensure that students are given the opportunity to have high quality 1:1 interactions with members of the teaching staff
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.
- Develop a curriculum for Pedagogy x CS, preparing enrolled undergraduates to teach for the first time.
- Invest more heavily in support for undergrad teachers, and in developing a community across course staffs (ie: Slack).
- Harvard, institutionally, must acknowledge the contributions of undergraduate educators + invest in their development.
Pedagogy x CSMy 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 CommunityWhile 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.