Skip to main content

C'est la Z

SIGCSE 2023 - when the solution solves the wrong problem

The next good idea was from David Malan of Harvard's CS50 class. For full disclosure, I have to say that I've been skeptical of CS50 ever since I started hearing from my former students. I've had a lot of them either take CS50 at Harvard, TA the class, or TA the course that follows CS50 and their assessment is, let's say somewhat different than the usual Ted Talk miracle course hype that normally surrounds it.

What was the problem? Office hours. Malan described how offices hours started in a dark dank computer lab but as they realized that most if not all students had laptops they moved them to dining halls across classrooms complete with snacks. This should have been great but he shared a graph showing the typical cyclic behavior of office hours visits - peaking right before each project was due. He also shared that the wait for a TA would reach two hours at those peak times.

The solution involved reworking office hours to group office hours - adding another small recitation to the class if you would and also one single big office hours block with all 80 teaching assistants.

The problem - too many students waiting too long for help over and over again is a real problem. My issue is that the solution doesn't address the real problem.

As an experienced teacher I had one immediate thought.

Over the day I ended up speaking to 3 other experienced HS teachers. I told each the problem - even with Harvard's resources, overloaded office hours - too many students, too long a wait. I told the solution as well - small group office hours + 1 big office hour block.

Each independently and immediately had the same reaction I did.

If you've got large numbers of students coming out to office hours over and over again the problem probably isn't with the TAs. The problem is probably in the course.

Same thing when half the class fails a test or can't complete a project. That's the time that as teachers we have to look at ourselves. Maybe we're not teaching something well or maybe it's too much in too short a time. Maybe an assignment is just unrealistic.

In any event, indications based on the presentation is that the issue is most likely in the course, its delivery, or its instruction, not the office hours arrangements.

Besides, looking at the small group TA solution, what you're really doing is adding an additional recitation to the class without awarding any additional credits to the students.

I could be all wrong on this but I don't think I am. It's not uncommon for an instructor not to look inward when class issues arise.

So, this might not be popular but that was my take.

That's it for my posts on "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Next we'll move to thoughts on some other sessions.

comments powered by Disqus