Students, professors discuss finding resources for extra help in University’s largest classes

Sunday, February 10, 2019 - 2:58pm

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Design by Jack Silberman

This semester, LSA sophomore Grace Miller is enrolled in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science 281, a higher-level computer science class that introduces students to data structures and algorithms. This course is the fourth EECS class Miller has taken at the University and has a much smaller enrollment than the other introductory computer science class, EECS 183.

Like many students in project-based computer science courses, Miller relies on office hour help to complete assignments. EECS courses are taught by professors and Graduate Student Instructors as well as Instructional Aides, upper-level undergraduates who have succeeded in past EECS classes. Miller said limited staff and long wait times on the “queue,” a virtual line that tells students how long they have to wait to have their questions answered, often make the process time-consuming and frustrating.

“Last week I waited in the queue for three hours without getting help,” Miller said. “If there are a lot of people, they’ll have to help everyone at once so then you can’t ask specific questions, or you are waiting in this line for a really long time. I know they want to help you, but they really don’t have the capacity to sometimes.”

Across the country, a surge in the number of college students pursuing computer science degrees reflects the strong job market for students interested in the field and the growing demand for employees with computer science skills. With 1,390 declared undergraduate majors in Winter 2017, Computer Science is the most popular major in the College of Engineering and the second most popular by enrollment out of all schools at the University.

Introductory EECS courses, along with other large classes like Chemistry 210 and Math 115, often have three or four lecture sections and more than 1,000 students enrolled in one semester. Math 115, an introductory calculus course, was the largest LSA class by enrollment in Fall 2018 with 1,592 students, according to University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen. This semester, EECS 183 runs five lecture sections and 24 lab groups ranging from 15-20 students each.

With such large classes primarily offering new material to first and second year students, the University offers various resources — such as the Science Learning Center study groups and Math Lab walk-in tutoring services — to help students acclimate to college-level STEM courses. Yet some students find that these resources, along with EECS office hours, are often in such high demand that their resources are stretched thin.

Joe Salvatore, director of the SLC, said between 60 to 70 percent of students in Chem 210, the first level of organic chemistry, look to the SLC for help with studying for exams. Salvatore said with more than 3,200 students using the study groups each term, it can be difficult to physically find the space to help the growing number of students that request the SLC’s services.

“One of the challenges on campus right now is a space crunch,” Salvatore said. “There’s building going on, but as renovations and buildings (construction) occur it takes classrooms and spaces offline, so that can be a challenge for us because our spaces utilize classrooms on Central Campus. Just being able to find enough space at the time when students want to meet in study groups or have tutoring appointments can be a challenge.”

Students and Instructional Aides in EECS courses expressed similar concerns about the number of students their extra help resources have to accommodate. While EECS classes take place in buildings around Central Campus, the EECS department runs office hours in the Duderstadt Center on North Campus. Though the four floors of the Duderstadt offer various spaces for office hour help, Vineet Jammalamadaka, Engineering senior and Instructional Aide for EECS 183, said the limited number of Instructional Aides in the room at a given time can be challenging when project deadlines are coming up.

“You don’t really feel the class size as much as during the day because we interact with students in labs and our office hours, so we usually never feel the full force of 1,000 students, thankfully,” Jammalamadaka said. “We really feel it near the end of a project deadline, when students need help and they’re stuck on something and the office hour queue gets up to 50 people deep and there’s only six of us there, so it’s like a tug of war between helping each student for as long as we can versus getting to as many students as possible.”

Jammalamadaka said being an Instructional Aide and engaging with students in office hours gives him the opportunity to have a direct impact on whether they choose to pursue computer science in the future. Even so, he noted it can be difficult to help all the students he wants to when there are only around four to six IAs per office hours session.

“The ideal situation is we’d be able to hire more and more staff, but we’re limited by the University because depending on how many students are enrolled in the class, we can only have up to a certain number of IAs actually work for the course,” Jammalamadaka said. “So we’re limited by the University in that regard. But I think the one real change that would help office hours is something that we tell students is that starting a project early helps the students a lot and come to office hours earlier.”

Broekhuizen confirmed Jammalamadaka’s statement in regards to courses in LSA. She said there is no official policy on the number of Instructional Aides per class for the College of Engineering, however.

Although EECS Instructional Aides urge students to come to office hours when the projects are first released, some students find they are still waiting in the queue for a long time despite being weeks away from the project deadline. LSA sophomore Vikram Mathew, who is currently enrolled in EECS 281, said he went to office hours the day the project was announced and the day after, but found it overcrowded and busy.

“I expected pretty small office hours, and I was sitting on the floor,” Mathew said. “It was very packed. It’s a limitation of (the department’s) resource. Some people want them to get more GSIs, really expand the queues out.”

Long wait times and crowded office hours may be frustrating for students, but Salvatore and LSA sophomore Joey Greenstein said they may also help students become more independent learners and take control of their own education. According to Salvatore, promoting independent learning is one of the University’s main goals.

“What our programs try to do is say, ‘What are the ways in which we can best help students learn?’” Salvatore said. “And we feel part of that is building more independent learners, so whether it’s our tutors or study group facilitators, we try to turn the responsibility for learning back to the student. Instead of saying, ‘You have a question and let me answer it and go to the board,’ I’ll turn the question back to you and say, ‘What concepts do you think this question is about?’”

Greenstein, who is currently enrolled in Chem 215, has also taken larger introductory courses like Chem 210, Math 115 and Bio 172. He said he rarely went to office hours or lectures for Chem 210 because the resources for “open source learning” and recorded lectures allowed him to work at his own pace. For extra help, Greenstein uses the problems of the day and Thinking in Blue worksheets, which give step-by-step directions for how to complete a problem.

“In lecture, if you misunderstand something (the professor) says, you basically spend time looking it up and miss the next thing he says and it kind of continues on this cascade,” Greenstein said. “With a lecture like that online, you can pause it and look it up. You can even watch it at 2x, which will allow you to go through lectures quicker and also retain more information because you can pause it if you need an explanation for something.”

Professor Brian Coppola, who has taught Chem 210 and 215, designed the Thinking in Blue worksheets and problems of the day to help students become more self-sufficient. In an email, Coppola said none of the extra resources he gives out are required for the course because he is a “huge advocate for independence and self-regulation.”

At the beginning of all of his exams, Coppola asks students to write what resources they have used to help them prepare. He said this method gives students the opportunity to find out what resources work best for them.

“What we know is that success correlates with the behavior that one enacts when managing resources,” Coppola said. “Finding ones that work for you and continuing to use them — ‘exploit’ the resource — acknowledging that something is not working and jettisoning it — ‘pruning’ the resource — and trying something new — ‘exploring’ the resource.”

Even with these extra resources geared toward independent learning, Mathew said courses like EECS 183 and EECS 281 require in-person help because most of the assignments are projects. He said while the long queues and crowded office hours often turn people away, getting help from Instructional Aides is so necessary for the class that students feel forced to brave the long waits.

“The biggest issue is that office hour help is very coveted in the EECS department,” Mathew said. “The higher and higher up you get, they’ll hold your hand less and less. The higher of these courses you take, the more likely that could be true. And because of the pressure of failing so hard, if you don’t think you can solve the problem in a certain amount of time, it really incentivizes you to go to office hours.”