In introductory computer science courses it is common for students to get more one on one time with their Teaching Assistants (TAs) as compared to their course instructors, due to large class sizes. This kind of individual attention is extremely important for novice programmers trying to learn new and abstract CS concepts.This means that the TAs have a direct and significant impact on the learning. In this project, I set out to investigate the role the TAs play in introductory CS courses.
I started out wanting to find out if an apprenticeship-based mentoring model could emerge between senior and junior TAs of introductory programming courses. But based on initial observations, my research focus shifted more towards TAs’ teaching approaches and their student’s learning outcomes. Specifically, I wanted to understand the following:
I did a literature review to identify previous research and inform my research process. In order to better understand what TAs do, and how it shapes the learning outcomes of students enrolled in introductory programming course, I decided to conduct some observational studies, interviews and focus groups.
I observed roughly about 100 interactions between students and their TAs consisting of 7 graduate and 8 undergraduate TAs during lab sections and when the TAs held their office hours. The observations were conducted over the course of 2 semesters, fall 2015 and spring 2016.
11 TAs (6 graduate TAs, and 5 undergraduate TAs) came forward to participate in this research. These interviews happened in parallel with the observations. The following questions were used for the initial interviews. Questions 6 and 7 were aimed at uncovering more about the mentoring model, in alignment with my initial research goal.
I moderated a focus group session with 11 Teaching assistants. I used the following prompts to help guide the discussion, following up with specific questions whenever necessary.
I moderated focus group sessions with 4 stduents.The studemts also filled out a questionnaire before the start of the focus group meeting. I used the following prompts to help guide the discussion, following up with specific questions whenever necessary.
In my observations , I saw that the TAs seldom provide any direct help to the students instead push the student in the right direction by providing hints, or by making the student explicitly process his/her understanding of a particular concept by engaging in the act of asking leading questions. This was also confirmed in the focus group. However,in the observations, I saw a tendency in the students to be very concerned with the immediate problem at hand, and seeing the TA as someone who holds the solution to that immediate problem. Once again, this was confirmed in the focus group meeting with students. Following are some major takeaways from this research.
Identified future work include the following: