CS Learning Center boosts student success through peer-to-peer assistance

Tutor Isaac Sung works with fellow student Katie Koenig

It’s no secret on campus that introductory computer science courses can be quite challenging—so a new tutoring lab within the Department of Computer Sciences is ready to provide students with the extra help they may need to succeed.

The Computer Sciences Learning Center opened on a pilot basis during the spring 2016 semester and has become more established this fall, with a roster of fifteen tutors who keep it open 6 hours per day, four days a week.  Students can drop in for as-needed, peer-to-peer help, rather than needing to abide by the office hours of a professor or TA.

The Learning Center is managed by Faculty Associate Laura Hobbes LeGault and Professor Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau.  Of the fifteen tutors, thirteen are concurrently enrolled in CS 638, Theory and Practice in Computer Science Education, taught by LeGault.  The remaining tutors have already taken the course and are paid for their work.  CS 638 prepares more advanced students to teach others effectively and gives them a forum to reflect on their teaching experiences.

Says LeGault (pictured at left), “It’s a win in both directions,” as the CS 638 students build their teaching skills while those dropping in for tutoring get academic assistance right when they need it.

Alexi Brooks, a fifth-year graduate student specializing in CS education, tutored in the Learning Center during its first semester.  Although he already had experience as a course TA and as a coach for UW-Madison’s programming team, Brooks found the combination of taking CS 638 and tutoring to be extremely beneficial in developing his teaching skills.

Brooks says he enjoyed seeing the students who came in for tutoring grow over the course of the semester.  “At the beginning, they came because they needed help, but at the end, groups would show up and work together [in the tutoring lab], but they would only ask me a question or two.”  Brooks could see their academic confidence and ability to problem-solve with fellow students blossom.

Tutors also relay useful information to course instructors.  Says LeGault, feedback from tutors helps her find out what students think is confusing in the classroom, such as in the Introduction to Data Programming (CS 301) course she is currently teaching.  (In addition to CS 301, lab tutors also help students with work from CS 302 and CS 367.)

The Learning Center is supported by funds from a gift made by Sheldon and Marianne Lubar of Milwaukee, who delighted the department with a generous $7 million gift in fall 2015.  The Lubars’ gift not only endowed two chairs and two professorships, it also earmarked money for other needs critical to the department, including the tutoring lab.

“It’s wonderful to have this support because as a wider cross-section of students from different majors takes computer science courses, we want them to have multiple avenues for getting help when they need it,” says Arpaci-Dusseau.

The lab operates out of the lounge perched above the west doors to the CS building, facing Union South.  The area is intended to be a community space, and more and more students are studying there even when the tutors are not available.  It’s now a hub for joining forces on classwork with others.

Tutoring services also help students understand how they’re doing relative to peers, says LeGault, which is important.  “Students may feel embarrassed about needing help,” she says, “and then the tutor will say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve had that question twelve times already.’  So students realize that the fact they’re having trouble is not a personal reflection on them.  Getting help gives them a reality check in a positive way.”

Senior Michael Cook, a tutor, echoes those thoughts.  “I’ve been able to ease people’s worries when they find themselves not performing at the level they think is expected of them,” he says.  

Furthermore, says Cook, students often speak more freely with a tutor than their course instructor.  “There is a different dynamic between a student and a tutor than there is with a professor or TA.  [Students] are aware that we don’t control grades, and I feel as if people are much more open when asking questions.”

Cook says he, too, struggled in his intro CS courses.  Now he’s turning his own experiences into a way to assist fellow Badgers who are in his former footsteps:  “I find that because I’m an undergraduate senior, the students I tutor are able to connect with me easily.”

[Photo credit: Sarah Morton.  At top, tutor Isaac Sung helps fellow student Katie Koenig in the CS Learning Center on Dec. 12, 2016.]