Campus | December 9, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Harvard Undergrads are Teaching Each Other and Harvard Doesn’t Want to Talk About It

William Chen '14 teaches a popular section for Stat 110.

William Chen ’14 teaches a popular section for Stat 110.

The practice of hiring undergraduates to help in the teaching of other undergraduates is an ingrained practice at Harvard, and also a well-kept secret. For over 40 years, these “course assistants” have led sections, graded assignments, and held office hours. With the rapid increase in the number of students studying quantitative fields such as computer science, applied mathematics, and statistics, the number of such course assistants has grown significantly in recent years.

 Many departments embrace undergraduate course assistants as effective teachers, but Harvard as a whole has lagged behind in recognizing their pivotal role in helping quantitative undergraduate programs function. This is most likely because adequate recognition of the role of undergraduates in teaching could damage Harvard’s already tarnished image as a teaching university. The public conflates depth of knowledge with proficiency of teaching, and thus expects all teaching at places like Harvard to be done by professors or graduate students. The reality is that driven, talented undergraduates selected to be course assistants are as good as, if not better than, graduate students at teaching elements of most courses.

With the kickoff of Harvard’s largest-ever fundraising effort, now is an excellent time to expand resources devoted to preparing and supporting undergraduate teachers at Harvard, and to recognize that the use of course assistants is not something to be bashful of– but rather something to celebrate. Harvard has long been a trendsetter in higher education. By publicly acknowledging and developing its undergraduate teachers, Harvard can again set a standard for learning that has the potential to lower costs and raise quality.

On Criticism and Capping Concentrations

Joseph Ong '14 giving part of a CS50 lecture.

Joseph Ong ’14 giving part of a CS50 lecture.

The use of undergraduate teachers at Harvard leaves the institution vulnerable to multiple, worrisome attacks. Harvard is known as a research university and is often criticized for devoting too much of its human capital to research rather than to teaching. Critics argue that Harvard’s use of undergraduates is further evidence that its professors and graduate students have too little time or incentive to teach.

In addition, critics attack the use of undergraduates in teaching as a policy that opens the possibility of widespread cheating, a concern particularly important in the wake of Harvard’s unprecedented scandal. Having an undergraduate course assistant grade assignments and exams seems like an opportunity ripe for exploitation due to conflicts of interest.

But the use of undergraduates is necessary to avoid a much worse outcome: capping concentrations. When the number of concentrators spikes in quantitative fields (as has been the case in recent years), Harvard Professor of Statistics Joe Blitzstein says that the University simply cannot hire faculty at a fast enough rate.

Rather than capping the number of, say, computer science concentrators, expanding the number of restricted enrollment courses, or requiring students to specify what they will concentrate in upon entry, Harvard bolsters its teaching staff by hiring undergraduate course assistants.

However, critics would be hard pressed to find cases of academic integrity issues resulting from undergraduate teaching, given that Harvard manages issues of academic integrity through course design. Blitzstein explained that, even though he is not worried about any of his course assistants helping students cheat, his assistants never actually see the exams he writes before test time. And in Harvard’s computer science courses, professors use software to detect identical code in problem sets. Indeed, only one interviewee for this article reported a single case of abuse by an undergraduate course assistant.

Despite the positives of using course assistants, the practice at Harvard is still, in Blitzstein’s opinion, “somewhat unusual,” because of how pervasive it is and also because of how young some of the course assistants are.  The Statistics department hired 32 undergraduates and 32 graduate students to help teach courses this past semester. And some, especially in the larger courses, are only sophomores.  It’s easy to see why Harvard might want to remain mute on the subject.

Indeed, Harvard’s own admissions website does not mention the use of undergraduates in teaching, and stresses instead that for undergraduates the primary pedagogical experience will be driven by relationships with professors. In an interview with the HPR, Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath said that the role of undergraduates in teaching is the “kind of question that comes up in conversation, or group sessions,” but not one that the Admissions Office proactively discusses.

Concerningly, even though students and professors refer to course assistants as “teaching fellows” or “TFs”– the title officially designated for graduate students involved in teaching– the university refuses to pay graduate and undergraduate students equally or to create a different title for undergraduate students. Rob Bowden, a former course assistant and current preceptor of Computer Science 50, recounted in an interview with the HPR the tension that arose when Greg Morrissett, a professor of computer science, appointed an undergraduate as a “head teaching fellow” for Computer Science 51. The mistake was ultimately rectified by appointing a graduate student to help run the course, even though the undergraduate assistants still did most of the work.

Rather than shying away from its pervasive use of undergraduate course assistants, Harvard should embrace the benefits of undergraduate teachers, who help widen access to in-demand concentrations, and can often be driven, compelling, and effective teachers.

Undergraduate CAs: Accessible, Excited, and Excellent

Professor of Computer Science Harry Lewis, maintains a list of all the students who have ever served as assistants in courses that he has taught on his blog. The post is more like a hall of fame than anything else, sporting names of current faculty at universities such as Stanford and senior engineers at firms like Google. Lewis celebrates his undergraduate course assistants for a reason. In an interview with Harvard Magazine, Lewis said, “My TFs have always been better teachers than I am.”

Indeed, a common theme in responses among those interviewed for this article is that undergraduate course assistants, besides being excited to teach, are often more accessible than traditional instructors. Graduate students, for instance, work in their own labs in different buildings and usually go home at seven o’clock, right when undergraduates typically finish dinner and start working. Morrisett pointed out in his interview with the HPR that course assistants live in the same spaces at undergraduates and operate on the same timeframes, meaning that undergraduates have good access to dedicated teachers.

For instance, Bowden was a course assistant for nine courses in six semesters, which means he helped teach multiple courses a semester. For Bowden, his teaching has deep meaning and purpose. “When I was a student in CS50 and CS51,” Bowden explained in an interview with the HPR, “I wanted to be like one of those people that everyone wants to go to” to ask for help.

Statistics 110 is another course which makes heavy use of undergraduate course assistants to teach non-mandatory sections and supplementary lectures. William Chen, a senior who will graduate with a Master’s in Statistics through Harvard’s Advanced Standing program, has forty to fifty students regularly attend his section. Chen noted that at times his section is larger than many courses offered at Harvard. That so many students choose to attend Chen’s section over those offered by graduate students teaching the course evidences the respect undergraduates have for their peers who choose to teach.

According to Eric Mazur, a professor of applied physics, undergraduates can be superior teachers to graduate students. “We professors have gone over the concepts in our heads so many times, we forget what it is like to learn the material for the first time. Undergraduate TFs have learned the material recently and remember the things that they didn’t understand.”

Mazur believes in this philosophy to the point that he has actively restructured his introductory physics course to maximize interactions among his course assistants and his students. His course, Applied Physics 50, employs a flipped-classroom model that allows course assistants to circulate around tables of students working on problems and projects to discuss concepts. This model is spreading across the quantitative disciplines.

Lewis also pointed out that while Harvard does not “admit graduates on the basis of their verbal [GRE] scores,” much emphasis is placed on ensuring that undergraduates can read, write, and communicate clearly. In addition, undergraduates are often able to better relate to other undergraduates and know the structure of courses well because of their recent experiences in them.

Given that Harvard is not going to have enough faculty to teach students in introductory quantitative courses in small ratios any time soon, Harvard should invest more in strengthening the talented body of students who elect and are selected to teach their fellow undergraduates, rather than scrambling to hire from merely from the graduate student pool.

Capitalizing on Undergraduate Teaching

One goal of the Harvard University Capital Campaign is to raise $150 million to enhance teaching and learning at Harvard. Rather than focusing most of this money on technology initiatives such as edX, Harvard could use some of this money to strengthen undergraduate teaching at Harvard. To do this, Harvard must first recognize the important role undergraduates play in learning, and then celebrate this role to attract top students. Even more, Harvard should devote resources to prepare and retain talented teachers.

Teaching undergraduates builds communication skills and solidifies knowledge. Bowden explained that being a course assistant “undeniably reinforced [his] learning.” Even just answering questions and having to explain material in different ways, he said, helped him understand his field of study better. Harvard should advertise this opportunity to prospective undergraduates, pointing out that if they do exceptionally well in their courses, they may have the opportunity to serve as course assistants– an excellent way to build relationships with professors and solidify knowledge prior to graduate school and advanced careers. The ability to course assist should therefore be a selling point of the Harvard education, not something that “comes up in conversation.”

In addition to upgrading the attention paid to course assistants, Harvard should invest more in improving undergraduate teachers. In an interview with the HPR, Sebastian Chiu, a popular course assistant for Stat 110: Introduction to Probability, said that one thing that would have helped when he first began teaching is “more preparation.” Right now, preparation both for undergraduates and graduate students varies in rigor by department. Though the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning has programs to help students develop as teachers, more could be done to institutionalize training for teaching undergraduates.

For instance, David Malan, who teaches Harvard’s introductory computer science course, recently began using cameras placed in classrooms to allow course assistants to privately view their lessons to help understand the effectiveness of their presentations.

To incentivize top students to teach and to help retain talent, Harvard could use part of the $150 million raised as part of the Harvard University Capital Campaign to sponsor master’s programs across quantitative disciplines to encourage top undergraduates to stay on at Harvard and teach. Such a program could be made attractive through a prestigious and competitive application for reduced graduate school tuition. Many students would love to remain at Harvard in a Bowden-like capacity, yet the capacity to do so on a widespread scale does not exist.

These days, there are more articles discussing how HarvardX is improving learning in remote corners of the world than how Harvard is improving learning here in Cambridge. Course assistants are more than employees, they are a core component of Harvard’s teaching force. It’s time we treated them as such.

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