By Jessica Jen
With 703 undergraduates as of fall 2017, the computer science department has the greatest number of students of any department at Stanford. With its magnitude, however, comes additional challenges — namely, students report, those related to academic support systems and personal mentorship — in the world-renowned department.
The transition to upper-level classes
Students told The Daily that the greatest level of assistance, which often takes the form of access to section leaders, is available in introductory classes. These include CS106A, CS106B, CS107 and CS110, which are among the largest in the department.
“With more students, you get more funding,” said Daniel Do ’20, a CS106 section leader and computer science major. “And with more students you need a better infrastructure to support those students.”
As a student and a section leader, Do found the CS106 series to be very supportive. CS106 students can receive assistance at the LaIR, equivalent to teaching assistant “office hours,” where students sign onto a queue and wait for a section leader to become available. While professors also have office hours, most students go to their section leaders to receive help on assignments or concepts.
However, some students noted a discrepancy between the support systems for introductory and upper-level classes.
“The support infrastructure for CS106A and CS106B is very good: students are split up into small sections and have one-on-one sessions with section leaders, and the LAIR provides a great place to get help on assignments,” mathematics major Adrian Liu ’20 said. “I think the robust support system around CS106A and B raises expectations for the support offered afterward. This support, though I think still adequate, is not as systemized and fine-tuned as that of CS106A and CS106B.”
Do also found that there was still support offered in upper-level classes, but the support is not pushed onto students like it is in the introductory classes. In the CS106 classes, Do explained, section leaders would go through students’ programs and help them debug, whereas in upper level classes they would ask students about the concepts behind their assignment and how they are debugging their own code.
Computer science lecturer Christopher Gregg, who teaches CS107, CS107E, CS208E and CS106B, explained that the feeling of having less help may be correlated with the difficulty in coursework.
“As the work gets more advanced, students do find it harder, and that is the nature of a rigorous computer science curriculum and it is similar for all engineering disciplines,” Gregg wrote in an email to The Daily. “We do what we can to support students, but being overwhelmed is not 100 percent because of a lack of support.”
Noah Arthurs ’18 agreed, citing heavy course loads and a lack of prerequisites as reasons for students feeling overwhelmed.
“You might have to assert yourself more in order to get help,” Arthurs said. “It’s less available and it’s not being pushed onto you as much. [But] I’ve never needed help in a class and not been able to find it.”
Students also turn to their classmates for help. Sites such as Piazza allow students to post questions that classmates or section leaders can answer. Coursework is also often consistent across quarters and years, which facilitates the process of seeking out help.
“One thing the [computer science] department is really good at is having institutional memory,” Arthurs said. “When a class is taught well one time, it tends to be taught just as well or better the next time, because things are documented really well.”
Building student-faculty relationships
Large class size and emphasis on section leaders mean students face greater difficulty in cultivating relationships with faculty.
“I do believe that I have formed close academic relationships with some of my students. I do my best to learn as many student names as I can, and I certainly get to know the students who come to office hours regularly,” Gregg said. “There are a lot of students who I never get to meet, simply because they watch the lectures on video and don’t come to office hours. ”
Recorded lectures give students the option to skip lectures on the premise that they could always catch up later. But having the recordings available also means they lose the chance to ask questions during lecture or talk with the professor after class.
“I can say from experience that skipping lectures is a detriment to one’s performance and this is widely noted in the department,” Liu said. “I do wonder if a form of support could be limiting access to the lectures save for special circumstances, so students are more likely to attend lecture and less likely to need remedial help.”
However, the availability of professors’ office hours does make cultivating these relationships possible.
“I think if students really want to build relationships with the faculty, there are a lot of opportunities to do so,” computer science major Peggy Wang ’20 wrote in an email to The Daily. “A lot of my friends have developed good relationships with the faculty, even for such a big major.”
One professor Wang worked closely with was Dorsa Sadigh, assistant professor in computer science. Sadigh was Wang’s major advisor and Wang also worked in Sadigh’s lab for a group project. During her stay in Scotland, Wang also interacted a lot with Mykel Kochenderfer, assistant professor of computer science by courtesy. She also attended Kochenderfer’s seminar on Building Trust in Autonomy and talked with him during open office hours.
According to Wang, going to office hours and attending smaller classes are ways for students to build up relationships with professors. She thinks that getting to know faculty members is beneficial because professors can offer advice on classes and research.
“It’s also really cool just to get to know them as a person, since they are literally the experts in their field and have a lot of interesting insights,” Wang said.
Contact Jessica Jen at jessicajen23 ‘at’ gmail.com.