CS Department Advocates Undergraduate Peer Tutoring

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Photo by Annie Huang | Staff Writer

Xander Apicella
Staff Writer

UCSB Computer Science Undergraduate Tutor Program (UT) has been around since 2017, and Diba Mirza, an assistant teaching professor of CS at UCSB, is pushing to expand it. Its main goal is to get more undergraduate students to learn and to teach.

Computer science has been one of the fastest growing and in-demand majors of the last few decades. It was vital to the development of most modern electronics, shaping the world we live in today.

Moving into this field can be challenging without prior experience. Unlike other subjects, it does not correspond with any standardized courses in high school. Mirza considered herself fortunate — she had computer access from a young age.

“To program was a really interesting experience for me … and a group of other young women,” she said, in an interview with The Bottom Line. “We would work on projects after school. It was just a fun group; that’s how I got into CS.”

Mirza went to Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) for her Bachelor’s degree. There, she found that many events were student-run, orbiting the showcasing of their projects. A fascination with these events drove her to the study of computer engineering for her undergrad.

She went on to get a masters and Ph.D in the subject at UC San Diego, where she went on to work as a lecturer, post-doc, and then assistant adjunct professor.

At UCSD, she worked with professors from various other universities to teach a summer program for incoming freshmen. It was designed to introduce them to the important basics of their major, culminating in a project showcase to San Diego’s CS department.

While working the program at UCSD, she got exposure to an idea that would shape her future work. There, they had undergrads who had graduated from the program come back to tutor their peers.

Brown University had the first well-known undergraduate tutoring program back in the 1960s. Brown’s undergrad CS tutoring program has impacted a lot of people and its alumni support have proven strong — strong enough to raise $10 million in fundraising just last year.

Educators take issue with the concept’s trust in the professionalism and expertise of undergrads. They worry that if a tutor teaches their peers, he or she will reveal answers or give special treatment to those they know outside the classroom.

Another problem brought up is that undergrads know less than graduate students and professors. They might not know the answers to as many questions or have a deep enough knowledge of the subject.

“Sometimes the teachers and the graduate students … are too far removed from the experience of a freshman.” “Good teaching can bridge this divide,” she said, “but esteemed professors are not always good teachers.”

Brown CS’ success has driven some of Mirza’s methods. She has worked to emulate a few of the prestigious programs’ aspects at UCSB. Brown’s program is student run, with affiliated professors acting as advisors rather than leaders. To replicate this, Mirza is constructing a hierarchy of tutors.

She has the more experienced ones teach those starting out which methods work best for explaining subject matter and enforcing concepts for their students.

New tutors, she believes, respond best to advice from their peers. Students that have been teaching help manage the club, with Mirza providing higher level guidance.

To teach interested students what the UCSB program is all about, she and Professor Phil Conrad built the Teaching Computer Science course (CMPSC 190J). It enforces practical and educational skills, offering strategies to teach with proficiency as well as outlining research based in CS education and methods of performing it.

The course work focuses on hands-on experience. Students shadow experienced tutors and write about their own attempts to teach. After taking the course, students can apply to UT. They don’t let in everyone, only the best of the applicants. Mirza said the program provides a safe space, where students can learn without feeling isolated because of a gap in their understanding.

“There’s always somebody to help them, someone who has been in their shoes recently, and they can form a nice support system,” Mirza said.

Other possible benefits, like performance in coursework, a sense of belonging in the major, and the self-perceived ability to do the task (termed in CS education as self-efficacy), have yet to be proven. Mirza has written a paper on those very subjects, based in examples like her tutoring program. It’s currently pending for publication.

Mirza said the tutors get something out of the program, too, including a stronger understanding of the content they’re teaching and a closer connection with professors. 

Brown’s computer science program inspired UCSB’s program, and in doing so, catalyzed the various benefits that undergrads, tutors and students alike, have gained from it. Mirza believes Brown’s tutoring was important because it has been working for so long, gaining acclaim and success to the point that the benefits seem obvious.

The UCSB program does not yet have that power, but Mirza hopes it can serve as an example of how to begin. “We can share all the lessons we’ve learned,” she said.

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Xander Apicella is a third-year physics major interested in communicating science of all sorts to anyone and everyone. He flew in from Clarendon, New York, and misses the snow sometimes. He enjoys rock-climbing, reading, writing, and learning something new.

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