Addressing the CS Capacity Challenge by Improving Undergraduate Peer Mentoring
to CS2 retention in the previous year, which was 56% for first
years, 55% for sophomores, 18% for juniors, and 0% for seniors.
After the third year of the MaGE program, with the understanding that changes in instructors and curricular materials
might affect the data, we plan to report on retention over multiple semesters, broken down by student class year and race.
Initial findings from the first year of the MaGE program
show that CS1 students feel that they belong to the computer
science community and that they found their Giga Education
Mentor (GEM) to be highly knowledgeable, approachable, and
creative. Surveys were completed at the end of each semester. It
should be noted that there is no control group; all students have
peer mentors. In one survey (N=87 students), on a 5-point scale
from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), the average rating for “I feel that I belong to the computer science community”
was 4. 43. In a second survey (N= 51 students), on a 6-point scale
from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree), the average ratings for “GEM was knowledgeable”, “GEM was approachable”,
and “GEM was flexible/creative when helping students” were
5. 3, 5. 4, and 5. 3 respectively.
USING THE CURRICULUM AT OTHER
Factors of size, faculty, focus, budget and physical space all contribute to how undergraduate CS programs are being impacted
by the capacity challenge. For this reason, institutions need to
carefully consider and adopt the interventions that best meet
their needs and the needs of their students. It is clear, however,
that increasing the number of undergraduate mentors and focusing on peer-to-peer learning is a strategy being employed on
several campuses. We believe that the MaGE program and resources offer an effective and efficient way to prepare students
to take on and succeed in a variety of roles including peer mentors and teaching assistants.
At Mount Holyoke, students take the MaGE Training course
during one semester and then become eligible to be a peer
mentor the following semester. One benefit of this model, contributing to an inclusive learning environment, is that students
who want to be a peer mentor but do not feel ready to jump
into a demanding peer mentorship position have a semester to
practice code reviews and mock feedback sessions while gaining confidence in their abilities.
Given the limitations in faculty resources that all CS departments are facing, the Mount Holyoke model of completing the
training course prior to beginning peer mentorship may not be
a good fit for all institutions (especially where students are not
performing code review). We believe, however, that elements of
this approach and course can be adopted and adapted by many
CS programs. Following are some suggestions for other ways to
use the MaGE Training curriculum.
If the primary role of the undergraduates is to hold drop-in
help sessions, or to lead small group sections, training could
be offered in a single-day boot camp. Sample sequences of topics are listed below.
assumptions did you make about the student as a person
and about how they will perform in CS1?
• Small-group discussion: Students break into groups based
on the diversity-themed article they read prior to class
(among five options); they discuss reactions and relevance
to the MaGE program.
• Discussion: As a class, discuss the scholarly article, “The
Mentor’s Dilemma: Providing Critical Feedback Across the
Racial Divide” [ 1]—read prior to class—with a focus on
understanding buffered feedback.
The impact of these activities on two MaGE peer mentors is
exemplified by the following written reflections:
“I naturally make assumptions about people, but by being
self-aware of that fact, I can reduce my assumptions and
their effects on my views of people. ”
“I realized in this class that giving effective feedback is not
an easy task. A lot of people think they are offering great
feedback and constructive criticism but instead, they only
end up saying a few praise words and inexpressive compliments. While giving feedback, it is very important to
make sure it is buffered. This means that feedback needs
to have a balance between strengths and weaknesses, so
as to avoid it being too positive to the point that it may
seem inauthentic or too negative to the point that it may
discourage the feedback receiver. ”
PEER MENTOR RESPONSIBILITIES
After taking the MaGE Training course, peer mentors work with
a group of around nine CS1 or CS2 students (half a lab section)
for a whole semester. Each week, the peer mentors perform written code reviews on completed student assignments, give feedback in one-on-one 10-minute meetings, lead active learning
lessons, and assist in the lab section of the course. The cohort
of peer mentors meets weekly for a 75-minute MaGE Practicum
course with the program coordinator and a faculty member to
discuss topics related to the MaGE Training course and further
develop as mentors. Being a peer mentor requires a commitment
of approximately 10 hours/week for an entire semester. Mentors
receive wages for 5 hours/week and two course credits for MaGE
Practicum (half the credits of a typical Mount Holyoke course).
EARLY RESULTS OF THE MaGE PROGRAM
The MaGE Program at Mount Holyoke is currently embarking
on its third year. In the first year, peer mentors were integrated
into CS1; in the second year, peer mentors were integrated into
CS1 and CS2. The enrollment capacity in CS1 has increased
from 36 to 72 (from one 36-seat lecture to two 36-seat lectures)
since the MaGE Program was established. In the first year of
the MaGE Program, retention from CS1 to CS2 was 89% for
first year students, 79% for sophomores, 38% for juniors, and
33% for seniors. These retention rates are higher than the CS1