What Help Do Students Seek in TA Office Hours?

Posted on 20 May 2020.

In computer science, a large number of students get help from teaching assistants (TAs). A great deal of their real education happens in these hours. While TA hours are an excellent resource, they are also rather opaque to the instructors, who do not really know what happens in them.

How do we construct a mechanism to study what happens in hours? It’s actually not obvious at all:

  • We could set up cameras to record all the interactions in hours. While this would provide a lot of information, it significantly changes the nature of hours. For many students, hours are private time with a TA, where they can freely speak about their discomfort and get help from a peer; they might ask personal questions; they might also complain about the instructor. One does not install cameras in confessionals.

  • We could ask TAs to write extensive notes (redacting private information) after the student has left. This also has various flaws:

    • Their memory may be faulty.

    • Their recollection may be biased by their own beliefs.

    • It would slow down processing students, who already confront overly-long lines and waits.

What do we instead want? A process that is non-intrusive, lightweight, and yet informative. We have to also give up on perfect knowledge, and focus on information that is actually useful to the instructor.

Part of the problem is that we as a community lack a systematic method to help students in the first place. If students have no structure to how they approach help-seeking, then it’s hard to find patterns and make sense of what they actually do.

However, this is exactly a problem that the How to Design Programs Design Recipe was addressed to solve. It provides a systematic way for students to structure their problem-solving and help-seeking. TAs are instructed to focus on the steps of the Design Recipe in order, not addressing later steps until students have successfully completed the earlier ones. This provides an “early warning” diagnostic, addressing root causes rather than their (far-removed) manifestations.

Therefore, we decided to use the Design Recipe steps as a lens for obtaining insight into TA hours. We argue that this provides a preliminary tool that addresses our needs: it is lightweight, non-intrusive, and yet useful to the instructor. Read the paper to learn more!