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Creating a Community-Focused Lab Section in a Large Computer Science Course (Experience)

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

Minorities in Engineering Division Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Jule Schatz University of Michigan

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Jule Schatz is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on modeling semantic memory retrieval through the cognitive architecture Soar. She is also involved with teaching introductory computer science courses and mentoring.

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Zahra Makki University of Michigan


John Kloosterman University of Michigan

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John Kloosterman is a lecturer in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. His work focuses on ensuring every student has what they need to succeed, even in large courses and academic programs.

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Elizabeth Levesque University of Michigan

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Heather Rypkema University of Michigan

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The introductory computer science class (CS1) at our large public university has grown to over 1,200 students. The learning environment in a large class makes it hard for students to connect with instructors and other students. While some students thrive in an independent learning environment, others thrive through participating in a supportive learning community. At our school, a long-running Academic Success Program (ASP) has supported their students through creating smaller instructional class sections that foster community within large science and math courses. This program provided a model for how we might create community within CS1.

Through an analysis of student grades, we found that CS1 was not adequately supporting ASP-affiliated students, motivating us to partner with ASP. We were especially concerned by this disparity because the ASP-affiliated students in our class are much more likely to come from populations that experience inequities elsewhere in their educational experience – as examples, 60% of ASP students are first-generation college students, 27% are Black, and the median household income of ASP students is much lower than that of other students in the course.

In partnership with the ASP program, we developed a new lab section reserved for ASP students which focused on creating a supportive learning community. Our pilot started with two sections enrolling 20 students each. A first emphasis was building community between students. To foster community, instructors provided students with multiple, structured opportunities to engage with one another during lab, including working together in lab teams and reflecting on and sharing their values and interests. We also built connections between students and instructors by creating dedicated office hours that were staffed by the ASP lab instructors (non-ASP students use a system where the instructor assisting may not be known by the student), requiring office hour attendance at critical times during the semester, and reaching out to students to offer encouragement and support. While many of these practices would be beneficial for all students, the constraints of running the large class meant that these measures were not previously implemented.

A pre-post survey measured the ways the dedicated ASP sections had an impact. Because not all ASP students were enrolled in the section, we were able to examine differences in ASP students’ experiences inside and outside the dedicated sections, with the caveat that students self-selected into the sections. As highlights of our findings, 91% of ASP respondents in the dedicated labs reported feeling comfortable asking questions in lab, as opposed to 63% of ASP respondents in the non-ASP labs. 100% of ASP respondents in the dedicated lab found office hours helpful, as opposed to 63% of the ASP respondents in non-ASP labs. Despite these successes, the dedicated section did not lead to higher grades in the course, showing that we have more work to do in order to address the many ways that students in ASP still undergo inequitable experiences and outcomes in our course.

Schatz, J., & Makki, Z., & Kloosterman, J., & Levesque, E., & Rypkema, H. (2022, August), Creating a Community-Focused Lab Section in a Large Computer Science Course (Experience) Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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