Undergrad Mentors in Undergrad Classes

Everywhere you read about how important it is for faculty to mentor undergrad students; to nurture them to careers in research, and so on. That is important. Very little is said about the importance of undergraduate students mentoring each other. That is important too.

I am sure the discussion could be generalized, but I am talking specifically about the intro-sequence in computer science, which in some form exists in most curricula:

Intro2CS -> DataStructures -> Intro2Algorithms.

Each class is accompanied by a lab, and we use undergrad mentors to roam about during lab helping with questions that students have about compiler errors, small conceptual questions, tricks and shortcuts, etc. I am going to speak from my own experience, having taught Intro2CS and Intro2Algorithms, as well as having been an undergraduate mentor way back when. Without undergrad mentors, these two classes would have been completely different experiences for the students – worse. Being an undergraduate mentor helped me consolidate my knowledge in a field, and understand what is important and what is not.

Do undergrad mentors improve the undergrad experience? Yes!

  1. Professors and TAs are more of a guide as to what should be done. The undergrad mentor provides hands on “real-time” expertise about what they did do when they tried to solve the problem; what are the tricks and tips to keep in mind.
  2. Undergrad mentors see it from the undergrad point of view and what is difficult from that point of view.
  3. Undergrad mentors have more of a rapport with the students and a student is more likely to ask a “silly” question without fear of embarrassment.
  4. Writing programs can be very frustrating because small errors result in non-working code, and students cannot continue without overcoming these small bugs. An army of undergrad mentors is ideal for solving these kinds of issues and keeping the students moving forward; much more so than one or two TAs.
  5. Peer-to-peer motivation is a strong force: when a student sees that someone just like them can master the concept, the concept is not so daunting.

In a survey of in-class students, 41% of those replying said they would keep the undergrad mentors even if they had to pay for it themselves. (But wait, didn’t they already pay for it in that hefty tuition bill?)

In a survey of employers and recruiters ranging from Google, amazon, LinkedIn to Wall Street, TAing or mentoring is viewed as a significant positive in identifying strong candidates with potential leadership capabilities.

Is it good for the undergrad mentors? Yes!

  1. Not everyone can be an undergrad mentor. Only the best students get to do it, so it is something to strive for. Its voluntary but it gives status.
  2. A student who has learned the concept well enough to explain it to another has become a better computer scientist; they have mastered the true subtlety of the problem and why it can be hard for someone else. This is all part of the learning they accomplish when they simply just try to explain the concept to others.
  3. Computer science students will build skills that will enable them to be better managers of software projects and teams in the future.

In a survey of alumni who had mentored, all those who replied said it was a rewarding experience and they enjoyed working with the students, helping them to learn; often, their fellow peer undergrad mentors became close friends, etc. The money was the ultimate enticer though – mentoring for credit isn’t appealing to such students because they have no problems finding interesting courses to fill up their schedules.

Is it good for the pocket? Yes!

At (say) $10/hr for 2 hrs/week and 15 weeks, that is just $300 a semester. You can have 100 undergrad mentors for the typical cost of a TA (that’s not to say we don’t need TAs). You can manage any potential conflicts of interests by having undergrad mentors only help, not grade. What’s not to love?

There was a time when top graduate schools required PhDs to TA at least 1 semester to graduate because it builds an important skill. Doesn’t the same philosophy extend to the undergraduate level?

Undergraduate mentors are an important dimension of any good CS-program, and I am sure many other disciplines. Pay them well and keep them!

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