Background and Context

In introductory computer science courses it is common for students to get more one on one time with their Teaching Assistants (TAs) as compared to their course instructors, due to large class sizes. This kind of individual attention is extremely important for novice programmers trying to learn new and abstract CS concepts.
This means that the TAs have a direct and significant impact on the learning. In this project, I set out to investigate the role the TAs play in introductory CS courses.


I started out wanting to find out if an apprenticeship-based mentoring model could emerge between senior and junior TAs of introductory programming courses. But based on initial observations, my research focus shifted more towards TAs’ teaching approaches and their student’s learning outcomes. Specifically, I wanted to understand the following:


I did a literature review to identify previous research and inform my research process. In order to better understand what TAs do, and how it shapes the learning outcomes of students enrolled in introductory programming course, I decided to conduct some observational studies, interviews and focus groups.


I observed roughly about 100 interactions between students and their TAs consisting of 7 graduate and 8 undergraduate TAs during lab sections and when the TAs held their office hours. The observations were conducted over the course of 2 semesters, fall 2015 and spring 2016.

A sample interaction as captured in my notes

Initial interviews

11 TAs (6 graduate TAs, and 5 undergraduate TAs) came forward to participate in this research. These interviews happened in parallel with the observations. The following questions were used for the initial interviews. Questions 6 and 7 were aimed at uncovering more about the mentoring model, in alignment with my initial research goal.

Initial interview questions

Focus Group with TAs

I moderated a focus group session with 11 Teaching assistants. I used the following prompts to help guide the discussion, following up with specific questions whenever necessary.

TA focus group prompts

Focus Group with Students

I moderated focus group sessions with 4 stduents.The studemts also filled out a questionnaire before the start of the focus group meeting. I used the following prompts to help guide the discussion, following up with specific questions whenever necessary.

Student focus group prompts

Findings and Results

In my observations , I saw that the TAs seldom provide any direct help to the students instead push the student in the right direction by providing hints, or by making the student explicitly process his/her understanding of a particular concept by engaging in the act of asking leading questions. This was also confirmed in the focus group. However,in the observations, I saw a tendency in the students to be very concerned with the immediate problem at hand, and seeing the TA as someone who holds the solution to that immediate problem. Once again, this was confirmed in the focus group meeting with students. Following are some major takeaways from this research.

  1. TAs were in fact modelling the problem-solving process for the student to observe and imitate.
  2. There is a clear gap in what the TAs aim to do and what the students expect.
  3. Time constrained lab exercises may be doing more harm than good.
  4. TAs are faced with many decision points, like deciding what help to provide, how to provide that help and how much help to provide to students.

Future work

Identified future work include the following:

  1. Conducting a contrative study , to compare different pedagogical methods and how it affects learning outcomes.
  2. Training TAs - Introducing a Trainer role, whose work would be to effectively train and help the TAs and act as a liaison between the instructors, department and the TAs.
  3. Introducing a triage model in labs and graduating our TAs from CS1 to CS2 along with the students to leverage established rapport,as well as mentor incoming CS1 TAs.

When and Where August 2015 - June 2016, Master's Thesis at Virginia Tech
Research Methods
  • Observations
  • Interviews
  • Focus Groups
  • Transcription and coding
  • Qualitative Data Analysis
Advisor Prof. Steve Harrison