Wave of student, faculty concerns prompts Department of Computer Science to address course workload

Halligan Hall, home of the Department of Computer Science, is pictured. Lyndon Jackson / The Tufts Daily Archives

Students have expressed concerns about the intense workloads of computer science courses, leading faculty to address the situation. The Department of Computer Science impaneled a task force to review the department’s curriculum, according to Department Chair and Professor Kathleen Fisher.

Fisher said that the task force is focused on “longer-term” changes and she anticipates it will conclude its work at the end of the academic year.

Some professors in the department have already begun to monitor and adapt course policies, including Professor Mark Sheldon, who teaches Data Structures (COMP 15).

I want every student in Comp 15 to feel welcome and succeed. I want them to enjoy the experience and leave ready to tackle the challenges of more advanced courses and a professional career. If we are stressing students too much, then we want to address that,” Sheldon wrote in an email to the Daily.

Sheldon said he has included planning flexibility in the course schedule this fall to extend deadlines and is offering additional office hours.

However, some students are still experiencing difficulties.

Matthew Hudes is a sophomore in Sheldon’s class. 

I spend over 15 hours a week on the homeworks which is a lot of time to spend … since it then limits the amount of time I can spend on my other courses,Hudes wrote in an email to the Daily.

Dana Jacoby, a sophomore currently enrolled in Machine Structure and Assembly-Language Programming (COMP 40), echoed Hudes‘ sentiment about struggling to balance computer science classes with work for other courses. 

I sort of go back and forth between whether or not [the workload] is fair. On the one hand it’s a 5 credit course that I signed up for knowing full well how much work it is. And I have been learning a lot from it. But it’s also detracting from my other classes,” Jacoby wrote in an email to the Daily

Madeline McLaughlin, a sophomore also taking COMP 40, said she has about 30 hours of work every week for the class.

However, she believes the knowledge she has gained from the course outweighs its intense workload.

“Most people I’ve talked to emphasize how much they learned in 40 so in my opinion the workload is worth it because each assignment has a specific set of skills that you learn from it,McLaughlin wrote in an electronic message to the Daily.

Fisher and Sheldon both noted the challenges facing the task force as they reckon with whether or not to make changes to the department’s curriculum. 

Designing or updating the curriculum in the introductory sequence is a complex task that involves many factors. For example, students come in with a wide variety of backgrounds, and we don’t want to turn any of them away,” Fisher wrote in an email to the Daily. “There are many courses that require these introductory courses as prerequisites, and we need to prepare students for all of them.” 

Sheldon similarly explained that the nature of his course makes it challenging to reform it without impacting students’ future academic and professional pursuits. 

“Like Data Structures courses elsewhere, Comp 15 also functions as a gateway to the major and to professional practice. Almost every upper-level course has Comp 15 material as an essential prerequisite, and the material it teaches is regarded as central to entry-level programming jobs and internships,” Sheldon said. 

Computer science courses have always been rigorous, but now students are navigating these difficulties in the midst of a pandemic.

Dean of Academic Advising and Undergraduate Studies for the School of Engineering Jennifer Stephan said that she has seen increasing concerns over the workload of computer science courses.

I have been at Tufts for a little over four years now. In this time, it seems that I have been hearing more concerns about the workload of comp classes, although I do not have concrete data to support this statement. I wonder how the pandemic and new modes of teaching and learning may be contributing to students’ experiences in their comp sci classes,” Stephan wrote in an email to the Daily

Sheldon said he believes the loss of in-person instruction this semester has made it more challenging to understand the foundation of student concerns. 

“Just as students are missing in-person interactions, faculty are likewise less able to keep informal tabs on how our courses are going … we are all learning together how to work in this new environment,” Sheldon said.

The task force may not conclude its work until the end of the academic year. Despite this, students are optimistic that professors will make changes in the meantime, and that those changes will support their success.

It does seem like [the department is] open to change … [Professor Sheldon] has seemed very receptive to what people have had to say,” Hudes said.


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