Courtesy of Cornell

Rhodes Hall, where office hours for CS 3110 are located, pictured at night.

May 7, 2019

Students Express Frustration over CS Office Hour Crowds, Spending Up to 3 Hours Waiting for Help

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Students, seated on the floor with laptops on their knees, lined the hallways of Rhodes and Hollister Halls last week during office hours for computer science classes. Some said that they waited between one and three hours for help on their late-semester assignments.

Cornellians took to social media, posting on Reddit  and Twitter about the overcrowded situation. The Reddit thread in r/Cornell was filled with a discussion surrounding CS 1110: Introduction to Computing Using Python, while Julian Koh ‘20 — despite not being enrolled in the course — took to Twitter to share an image of the long lines of CS 3110: Data Structures and Functional Programming.

One student in CS 3110: Data Structures and Functional Programming Spring, Lois Lee ’19, waited for two hours to get help on a problem set before giving up and leaving. “There were tons and tons of people waiting in line,” Lee told The Sun.

According to CS 3110 Prof. Nate Foster, computer science, the long lines were the result of a difficult homework assignment, problems with the queue system and a lack of space.

“The spike in demand and the confounding factor of our system going down led to very long wait times,” he told the Sun.

Following national trends, at Cornell there has been an increase in enrollment in computer science courses. In 2017, President E. Martha Pollack noted the increase in popularity of CS courses and how class sizes are increasing every year.

“The problem is everyone wants to do that and I don’t have an easy solution,” Pollack said during an event organized by campus CS organizations.

According to Foster, CS courses are a balancing game between equity and size: The courses are open to all students, but this often results in very large class sizes. And demand for CS courses have increased along with the growing field, Foster said — CS 3110 has approximately 400 students.

Prof. Walker White, computer science, who teaches CS 1110, said enrollment expanded from approximately 500 students to 800 last fall.

The course has seven graduate TAs and 50 undergraduate TAs, half of whom lead discussion sections and half of whom hold consulting hours. Altogether, the course has a student-to-staff ratio of approximately seven to one. However, issues can still arise when a lot of students attend office hours at once.

“I think we have the staff to give personalized help, but the question is how to organize it if eighty students show up on a given night,” Foster told The Sun.

CS 1110 has also experienced a high volume of students at office hours, and White said that the class faces unique challenges in its demographic as many non-computer science major students often take the engineering-accredited class, especially during the spring semester.

Office hours for CS classes often require individualized help, according to White. “It’s very, very bespoke,” White said. “It’s one person at a time.”

This was precisely the problem for CS 3110 student Bobby Ma ’19 and his class team, who had trouble getting their questions answered at office hours.

“We’d show up at 4:30 p.m., and once we get our questions answered, do a bit, get stuck, and get on the queue again,” Ma said.

In response to the long lines, Foster extended the deadline of the assignment by two days, organized additional office hours and increased staff responsiveness to online question boards. In a message to students, he also said he would scale back the following assignment and has “significant leeway” in grading.

“One has a choice in running a course like this,” Foster said of balancing the difficulty of the course.

“I try to make a course that is manageable for everyone,” he added. “But I also don’t want to remove the property that people who go through 3110 learn a lot about how to program.”

Timmy Zhu grad, a TA for the course, stayed late to help and bought students pizza on Friday during office hours that were added in response to the overflow. “We really care about our students and want to help them as much as we possibly can,” Zhu told The Sun.

According to Zhu, the wait was a lesson to students about waiting until the last minute to complete assignments. But it also meant that he and other TAs could have done a “better job” training the course staff to help students with hard assignments.

Overall, Ma felt happy with the course staff’s response to the situation.

“The professor was open and honest about what happened, and he took measures to address it,” Ma said. “It takes time to write quality assignments, and they’ve for the most part done a good job. It’s just this time it was harder than expected.”

White said he is always gathering information and making changes.

“These complaints are not going into the void,” he said.