This Fall 2022, Wellesley’s Computer Science (CS) Department implemented significant changes to one of its most popular introductory courses, “Computer Programming & Problem Solving” (CS 111). The changes include a shift to Mandatory Credit/Non grading and the expansion of the course’s tutoring team to include a Teaching Fellow and eight student tutors. CS 111 is a prerequisite for many higher-level courses, and, for some students, an introduction to the Computer Science Department.
In addition to their work as a Lab Manager in the Human-Computer Interaction Lab, as Teaching Fellow for CS 111 this year, Angel Cooper ’22 supports students during CS 111 lectures and office hours, coordinates tutoring hours for the course and supports the course’s team of student tutors, who provide students support during their office hours. Cooper hopes that the team of tutors can offer CS 111 students encouragement and support.
“I definitely do my best to encourage students … and to hear out their concerns … and the thoughts they have about the CS program and about the class. I care about helping students get off on the right foot with Computer Science so they can build themselves a strong foundation to succeed in future CS courses and come out of CS 111 feeling confident … in their own ability in Computer Science, especially because Computer Science is … such a male-dominated field. And it’s a very white, cis, male field,” Cooper said.
Both Eni Mustafaraj, associate professor, and Peter Mawhorter, instructor in Computer Science Laboratory, have worked to facilitate changes to the course this year. Mustafaraj teaches the course’s two lecture sections, and Mawhorter is the instructor for its five lab sections.
According to Mawhorter, over the past five years, changes to the course have included a shift to automated grading for course assignments and a version of mastery grading for quizzes. With automated grading, instructors do not grade most course assignments in the course.
“We’re giving you that human feedback on other things we’re asking you to do,” Mawhorter said. “[Automated grading] has distinct disadvantages because there’s no human looking at your code,” he later acknowledged.
Mawhorter designed the computer programming used for this automated grading, aiming to make the program as efficient and fair as possible. According to Mawhorter, automated grading has generated feedback for students more quickly, a benefit in a fast-paced class, and has allowed professors more time to grade other quizzes and assignments.
To compensate for some possible errors in automated grading, Mawhorter explained that he tries to monitor the grading system, and the course now includes an opportunity for students to revise their assignments based on the automated feedback.
“The idea is, if you forget a comma and you get a zero because of that, that’s not an accurate grade,” Mawhorter said, explaining the policy allowing for revisions and adding that he continues to update the grading system.
The course’s quiz policy has also been designed to help students learn from feedback and improve their performance. After an ungraded practice quiz is reviewed in class, students take a required, graded quiz, and a week later, have the opportunity to take a third similar graded quiz. The highest score between the two graded quizzes is the recorded score.
“We are … actually giving [students] points based on what they know at the end of that process, not based on how they perform at each step along the way,” Mawhorter said.
The course has undergone some other changes, including a decrease in the number of graded projects students are required to complete and an increase in graded assignments done as homework and during labs and lectures.
Mawhorter hopes that the shift to Mandatory Credit/Non grading will also promote student success and confidence in the course.
“There are a lot of reasons for [Mandatory Credit/Non grading]. One of them is … we are a little understaffed this semester … ,” Mawhorter said.
CS 111 is often in high demand among students.
“We usually fill up every seat we possibly can and maybe add a few extra seats,” said Mawhorter.
This semester, more than 70 students are enrolled in the course, divided among five lab sections and only two lecture sections. Mustafaraj and Mawhorter are the only professors teaching the course this semester. The department is currently interviewing candidates to join the current staff.
Cooper shared support for the course’s new grading policies. “In [CS] 111, we are doing a lot of new things,” Cooper said. “I think … making the workload more forgiving is … a good thing for the students, and making it Mandatory Credit/Non is … a good thing … and helps students – I think – have a better time succeeding in intro CS,” they added.
According to Miraya Gupta ’25, it is possible for students to earn “(Mandatory) Credit with Distinction” by earning a certain number of points in the course, but the new grading policy also relieves some of the pressure often associated with earning a high grade.
“It’s just … up to the individual student how much they want to do,” Gupta said, explaining that students have the option of additional course work if they choose to seek “Credit with Distinction” but that students can also explore and work towards their own goals outside of grading.
Among other factors, Mawhorter and Cooper identified the MCRN policy’s potential for promoting equity and increased opportunity to take CS courses as its most important benefit.
“I think that all intro courses should be Credit/Non,” Mawhorter said, explaining that he hopes the policy will make the course more accessible to historically marginalized students.
“I think there has been an issue in the past of CS 111 being a barrier to accessibility for the department … and being stressful and difficult enough that many students [chose] not to continue on with CS,” Cooper said.
According to Cooper, CS 111 is not currently the only introductory course available to students. However, it remains an important prerequisite for many classes in the department.