Computer Science students find forward-thinking support system in innovative Academic Enhancement Program

By Barry Shell


Donna McGee-Thompson and Diana Cukierman

Project leaders Donna McGee-Thompson and Diana Cukierman are proud of what they have achieved with the AEP

One summer day in 2006, Computing Science academic advisor Margo Leight decided to call the Student Learning Commons (SLC) in the SFU Library. She was concerned that some of her students seemed overwhelmed, lost, and desperate about their coursework. They were not managing their time well and they were approaching the end of the semester with problems that should have been addressed much earlier. She wanted to do something proactive. “Instead of waiting until the students failed, the idea was to do something earlier to help them,” says Diana Cukierman, senior lecturer in Computing Science. Some optional out-of-class orientation sessions were offered, but attendance was poor and the students who needed to be there did not come. So Cukierman teamed up with Donna McGee Thompson, Learning Services Coordinator in the SLC. “We concluded it had to be a course requirement, and we’d need faculty on board,” says McGee Thompson.

After a successful pilot stage in 2006-07, Cukierman and McGee Thompson’s Academic Enhancement Program (AEP) was made a required part of the Computing Science curriculum. Instructors in participating courses were asked to allot one two-hour lab slot per course to AEP, where students participated in a workshop or an assignment aimed at improving their studying and learning skills. To date, AEP has helped more than 3,200 students in 38 different courses. “The program became a required part of Computing Science because the department saw the value of the program for supporting student performance,” says Cukierman. Advisors also reported that AEP students were bringing more in-depth questions to appointments.

Ideally, the AEP session should come early in the semester before midterms. Among other things, the workshop has students analyse and discuss familiar situations. One scenario describes a student who is obsessed with computer gaming and spends hours and hours in one sitting playing World of Warcraft while falling way behind in schoolwork. Students are asked to advise the gamer how to get back on track.

“AEP is really about learning how to be a university student,” says McGee Thompson. “AEP is not remedial. We’re trying to promote it as something to enhance the academic learning experience. Even “A” students enjoy it,” says Cukierman. That a two-hour block of teaching time is given up for this program every semester and across so many courses is a testament to its effectiveness. Students are not tested and the session is voluntary, though students can earn up to 3% of their course grade by attending.

"This workshop helped me realize my problems...and has encouraged me to change my habits." -- AEP student“Every hour we’ve invested, all the passion, the support from the administration – it has all been worth it,” says Cukierman, who has been collecting survey data on AEP effectiveness for years. They have evidence that students are finding benefit in the program. This may explain why the program received two grants from the Teaching Inquiry Project from the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines at Simon Fraser University in 2009 and in 2010. The AEP has also caught the attention of the University retention committee.

Cukierman and McGee Thompson have published papers about AEP in numerous refereed journals and have been invited speakers at computer science forums and education conferences in BC and abroad, including Paris and Scotland. Even so, their greatest satisfaction comes from student comments on AEP evaluation forms. One wrote, “This workshop helped me realize my problems concerning time management and has encouraged me to change my habits.” Another adds, “It’s good to know that our school has this kind of workshop now. In the past few years most students either learn all this the hard way, or learn to find the answers by themselves.” Yet another sums it up this way: “It is good to know that it is not just me.”

Find out more about the AEP program at cs.sfu.ca/CC/AEP/.

Contacts

Diana Cukierman – 778.782.7110 |  diana@cs.sfu.ca

Donna McGee-Thompson –  778-782-3294 | dmcthomp@sfu.ca