For Stanford programming class, the bigger the better

Undergraduate section leaders in Stanford's largest class ensure the best of both worlds.

Norbert von der Groeben Professor Mehran Sahami teaches a class in the NVIDIA Auditorium

Professor Mehran Sahami is one of the faculty members who teaches the Programming Methodology course.

When people complain that higher education is in urgent need of an overhaul, they usually point to that enormous introductory lecture course that everyone seems to have taken, the one where you slept a fair amount, could barely see the professor and caught up on your online shopping – assuming you even went to class.

Professors Eric Roberts, Mehran Sahami and other exceptional teachers in the Department of Computer Science saw an opportunity, not an obstacle, in the large course, and they have turned it into a veritable Stanford institution. Their track record in recent years justifies their enthusiasm and pride. Programming Methodology (CS106A), the biggest class on campus, had some 650 students this quarter.

"No other university has anything similar," said Roberts, the Charles Simonyi Professor in the School of Engineering. It works precisely because of its size, not despite it, he said, and also because of the technological resources the faculty marshal. It is not a massive open online course (MOOC), though it's practically large enough to qualify as one, but it does incorporate many features found in online courses: video lectures, online problem sets and a robust website containing all course materials. The course and its second part, 106B, are taught every quarter, with undiminished demand.

"I don't want people to get the idea that MOOCs can supplant on-campus education," Roberts said. "We have so much momentum, and our classes are working quite well, thank you."

The Computer Science Department restructured its curriculum several years ago to widen its appeal. The effort was successful beyond the department's wildest dreams; there was an 83 percent jump in enrollment, and today it is the university's No. 1 major. Ninety percent of all Stanford students take at least one CS course. For most of them, it is CS106A.

Section leaders

One of the outstanding features of the course is its undergraduate section leaders, of whom there are legions. (New York magazine recently published a profile of the section-leader system.) Sections are required, usually comprising 10 students, so there were about 65 section leaders this quarter. They get course credit the first time they do the job, which counts as CS198, and get paid for subsequent stints.

The section leaders, who grade assignments and exams, are supervised by Sahami and by a head teaching assistant, who this quarter is Gil Shotan, a master's student who twice worked as a section leader himself and who delivered a 106A lecture in late November.

The section leader alumni association is not a shabby group. Sahami – the Robert and Ruth Halperin University fellow in Undergraduate Education and associate professor (teaching) of computer science, as well as this quarter's CS106A instructor – belongs to it. So does Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla and now a venture capitalist with Greylock Partners, is a former section leader, as is Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering at Facebook. Indeed, one could say that CS198 is the quintessential Stanford course: It builds smart leaders.

(Speaking of Facebook, Sahami reminded the class during a recent lecture that Mark Zuckerberg was just a sophomore when he came up with the idea. "It's not that hard to do," Sahami exclaimed. "You know more or less what he knew then!" A murmur went through the packed lecture hall. "That," Shotan said later, "was empowering.")

"The section leaders create a better environment for the students, they increase the staff/student ratio and they understand the students better," Sahami said. "Plus, they themselves learn the material better by having to explain it. And they gain presentation and leadership skills. So it's a win-win-win: the program, the students and the university."

The virtues of big

Dividing up the huge class into productive and intimate learning groups might be perceived as making virtue of necessity, but the size is a virtue in and of itself, Sahami and Roberts agreed. Roberts pointed to the teaching opportunities that arise when students suggest wrong answers; a seminar of 10 brilliant students probably will not yield wrong answers, but a lecture hall packed with eager students – to whom the instructors toss (or hurl, as the case may be) pieces of candy if they ask questions or answer questions correctly – is different.

"A large class enables us to encourage the top students, and it gives them the opportunity to run with their own ideas," said Roberts, who wrote the course textbook. "The top 10 percent is a lot if you have 650 students. There's also an incentive structure; Stanford students want to rise out of the anonymity of the class."

Of course, dynamic teaching helps; all the section leaders in the world can't save a badly taught class. Stanford's Computer Science Department is unusual in that it pours resources into teaching. Though lecturers do not need doctoral degrees, their positions are not considered lower rank. In Sahami's words, "these are career-oriented positions for exceptional educators. Many other universities don't take that view, but some are starting to follow our lead."

Lectures are videotaped, a practice that began when too many students signed up for 106A to fit in the room. The numbers later thinned a bit, but the taping continues (with Shotan manning the camera). Videos allow students to go through the material a second (or third) time. "There are so many distractions for students," Shotan said.

With all the talk about MOOCs, is there a danger that students might just stay in their rooms and watch the videos? Probably not in the introductory courses, the instructors said. "If students learn at home, that's OK," Sahami said, but he said that sitting in a classroom with peers, feeling the electricity, is distinctive and worthwhile. "I think [students in the MOOCs] don't always appreciate the difference in the educational experience."

Jamie Beckett, School of Engineering: (650) 736-2241,

R. F. MacKay, Stanford Online: (650) 725-2589,