Strengthening students’ programming skills through peer support and personalised help

Students at the School of Computing and Information Systems (SCIS) understand the challenges some freshmen may encounter during programming courses, especially those without prior background. 

To help these first-year students overcome such challenges, a group of SCIS students came together to design and establish Coders Assembly in May 2020, a peer assisted learning initiative for foundational programming courses, with support from SCIS faculty Assistant Professor Kyong Jin Shim and Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Undergraduate Education) Swapna Gottipati.

A ground-up initiative

Damian Ng and Chua Xiu Ling from the founding organising committee said, “The successful launch of Coders Assembly is the result of the tremendous support from the SCIS community and the pioneer organising committee who laid the foundations in conceptualising, planning, executing, and believing in the programme. Coders Assembly is based on a shared vision that a more inclusive community in SCIS could be fostered by providing focused support to freshmen and creating meaningful relationships along the way.”

During the 2020-21 academic year, the Coders Assembly programme attracted 42 mentors and 68 mentees for “Introduction to Programming” course, and 15 mentors and 33 mentees for “Web Application Development I” course. Participants were grouped into “focus groups”, with each group comprising 2-3 mentors and 3-4 mentees. Each focus group is assigned to a member of the organising committee who ensures that the Coders Assembly guidelines are met throughout the term. The guidelines include promoting congenial and healthy social types of etiquette such as respecting others’ opinions, no recording of meetings without everyone’s consent, and no cyber-bullying.

The organising committee maintains an online repository of hands-on programming questions which are utilised by focus groups. Through bi-weekly sessions, focus groups have regular touch points for in-depth discussions. Each session lasts for about two hours, but it can last longer should mentees need more help especially before major assessments. The sessions are conducted virtually or physically depending on the COVID-19 social distancing measures in place at the time. There is no set format for such sessions, as it is designed to remain flexible to accommodate mentees’ needs which can vary from week to week and also from group to group. Typically, mentees will have completed programming questions from the Coders Assembly repository or their course exercises prior to each session. During the session, mentors go through concepts, conduct code review, and troubleshoot software bugs together.

Designed and driven by the students, the learning initiative has proven to be an effective model centered on four key areas – process, people, content, and technology.

Despite their busy university life and keeping up with the fast-changing technology landscape, about 60 senior SCIS students have stepped forward to join Coders Assembly as mentors in order to share their knowledge and expertise with the freshmen. Stephen Pang said “I have a strong liking for coding, and I really want to help  my juniors who may be new to or struggling with coding concepts”. Another mentor Geraldine Lee added, “I worked on my communication skills quite a bit throughout this mentoring journey. Knowing something and being able to teach it to someone are two different things. I've improved a lot, and this experience will certainly help me with my Teaching Assistant roles in other SMU courses as well as in the working world.” 

Jewel Tan, also a mentor, recalled how much she had hoped to have more personalised help when she encountered challenges during the programming courses. She said, “Coders Assembly allows me to provide personalised one-on-one help to juniors struggling with computer programming and concepts. Students who are more shy and those with a weaker foundation can easily tap on their mentors for assistance and this helps them a lot.” Jewel reflected on her mentoring journey and realised that the programme was also beneficial to mentors as much as it was to mentees. “Through this programme, I learned to communicate much better especially with regard to explaining technical concepts to mentees with little or no background. This helped me revisit what I thought I knew from a different angle.”

Strong support

Student initiatives such as Coders Assembly are encouraged by SCIS. Dean Professor Pang Hwee Hwa said, “Coders Assembly creates a supportive environment for our freshmen to learn programming, which is such an essential tool of the trade for a computing or IT professional. Coding provides a logical framework for us to approach problems and enables us to quickly turn our ideas into prototypes that stakeholders can experience. Coders Assembly also exemplifies the best of our school culture, where students acquire the mindset of taking initiatives to improve their organisations.

“The world is fast moving and what our SCIS students learn in our programmes change rapidly from year to year. Having a strong grasp of technical skills and building a solid foundation are keys to success as an IT professional. The Coders Assembly programme provides a comfortable and nurturing environment for students to receive personalised help. In today’s highly dynamic, inter-disciplinary and team-based environment, it is equally important for SCIS students to build soft skills such as communication, storytelling, listening, public speaking, and collaboration. The Coders Assembly programme allows both mentors and mentees to hone their soft skills beyond the classroom – in a smaller-scale and structured peer assisted learning environment,” added Dean Pang.

There are several factors to consider when organising peer assisted learning in education institutions. These include goals, peer strategies, grouping modes, methods of relationship, and sponsors. Prof Gottipati said, “The organising committee of Coders Assembly has done a wonderful job in carefully evaluating various options and working with faculty advisors to craft a peer assisted learning framework that best complements formal academic classroom learning for foundational computing courses.”

After a successful run of the Coders Assembly programme during the 2020-21 academic year and witnessing the serious efforts put forth by the organising committee, Assistant Professor Shim Kyong Jin said, “I was very pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming response during one of their coding clinics. It was a full house from start to end. The whole session was very well structured and guided. It really felt like a close-knit community – I could see how the mentors and mentees interacted in a highly professional yet friendly and personable manner. Our students are well known for helping one another in the classroom, in the corridor, in the ‘Project Way’ on Level 3 of SCIS building, and pretty much anywhere across the campus. The Coders Assembly programme builds on this wonderful peer learning and peer helping spirit which has been an integral part of SCIS learning for many years.”

Looking ahead

The Coders Assembly elects new organising committee members on an annual basis. While maintaining a strong focus on foundational programming courses designed for freshmen, the new group of organising committee members have expanded the growth plan of Coders Assembly to include sophomore courses such as Advanced Web Application Development and Enterprise Solution Development which involves a variety of programming languages, frameworks, and solution architecting. The members also noted the importance of innovating the way focus groups operate and participants bond – thereby deepening the interactions between mentors and mentees.

Sanchana Gnanasekaran and Koh Hui Qing, who are among the new batch of Coders Assembly committee members, commented “In this new academic year, we are excited to explore more avenues to help freshmen forge strong bonds with others in Coders Assembly. We aim to help them learn, grow and navigate university life, with the support of both their peers and seniors. Together with the members of the programme, we hope to continue building up and contributing to the strong community in SCIS!”