Ethan Chiu My personal blog

GPS Syndrome

“We don’t want students to suffer from GPS Syndrome”

A few weeks ago, I went to the orientation for Academic Interning for UC Berkeley’s CS61A course.

One of the most surprising and enlightening parts of the sessions was when one of the CS61A TA’s went over the concept of GPS Syndrome. He explained that often times students ask a lot of questions when they get stuck and ask you to give them the steps and eventually the solution to a problem. He compared this with his experience using a GPS system while navigating Berkeley. Since he had always used a GPS to get to places, he never learned how to truly get around Berkeley without a GPS.

Often times, when you give a student too much help and guidance, they become dependent on you and don’t develop the skills and problem solving mindset to tackle programming problems in the long term.

Before this orientation, I’ve always thought that as a teacher, you should teach a student as much as possible and hold.

After going to this orientation and reflecting back on my own experiences, I’ve realized the best teachers and mentors I’ve had in programming gave me space and gently pushed me to solve problems by myself if I was asking “too many” questions. Most recently, in the beginning of my internship at Etsy, I had a training lab and I remember struggling with a certain section for a few hours. I asked one of my team members to help me. Instead of giving me the answer, he asked me what my approach was. Throughout that process, I realized some holes in my approach and moved forward to solving those issues. Still, after a few more hours, I asked the same team member what was wrong with my code. Instead of telling me specifically what was wrong, he taught me the best ways to debug my problem with the Chrome debugger and various tools built into the Etsy Codebase. I’m super glad he taught me how to tackle the problem instead of just telling me solely how to solve the problem. I was able to use those debugging skills for the rest of my internship and it helped enable me to learn and work more effectively overall.

For the past 2 weeks, I’ve been answering various questions during a weekly CS 61A Lab during my CS 61A Lab. During my first week, I had the opportunity to help combat against the GPS Syndrome problem. I had one student ask me what the solution was for one of the lab questions. He told me he didn’t understand at all why his approach was incorrect. Instead of giving him the answer directly, I asked him how he approached the problem. From his explanation of his approach, I realized that he misunderstood what the problem was asking for. So, we walked through a few different examples of the function and he slowly understood what the problem was with his code and realized he didn’t understand the problem completely before he started writing the code! Moreover, I made sure he understood how his old code operated and ran in Python using environment diagrams.

I gave him a few minutes to rethink the problem over and try solving it. When I came back after 5 minutes, I was surprised that he used a concept that they hadn’t learned yet, recursion, to solve the problem correctly. He walked through his thought process with me and excitedly explained why he “called the same function in the function”. What really amazes me about the approach of giving students enough space (after giving them the tools to succeed) is that these students often times are able to grow and learn more by themselves as well as expand on course material beyond what is being taught!

Learning this GPS Syndrome concept was super interesting and eye opening for me. I’m super excited to find out what I discover next throughout my teaching experiences through learning more about effective teaching methods and tutoring several students weekly via CS 370 (a course on teaching CS), teaching CS 61A weekly as a Computer Science Mentors, and answering questions in CS 61A lab via an Academic Internship.