Thursday, December 9, 2010

CS222: What we learned and how we learned it

I did something experimental today in our last meeting of CS222: Advanced Programming. Regular readers may recall that this was the first offering of the course, not just by me, but by the university; following the SIGCSE mailing lists, I think other departments are starting to see the need for such a course as well. I decided to devote most of our 75-minute meeting time today to a student-directed analysis of what we learned, inspired by the structure that Michael Goldsby used when he led our six-hour Future of Education Task Force meeting.

First, I asked the students to list anything that they learned during the semester that was incident upon the CS222 experience. I told them that it didn't have to be something that was explicitly listed in the syllabus or in our meetings, but anything that was somehow related. I recorded these on a large self-stick easel pad, and as we filled up each sheet, I had my undergraduate teaching assistant post it around the room. We filled eight sheets with 75 items (with one item on the ninth sheet) in just under 30 minutes.

After listing the 75 items, I distributed sticker sheets and asked each student to put a sticker by the three items that were the most important or valuable to them. I briefly explained that this was purely subjective—that they were free to define what "important" and "valuable" are themselves. Based on the distribution, we made the cut-off at four stars, giving us a consensus on the following items as most valuable:

  • Team programming
  • Test-driven development
  • Use of libraries (software)
  • Refactoring
  • UML
  • Design patterns
From these, I asked the students to consider how they learned these. It took a bit of prompting to construct this second list, but we ended up with 13 items. For example, the first item offered was, "by writing code." I asked for more information about the kind of situation the student meant, because many of our ideas are reified in code. He clarified that he meant, "by writing code that uses these ideas." I pushed a little harder into the kind of situation he was describing, and we ended up with, "by writing code that uses these ideas in the final project." Not all of these were articulated as well as I would have hoped, but this might reflect the most interesting part: that the students did not have the vocabulary to describe activities that they thought were useful to their learning.
Each student was given two stars for these sheets, and these four rose to the top:
  • Lecture-based example that was built upon in assignments
  • Looking at code as a group in class
  • By writing code that uses these ideas in the final project
  • Demonstrations of practice
Disturbingly missing from the entire list of thirteen is any mention of books or the Internet. It seems the focus of student's thinking about learning is classroom-based, despite the emphasis this semester on reflective practice, metacognition, and explicitly learning how to use external (i.e. non-self, non-university) resources. I do not want to jump to conclusions about this, since as mentioned above, the students clearly lacked a vocabulary for describing their learning experiences.

1 comment:

  1. I'm wondering if these students don't have a mindset similar to what I had when starting college. This mindset was more of brainwashing from my days in high school where resources such as the Internet were frowned upon and forbidden to be used and mentioned in papers and projects. I think this may have stemmed from the internet as we know it being rather "young" back then and information was not necessarily trusted or deemed accurate. Even in my freshmen and sophomore years in college I had many professors explicitly tell us we were not allowed to use the internet to conduct research and the mere mention of Wikipedia would garner a scowl and a fear of a lowered grade.

    The internet has since evolved into a wonderful resource full of extremely knowledgeable people who are more than willing to share what they know and offer in-site and assistance to those in need. Even with this new age of the web, it's possible that even this generation is fearful of admitting to using this powerful resource lest they received a backlash from the older generations of instructors.