Thursday, January 2, 2014

Tweaking achievements and reflections

Before the start of the Fall 2013 semester, I wrote about the changes I was incorporating into CS222, the Advanced Programming class. With that semester behind us, I can say that it went well, although not without the need for tweaks. For the Spring, I am keeping the fundamental structure. Here is a summary and justification for the tweaks.

I am scaling down the number of achievements required for each grade level. The original plan in the Fall was two achievements per week. However, students were not as adept as I had hoped at aligning achievements and projects. The intention was that students would earn achievements by doing their projects, but the majority of the class tried to do achievements separately from the projects. In the Fall, we ended up making a change midstream, reducing the number required during the nine-week project to only one per week. For the Spring, I'm pulling back a little bit more, expecting two achievements per week during the first three weeks, then only one per week during the two-week "warm-up" project and the nine-week major project.

Another change addresses the intended achievement-project synergy: restricting the code that can be used to complete achievements. When working toward achievements, Fall's students were permitted to use any code to which they had a license. In practice, I had students submitting trivial modifications to terribly-conceived CS1 and CS2 projects all the way to the end of the semester. In Spring, students can use any such code during the first third of the semester, but once they start their nine-week projects, they must use either that code or public open source code.

I have also changed the how and when reflections are required. In Fall's section, students wrote one reflection per achievement. I am sure that the best students—those on the road to being reflective practitioners—found this fruitful, albeit time-consuming. The students with worse writing skills spent inordinate time on these reflections, time that should have been spent understanding the material instead. Their action was justified, perhaps, by the fact that reflections were a significant part of the course grade. Also, I allowed resubmission of the reflections, but I think my attempt to encourage mastery learning instead fostered the"submit and hope" approach that I find so endemic and disdainful. In the Spring, the students will instead be asked to write one reflection per week, and this reflection may focus on any course-related experience: achievements, in-class discussions, project team discoveries, and so on.

The structure of the reflections will change as well. In the Fall, students were asked to do three things in their reflections: characterize an essential question, describe implications to practice, and consider alternative perspectives. Many students struggled with these all semester. Although I believe that tackling these problems is good for students, there is a limited about of time students can devote to this class. Hence, I have reduced and rearticulated the requirements: in the Spring, students will be asked to address one of the essential questions ("characterize" caused undue problems) and describe implications to practice.

Despite the addition of achievements and structured essays, perhaps the most uncertain of my Fall experiments was in not grading the final projects. As mentioned above, the course design was supposed to foster students' intrinsic motivation to work on the projects, which would provide context for the achievements. My ambitious designs failed to account for the pragmatic, goal-directed nature of the undergraduate! Students realized that the projects were not graded, and many students found this unmotivating: they wanted their work to be recognized directly in their grades. I will be returning to my conventional approach, grading both the projects and their ancillary artifacts such as presentations and a final report.

A final significant change that I expect to bring vast improvements is getting off of Blackboard. We used Blackboard's wiki in the Fall as a place for students to post and share their achievement artifacts. The wiki is ghastly, and because it was so difficult to give targeted feedback, we ended up with a very poor signal to noise ratio. Often, a student would post something that was wrong, and I would give formative evaluation to that student, encouraging revision; the student would not revise, and within a few days, I would receive several similar submissions from students who assumed the original was correct. What a mess. In the Spring, we're going to use Google Drive instead. I am uneasy about requiring students to register for a Google Account in order to participate, but most have them anyway, and the technology stack is so vastly superior that I'm going to try it. I will set up a shared folder that will contain one document per achievement, and students will post their artifacts within those documents. My feedback can take the form of comments, which are visible to all readers. I will have a bit of manual work to translate these data into Blackboard's gradebook, but that's worth it to help close the gap between my feedback and peer learning.

I finished up the course description this morning and linked it to my Web page. The achievements themselves are basically the same as the ones I designed last Summer, with a few notable additions that reward technology (integration with relational databases and structured data parsers) as well as community-building (interviewing alumni and senior capstone teams). Each achievement has also been clarified as to what exactly the corresponding artifact is—some had been vague in the previous iteration.

The semester starts in just a few days, and I'm looking forward to meeting the new crop of CS222 students. I am not looking forward to teaching at 8AM and Monday's high of -6°F, but I am trying not to complain.

But seriously, 8AM and -6°F high temperature.

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