Tuesday, December 23, 2014

CS222 Fall 2014: What we learned, and where we're going

The final exam for my CS222 class once again featured the construction of a list of what the students learned (or more properly, what they think they learned). They compiled a list of 111 items, and each student was asked to pick their top seven. Once all the votes were tallied, these was most consensus around these four items:

Test-Driven Development16
JUnit testing12
Make realistic goals12
You can learn a lot from failures10

Transcribing the list is like a semester-in-review. There are some very powerful ideas that the students brought up, many of which only had one or two votes. Examples include "Nobody owns code in a group project," "Dirty code is easy to write and hard to maintain," "Be wary of second-order ignorance," and "Donuts solve most transgressions." I could tell stories about each one of these—and I know that if I don't write down the stories, the details will be lost to the sands of time. However, I also know that this is going to be a long post, so I will have to leave out some of these details. It's worth noting that some of the items in the list also embody lingering confusion. I just write down what the students say during this exercise, only asking for clarifications. Still, my teacher-sense was tingling when students offered items like "Instantiating variables," which shows a misunderstanding of terminology, semantics, or both.

The students were asked to write about what experiences led them to learn one of these items. I believe everybody chose to write about learning from failure, which turned out to be a good theme for the semester, as I talk about more below. One of the students, in his closing essay, pointed out that "make realistic goals" and "learn from failure" are the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from a weekend leadership workshop at a hotel, which I thought was an astute observation and brought a smile to my face. He himself acknowledged that these items are easy to say and hard to follow, and I found it uplifting to read about how so many students had transformative experiences around personal and team failures during the semester. My hope is that they integrate these lessons into better practices as they move forward in college and then in their lives as alumni.

Taking a step back from the end of the semester, let me set the context for this particular class. About two years ago, the Foundations Curriculum Committee approved a change to our introductory Computer Science class. We decided to adopt the combination of Media Computing, Pair Programming, and Peer Instruction that proved so successful at San Diego. The CS222 course that I have been working on for a few years comes two semesters after this course, and so this Fall I had my first cohort of students from this change. The change of context went along with a change of language, so whereas previously my students had two introductory semesters in Java, this group had a semester of Python and a semester of Java.

I was a bit surprised that these students did not appear to be any better or any worse prepared for CS222 with respect to maturity of programming. As always, they could generally hit the keys until programs kind of worked. There were some who still struggled with basic control structures, almost uniform misuse of technical terminology, and practically no understanding of either object-oriented programming or its syntactic elements. I suppose this means that our first round of data point to the change being a success, since I did not notice any real change in preparation, yet more students are sticking with the major. (Then again, it could just be the economy.)

I think I had slightly overestimated their understanding of Java in the early part of the semester. My intention was to give some warm-up exercises, but I think these were neither formal enough nor scaffolded enough. There were several days where I posed a challenge and said, "Try this for next time!" but—with shades of when I tried making the final project not worth course credit—because it wasn't collected and graded, I do not think many people really tried. For the Spring, I have integrated three formal assignments, one per week before the two-week project. Because these assignments are intended to form students' for the coming weeks of activity, I have decided to adopt a mastery learning approach here: students have to do the assignments until they are correct. (As I write this, I realize that there may be a hole here: right now, I have it set up so that the assignments must be correct to get higher than a 'D' in the course, but this means students might put them off. I think I will have to revise that before Spring, to actually stop them from moving on in the course somehow until the assignments are done, or put a strict time limit on how long they have to submit a reasonable revision.)

The two-week project in the Fall was a good experience, although I think the students didn't realize it until for a few weeks afterward. I gave them a good technical challenge, involving processing data from NPR's RSS feeds, and Clean Code with TDD was required. Of course, many students did not start the project when they should have, but more importantly, I don't think that anybody actually followed the requirements. Several students had projects that ostensibly worked, and they were proud of these, but they were horribly written. I was honest in the grading, which I think many of the students had never experienced before either. Many of them panicked, but then I pointed out to them that the project had no contribution to their final grade at all. This allowed us to talk honestly about the difference between requirement and suggestion, and it forced them to rethink their own processes. In their end-of-semester essays, many students came back to this as one of the most important experiences of the course—a real eye-opener. I am fairly certain this contributed to "learn from failure" being one of the top items of consensus in the final exam.

I realized too late in the semester that I had a problem with the achievement-based grading system. I had designed several interesting quests, which a student had to complete in order to unlock A-level grades. One of them, "Clean Coder," was designed to be the easiest one: it required the completion of several achievements related to Clean Code, which was required for the project anyway. However, it looked like it was harder, because it had more steps than the others. The other achievements had fewer steps required because I knew that students would be doing Clean Code activities as well. Sadly, the students didn't think this through, and I did not convey it clearly enough, with the result that nobody pursued the Clean Code achievements. Not coincidentally, many teams struggled with fundamental Clean Code ideas in their projects.

I also encountered something new this semester, which could actually be novel although I suspect it was previously under my radar. As in previous semesters, I allowed collaborative achievement submissions, since much of the work is intended to be done by the team collectively. However, it came to my attention that a few teams were assigning an "achievements person" who became responsible for doing the achievement work while the rest did other things. This is quite a reasonable division of labor, but it's not at all what I intended.

Because of the quest difficulties and the unintended division of labor, I made several changes to the achievement-based assessment system for the Spring. All achievement claims will now be made by individuals, which helps me ensure that I know each student earns their keep. I also reduced the number required to unlock different grade levels. However, the total workload should be about the same, as I am bringing in end-of-iteration reflection essays. Several semesters ago, I required both achievements and reflection essays, but I found this to be too much work. I find myself wanting students to tie their experiences more to our essential questions, and so I'm pulling the end-of-iteration essay idea from my studio courses into CS222. I think it should be a good fit here, although I am dreading the return of the inevitable "This feels like a writing course!" evaluations from students who don't recognize the epistemic value of writing.

I have also completely removed the quest construct. Many of the items that were quests are now simply achievements. The quests are fun and provide a nice narrative on top of the achievements ("I am becoming an engineer!" "I care about user-centered design!"), but they also bound the students too early to a specific path: a team who decided on one quest could not feasibly change paths to take another, which is unfortunate since the whole thing was really designed to be inspirational, not constricting. In the Spring, then, there will be no other barrier between B-level and A-level grades aside from the number of achievements. Realistically, it's the project grade that most influences final grades anyway.

Before winter break is over, I plan to make a checklist for the final project iterations. I don't know if students actually will read it or use it, but maybe it will help those teams who are working diligently but suffering from second-order ignorance. Common items that teams forget before the submission include removing compiler warnings, tagging the repository, and checking out their project onto a clean machine to ensure that all of their dependencies are properly configured or documented.

I incorporated self- and peer-evaluations into each iteration in the Fall, and these provided a throttle on how many points an individual could earn from a collective team project. The design, obviously, is to catch freeloaders. I used a similar system in my game programming course, where I also asked students to reflect on it explicitly, and that group was pretty evenly split between people who liked it, those who didn't, and the neutral. Although I did not ask students to reflect on these evaluations explicitly in CS222, I was surprised that it just didn't come up in most students' writings, and where it did, it was very positively. There were some teams where I think they even helped students to air some difficulties early and get over them. I still need to find a better way to help students recognize that, given a rubric, all I want is an honest response. I did hear students talking about giving each other "good" evaluations, and I tried to convince them that it wasn't about "good" and "bad", but about honest feedback. Perhaps it's an intractable problem because these evaluations contribute to a grade, and so inevitably students pragmatically see "good" and "bad" as having priority over team cohesion.

The course evaluations for Fall were nice to read, as the students praised the areas of the course that I think went well, and they provided constructive criticism in places where things were rocky. At least two students described the achievement-based system as feeling like it was "still in beta," but both were quite forgiving of this as well. I think drawing on video game metaphors here helped me, as students recognize that "beta" incorporates their feedback for the betterment of future players. Despite generally high praise for my course, I cannot get out of my head the fact that more than one student wrote something like, "Don't believe the people who say you are a monster." Two used the word "monster" specifically. These were all couched in grateful and kind ways, from students encouraging me to continue to be honest in my critical feedback. I suppose I must have a mixed reputation. I know I shouldn't let it get to me, but I cannot help but wish to be a fly on the wall.

This was a really fun group of students, and I think we did a lot of good work together. I hope they carry these big ideas of software development and craftsmanship with them as they move on. In my last presentation to them, I reminded them that I spent the last fifteen weeks holding them accountable to high professional standards, and that in the coming semesters, they will be responsible for holding themselves and each other accountable. I hope they do.

Some references:

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