Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Reflecting on CS315 Game Programming, Fall 2023 Edition

Game Programming is such a fun course to teach. In the best of cases, I get to bring interested students along with me on a journey through the fundamentals of the craft. This semester, I had several such students who clearly understood what we were doing, why we did it, and that it was interesting. These students were great, and I hope I take nothing from them by focusing on areas of the course that disappointed me. The challenge is always to keep what works and change what doesn't.


The first topic to explore is checklist-based grading. Game Programming is the course where I pioneered this approach, and I have generally been keen on it. However, I have never had so many cases of students failing to follow protocol as I have this semester. No matter how many times I reminded, remonstrated, encouraged, or commanded, a significant number of students checked items that were incomplete. 

I wish had more data to distinguish between cases where students thought they had items that they didn't vs. cases where students were either lazy or trying to get away with something. The idea of Save Points—where students get an opportunity to resubmit work and address one of the missed criteriais for the former, not the latter. Responsible students do not struggle with this: they make mistakes and fix them. The mystery comes from irresponsible students. 

My lovely wife made a suggestion to me just the other day based on her observation that there is no penalty to the students for checking all the boxes and forcing me to deal with it. There's a solution, then: impose a penalty on checklist errors. I wonder if that one simple fix will help students see that I am serious about checklists being their responsibility, that they should not check an item that they are sure is satisfied. The impact of honest mistakes could be softened by being able to use a limited number of Save Points on such errors.

I also wonder about the mode of checklists. I wrote before about the complications of having the checklists in version control within the project (although I cannot find it right now to link to it). I suspect part of the problem that irresponsible students run into is that they download the checklist and start marking things, and possibly the project changes afterward. For multi-iteration projects, I am sure that students just keep the checklists in place and do not re-evaluate them. I could circumvent these problems by requiring that checklists be completed on paper. That is, I could make it easy for students to download printable checklists, and then have them turn these in at the deadline. It would be extra paperwork to manage, but it would be worth it if it helps them understand the gravitas of checking a box.

Scoping and Slicing

I feel like I had more students struggle with how to slice game programming problems this year than in the past. It's a hard problem! I do have them submit project plans to me, which I comment on, but it's not clear to me that they are acting on my feedback. That is, I may point out that their plans for a user story are too big, for example, but this doesn't seem to stop them. As above, it's hard to distinguish between whether they don't know how or aren't taking the feedback. 

It is not clear to me what I could do to improve this aside from give them more practice at this. At some point, it may simply be a combination of scale, difficulty, and lack of experience. That is, with this many students, doing something that is legitimately hard, without knowing that it's hard, it leaves me in a difficult position. Put another way, one way out of the problem is to declare it instead as a learning objective. This is potentially useful as this course, which used to be terminal, now leads into our preproduction class in the Game Design & Development concentration.

However, it's also possible that there may be other cognitive tools I can teach the students to help them understand the difference between a half-baked cake and a half tray of cupcakes. Too few students come out of CS222 with an internalized understanding of the agile approach despite the use of incremental and iterative development there. 

One way to help them with this would be to spend more time together. That is, we could take a page out of the College of Fine Arts playbook and make this a studio class, with double contact hours. I've been teaching studio courses like this in Computer Science for many years. I don't think my colleagues are aware of it, which is only relevant when you're actually spending twice the contact hours with a class than otherwise. At the risk of stating the obvious, it's twice as much time. If we made Game Programming a studio course, I would have twice as much time to work alongside with students and help them out. The cost is that I would essentially give up half a day a week to the endeavor. I still struggle to see exactly where the optimum is on the cost-benefit curve here.


I'll close with an odd little story. The penultimate meeting of the class was my opportunity to introduce some topics of artificial intelligence to the class. Specifically, I talked about behavior trees, which is a topic for which I have had a group of students doing research with me this semester. This presentation had to start with some lecture about the material. Once I got the basics out of the way, I gave the students a challenge to try drawing a behavior tree for Tag. I told them to get into groups of three or four to see if they could sort out how to combine selectors, sequences, and actions to write a simple in-engine simulation. 

About half of the students clumped up into two groups and began approaching the problem, either on paper or at a whiteboard. The other half? Well, one of them looked like he tried to get the guy sitting next to him to talk, but he was rebuffed. The rest of them just sat there, faces into their laptops, exactly as they had been a moment before. This isn't the kind of course where I can just say "Laptops down" since we were working together in a demo repository, but clearly, there was a mismatch here of expectations. 

I was faced with a dilemma: should I call out the people who were disengaged or should I ignore them? I decided to simply ignore them. The day before the final presentations, I just cut off half of the room and stopped talking to them while the other half of the room and I explored the nifty space of behavior trees. I'm not exactly happy with this decision, but I think it was the right one. It may also be worth mentioning that a third of the class was not there, so really there were three categories, not two. It will surprise no one to hear that there's a near perfect correlation between the performance of students across the categories with respect to measurable effort and results. 

The problem is that this was just a clear symptom of the disengagement that had happened well before. Part of the issue is the room in which we had the class. It is a great space for studio work and a terrible place for interactive workshops. My usual room makes it easy for me to walk around and see what people are doing: it is practically or literally impossible in the room I was in. I leave this note here in part so that I can make sure next year that I am back in the teaching lab. I think if I had a more clear pattern of walking through and seeing what's on students' screen, I would not have had a whole side of the class physical and mentally far from me.

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