Exciting new paper on MediaComp with Majors and Year-Later Results

March 8, 2010 at 3:03 pm 4 comments

Beth Simon just let me know that her paper has just been accepted to ITICSE 2010.  She shared the submitted draft with me, and I’ve been biting my lip, wanting to talk about it here.  Now that it’s accepted, I can talk about it, while still leaving the real thunder for Beth’s paper and her presentation this summer.  For me, it’s exciting to see two year’s worth of data with CS majors, including following the students into their second year. Beth deals head-on with one of the criticisms of Media Computation (e.g., no, it’s not a tour of all-things-Java — you won’t cover as many language features as you used to) and provides the answers that really matter (e.g., you retain more students, they learn more about problem-solving, and they do really well in the next course). I’ll quote her abstract here:

Previous reports of a media computation approach to teaching programming have either focused on pre-CS1 courses or courses for non-majors. We report the adoption of a media computation context in a majors’ CS1 course at a large, selective R1 institution in the U.S. The main goal was to increase retention of majors, but do so by replacing the traditional CS1 course directly (fully preparing students for the subsequent course). In this paper we provide an experience report for instructors interested in this approach. We compare a traditional CS1 with a media computation CS1 in terms of desired student competencies (analyzed via programming assignments and exams) and find the media computation approach to focus more on problem solving and less on language issues. In comparing student success (analyzed via pass rates and retention rates one year later) we find pass rates to be statistically significantly higher with media computation both for majors and for the class as a whole. We give examples of media computation exam questions and programming assignments and share student and instructor experiences including advice for the new instructor.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Raymond Lister  |  March 8, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    It’s great to see the data coming in to support Media Comp. It certainly is a good approach to some of the problems we face.

    I think that learning to program is multidimensional – it’s likely that we face several different types of problems in teaching students to program. Media Comp, Alice and Scratch (and also Greenfoot, but it is not getting the profile it richly deserves, perhaps because it was not invented in North America) are great attacks on the engagement problem, not just “engagement” in the sense of retention, but also “engagement” in the sense of getting students to stick with the programming problem before them, on the screen, at any given moment in time.

    My concern, however, is that the computing education community has become so absorbed with the engagement problem, that it has forgotten the cognitive problem. Programming is a difficult cognitive process, and while Media Comp. et al. might help students overcome the cognitive problem INDIRECTLY, by getting them to engage more, Media Comp. et al. do not DIRECTLY address the cognitive problem. It seems as if the computing education community has forgotten the rich tradition of work most famously done by Soloway.

    I’m certainly NOT suggesting that all the people who have pioneered Media Comp, Alice and Scratch (and Greenfoot) should stop doing what they do – on the contrary! The neglect of the cognitive problem is a COMMUNITY issue, not an issue to be solved by one person, one research group, or one research programme. As I said earlier, learning to program is multidimensional. It takes a community to attack all dimensions of a problem.

    • 2. Raymond Lister  |  March 8, 2010 at 3:36 pm

      P.S. Beth’s approach combines Media Comp and an interactive lecturing style based on the use of clickers. It’s probably difficult to assess how much each of these two aspects has contributed to her success.

      • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  March 9, 2010 at 8:52 am

        I do wonder why more people don’t use Greenfoot, Ray. We have a chapter in our new data structures book devoted to it. BlueJ is popular in the US, so I don’t think there’s rampant anti-NorthAmerican sentiment going on here. I do agree that we need more focus on the cognitive, rather than just on engagement. Engagement has been effective in turning around high failure rates. We need a focus on the cognitive for better learning.

        As we discussed off this channel, whole-of-course changes are hard to track. Yes, Beth changed several things at once. Clickers could very well relate to better learning which extends into the second year — agreed. I don’t see an obvious mechanism by which clickers impacted engagement and retention, so I’d bet that that was MediaComp-influenced.

        See you this week in Milwaukee! We leave in just a few hours.

  • 4. Raymond Lister  |  March 9, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Mark wrote, “I don’t see an obvious mechanism by which clickers impacted engagement and retention …”.

    When I sat in on one of Beth’s classes, I was struck at how her lecture was a *social* environment. The students talk to each other – not about tonight’s party, but about the answers to questions that Beth poses. It is human nature that something you don’t understand isn’t as threatening after you learn, from discussion, that other students also don’t understand it. That, and just the simple warmth that most humans feel when they communicate, *might* have an impact on engagement and retention.

    One of the things I fiind most interesting about Media Comp is the show-and-tell part, where students display their creations to other students. The show-and-tell also plays to the social aspect of being human. Until now, before Media Comp and clickers, most computer science classrooms have been socially isolating environments – no wonder we chased the students away.

    While I’m sure Mark is familiar with the use of clickers, I’ll provide a quick description for anyone else who might be reading. The teacher poses a multiple choice question. Students select an answer, enter it on to a “clicker” device, which communicates via a wireless to the teacher’s computer. The teacher usually then shows the students the percentage of votes for each choice. Ideally, there is considerable disagreement among the students. The teacher then tells the students to discuss the question in groups of three or four. After that discussion, the students vote again.

    I’m not saying that Media Comp. in its own right isn’t a major improvement on the standard approach – Media Comp is marvellous! I’m just a CSEd Researcher, shooting the breeze.


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