Revisited: My Students Know Far Less

January 21, 2011 at 1:52 pm 11 comments

Beth Simon made an excellent recommendation after my report on my first Peer Instruction lesson: Was it really a bad question that students misinterpreted?  Why not ask the students?  You would expect that students would most likely give me the answer on this survey that they thought I wanted.  This was the first slide of the day.

Here’s the distribution of responses:

I did several more “clicker” questions today in lecture, and I’m getting a better sense of what works and what doesn’t work.  (Something that doesn’t work: My <expletive deleted> Lenovo TabletPC that refused to wake up at the start of class, requiring me to reboot, and losing 10 minutes of lecture! ARGH!)  I asked students to write in a piece of code today (rewrite a FOR loop as a WHILE loop).  The answers were actually pretty good, but the writing took a long time.  I won’t do that often.

One of the general insights I’m getting is about the large variance in the class.  Here’s another question I asked in class (before the Java nitpickers let loose — we’re using DrJava, they’ve seen that code works fine without semi-colons, and in fact, we had just done these three lines verbatim with variable “fred” instead of “mabel”):

And the responses:

Most of the class grokked this one, but 5 of the 22 students who responded (some told me after class that they didn’t even respond) are pretty confused.  That’s over 20%.

I chatted with several of the students after class today.  They’re very confused, despite having read the first two chapters of the book (they claim) and taken the quiz.  (I’m using out-of-class Video Quizzes, where students watch a videotape of me using Java, then answer questions about it.)  My main insight into their confusion: After only one semester of CS classes, reading code is not an automatized skill.  That’s not surprising, but it’s not something that I’d thought much about.  The students told me that they’re metaphorically “sounding out” the code. They’ve thinking through what’s a method (and translating that into a MATLAB or Python “function”) and what’s a class and what’s valid Java syntax with semi-colons.   That’s taking them time, and sometimes, they’re responding before they’re really confident about what they read.

Peer Instruction is taking me extra time: To get the slides onto Ubiquitous Presenter, to only present from my TabletPC, to write  questions and insert them into slides, and to take time from lecture (for students to answer, to discuss, to respond again).  I still think it’s worthwhile, and I plan to continue trying it.


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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bill Griswold  |  January 21, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Interesting! You might try to get the students to develop the habit of typing example code into DrJava while doing the book reading, maybe tweaking the examples to test their expectations on the output. Might not work, since they won’t be accountable for developing the habit. However, the habit may be a variant of one they already have – typing their questions into Google when they don’t understand something.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 21, 2011 at 2:48 pm

      I explicitly do that, Bill. Right now, I think they’re just overwhelmed — too much too new in too little time.

  • 3. Owen Astrachan  |  January 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    It sounds like some of the issues are vocabulary. To convince students that vocabulary is an issue, but one that can be dealt with, I’ve used online rosetta stone demos to talk about similarities and differences

    is swedish

    is spanish. We run through about 5 minutes of spanish and one or two of Swedish to talk about how you can learn vocabulary even when you don’t know the language at all. The URL is also an example of parameterization, that’s a bonus!

    The idea of learning the basics of communicating with a new language via simple vocabulary lessons has resonated with many students. I can’t judge its efficacy as a learning tool, but I’m looking at tools for engagement here: what to do on the first class where we’re going to see a language no one has seen before (in this case, Python).

    • 4. Cynthia Lee  |  January 22, 2011 at 2:02 pm

      I did the whole demo and wow, those are fun. I am really fascinated by the pedagogy it uses, and by the way you relate that to your class. Thanks.

  • 5. Alfred Thompson  |  January 21, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I have to wonder what the replies would have been if you’d asked if you were looking for the contents of the first element in the array or the second element in the arry. Not a critique but an “I wonder.”

  • 6. Fred Martin  |  January 22, 2011 at 7:16 am

    I bet the students like that you’re iteratively making the slides based on feedback from them.

    Even if they don’t consciously admit this, they know your listening to their answers.

  • 7. Mike Byrne  |  January 22, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    [points and laughs]

    You said “Lenovo Tablet PC”. hahahahahaha…

    Yes, I’m 41 and still completely juvenile. 🙂

  • 8. Beth Simon  |  January 24, 2011 at 8:58 am

    On the “what works” with PI front. It can be a great thing to add a “I don’t know” option and to strongly and repeatedly encourage students to choose it if they are confused. Then, if you get any sort of significant number choosing that, you know something needs to happen.

    Options include
    a) saying (to your highly varying class) — OK, we have a number of people who aren’t sure about this. Let’s take a second and let me model for you how I think about it
    b) We have a number of people who indicate they don’t know. What is it that is likely hard about this question? Do you know what I am asking for? Spend 2 minutes talking to your group about what might be challenging with this question — even if you got it right. Then you guys can tell me what others might think is hard, and we can work through that.

    Even (especially) when people “don’t know” — they also don’t know enough to phrase their question. Let the others in the class who just struggled through it help out if needed.

    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  January 24, 2011 at 9:38 am

      I’m thinking I might also need to juggle seats in the class occasionally. I suspect that groups of friends who don’t know are clustering.

  • 10. Taking a test helps with learning « Computing Education Blog  |  January 29, 2011 at 10:07 am

    […] not the later work that emphasized skills testing as well as examples. It supports the claims of Peer Instruction, the idea of lots of mini-quiz-like questions mixed into the lecture. Taking a test is not just a […]

  • […] not arguing that my students are dumb.  Through peer instruction, I have come to understand better what they understood coming in, how well they understand what I’ve been teaching them, and how far they’ve come. […]


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