Big Data vs. Ed Psychology: Work harder vs. work smarter

January 31, 2014 at 1:35 am 6 comments

I met with a prospective PhD student recently, who told me that she’s interested in using big data to inform her design of computing education.  She said that she disliked designing something, just crossing her fingers hoping it would work.  She and the faculty she’s working with are trying to use big data to inform their design decisions.

That’s a fine approach, but it’s pretty work-intensive.  You gather all this data, then you have to figure out what’s relevant, and what it means, and how it influences practice.  It’s a very computer science-y way of solving the problem, but it’s rather brute force.

There is a richer data source with much more easily applicable design guidelines: educational psychology literature.  Educational psychologists have been thinking about these issues for a long time.  They know a lot of things.

We’re finding that we can inform a lot of our design decisions by simply reading the relevant education literature:

I was recently reading a computer science paper in which the author said that we don’t know much about mathematics education, and that’s because we’ve never had enough data to come up with findings.  But there were no references to mathematics education literature.  We actually know a lot about mathematics education literature.  Too often, I fear that we computer scientists want to invent it all ourselves, as if that was a better approach.  Why not just talk to and read the work of really smart people who have devoted their lives to figuring out how to teach better?


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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. nickfalkner  |  January 31, 2014 at 1:52 am

    Can you at least wait until I’ve submitted my ICER paper to review it? 🙂

  • 2. Liza Loop  |  January 31, 2014 at 4:06 am

    Not only do we know a lot about mathematics education (and other subjects), we know a lot about using computers to stimulate learning about mathematics (and other subjects). Educational researchers learned a great deal about how learners react to computer-delivered stimuli by, get this, watching them and asking them questions. This was in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s — before we were capturing keystrokes and using eye trackers. Big data, little data – it’s the interpretation that counts. You won’t find much about those early years on the web – yet. These were the decades after we were using computers for education but before there was a web. We’re gradually making this material available to you through the History of Computing in Learning and Education Project. For now you’ll have to surf around on our wiki at to get a notion of what is in our archive. Next year, when our Virtual Museum is launched you’ll be able to browse our catalog of early computer based learning materials, magazines and software. After that we’ll be designing exhibits that explain what was discovered then so you won’t have to reinvent it now.

  • 3. Elizabeth Patitsas  |  January 31, 2014 at 11:51 am

    One thing I’d love to see is CS ed conferences where your bibliography doesn’t count towards the page limit on the article you’re writing.

    The more I’ve learnt about the psych literature, the more painful it is for me to assemble bibliographies when writing CS ed papers. I want to cite *so many* papers, since often there is *so much* literature out there. But when it comes down to editing and getting my paper under the page limit, these are the easiest things to get rid of.

    My impression of the system is that authors are de-incentivised to properly showcase the relevant literature — and it gives others in the research community a false idea of how much relevant literature is out there. Newcomers to the field don’t see the relevant literature — and then don’t know it exists.

    There’s a fair number of CS conferences out there that don’t count the bibliography towards page limits (from what I’ve seen, mostly in HCI and Systems). But even if we don’t do that, consider: the page limits in CS ed conferences are really small. Pretty much every non-CS ed CS conference I’ve had a look at has at least a 10-page limit. 12-15 page limits seem most common. In contrast, ICER’s page limit is 8. SIGCSE’s is 6.

    What room is there in a 6-page paper to show both your original work *and* really give the reader a fair understanding of the relevant literature? What incentives are there for authors in CS ed to really share their knowledge of the relevant work?

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  January 31, 2014 at 12:22 pm

      SIGCSE Symposium’s page limit used to be 5, and we fought to get it up to 6. ICER’s page limit used to be 12 (first three years), but then it got pushed down for reasons I don’t understand.

      It may be that conference papers are the wrong places to tell these stories. I just finished an NSF proposal last night, where the 15 page body has six pages of references.

    • 5. Polina Charters  |  January 31, 2014 at 6:36 pm


      I know exactly what you mean! Coming from a psychology background, I had a hard time cutting down my 70 references for SIGCSE.

  • […] knowledge, and we have to find ways to create professional communities of CS teachers.  There are techniques to share (worked examples, peer instruction, pair programming, Parson’s problems, audio tours), and […]


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