The need for better software and systems to support active CS learning

March 31, 2017 at 7:00 am 7 comments

I believe strongly in active learning, such as Peer Instruction (as I have argued here and here).  I have discovered that it is far harder than I thought to do for large CS classes.

I decided to use clickers in CS1315 this semester (n=217), rather than use the colored index cards that I’ve used in the past for Peer Instruction (see blog post here). With cards, I can only take a vote — no histogram of results, and I can’t provide any grade value for the participation. With clickers, I can use the evidence-based practice as developed by Eric Mazur, Cynthia Lee, Beth Simon, Leo Porter, et al. (plugging the Peer Instruction for CS website):

  • Ask everyone to answer to prime their thinking about the question,
  • ask students to discuss the question in groups of 2-3,
  • then vote again (consensus within groups), and
  • show the results and discuss the misconceptions.

To make it worthwhile, I’m giving 10 points of final course grade for scoring over 50% on the second question (only — first one is just to get predictions and activate knowledge), 5 points for scoring over 30%.

I’m trying to do this all with campus-approved standards: TurningPoint clickers, TurningPoint software.  I’d love to use an app-based solution, but our campus Office of Information Technologies warns against it.  They can’t guarantee that, in large classes, the network will support all the traffic for everyone to vote at once.

The process is so complicated: Turn on clickers in our learning management software (a form of Sakai called T-Square), download the participant list, open up ResponseWare and define a session (for those using the app version), plug in receiver. After class, save the session, integrate the session with the participant list, then integrate the results with T-Square for grades. The default question-creation process in TurningPoint software automatically shows results and demands a specific format (e.g., which makes it hard to show screenshots as part of a question), so I’m using “Poll Anywhere” option, which requires me to process the session file after class to delete the first question (where everyone votes to prime their thinking) and to define the correct response(s) for each question.

I’m willing to do all that. But it’s more complicated than that.

Turns out that Georgia Tech hasn’t upgraded to the latest version of the TurningPoint software (TurningPoint Cloud).  GT only supports TurningPoint 5. TurningPoint stopped distributing that version of the software in May 2016, so you have to get it directly from the on-campus Center for Teaching and Learning. I got the software and installed it — and discovered that it doesn’t run on the current version of MacOS, Sierra.

I did find a solution. Here’s what I do.  Before each lecture, I move my lecture slides to a network drive.  When I get to class, I load my lecture on the lecture/podium computer (which runs Windows and TurningPoint 5 and has a receiver built-in).  I gather all the session data while I teach with the podium computer and do live coding on my computer (two screens in the massive lecture hall).  I save the session data back to the network drive.  Back in my office, I use an older Mac that still runs an older version of MacOS to download the session data, import it using TurningPoint 5, do all the deletions of priming questions and correct-marking of other questions, then integrate and upload to T-Square.

Counting my laptop where I make up slides and do live coding, my Peer Instruction classes require three computers.

Every CS teacher should use active learning methodologies in our classes.  Our classes are huge.  We need better and easier mechanisms to make this work.


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Visit to researchers at ExcITEd Center at NTNU Elementary School Computer Science – Misconceptions and Developmental Progressions: Papers from SIGCSE 2017

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sylvia Martinez  |  March 31, 2017 at 11:22 am

    This is one reason why teachers get labeled as being “resistant” to technology. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times this story has been repeated to me in various forms.

  • 2. Tim Bell  |  March 31, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    I was surprised that your campus were worried about the network supporting the traffic. I’ve used a few of these systems, and haven’t had issues (in classes of up to 400); maybe we have exceptional network systems! I currently mainly use a home-grown system written as a student project, which isn’t perfect but is surprisingly good, and students are motivated to improve it 🙂

    Having said that, I still use two devices: the one displaying the results, and another one (often my smartphone) to see how the voting is going before revealing the results, and you do have to wrangle the technology carefully.

    For classes of with fewer than 64 students (yup, a nice round number), it’s fun to use an unplugged (sort of) approach called “Plickers” – paper clickers.

  • 3. Mike Zamansky (@zamansky)  |  April 2, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Some thoughts on clickers and a low tech alternative (since clickers were never even a possibility for me in high school):

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  April 3, 2017 at 2:15 pm

      I do the thumbs-up/thumbs-down when I ask students to make predictions in class, but not for the 3-5 item multiple choice questions used in Peer Instruction. PI works, with a lot of research evidence backing it. I’m trying to figure out how to do real PI.

  • 5. lisahines  |  April 3, 2017 at 8:18 am

    Maybe I’m simplistic because I only teach small classes of elementary and high school kids, but I use Kahoot for this type of feedback. According to their support page, they can support up to 4000 people:

    It is free, and all you need are devices of any kind for each user. As for integrating with grades, it seems like you would need to have each student login with a username that could be incorporated easily into grading (you can download an Excel file at the end with their responses). Perhaps if they logged in using their student number?

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  April 3, 2017 at 2:11 pm

      Hi Lisa,
      Kahoot requires WiFi, and my networking people say that they don’t want me using WiFi-based systems because they can’t guarantee service for 200 students all hitting buttons at the same time. Mapping 200 students from any service into a grading system is relatively complicated (especially if I’m doing multiple questions in each lecture, three lectures a week). For big classes, there needs to be an easier way.

  • 7. sara  |  April 13, 2017 at 1:54 am

    i’ve found that for most of my clicker questions, after PI, student convergence on correct answers is usually quite good, over 70% correct i’d guess. (if their initial answers seem pretty random, though, i will sometimes skip peer instruction if i think they will just get each other more confused, so that could skew results). so for my students, i’d guess that it wouldn’t change their scores much if i used your complicated scoring method of deleting all the initial guesses and only counting the post-discussion answers percent correct, vs. the way i do scoring by just counting participation percentage, not correctness. i’m wondering if you’ve compared what student scores would be if you just calculated participation?

    of course, the thing that’s much better about your method is that the students know that the correctness of their answers count, not just that they answered, so people don’t just click in with random guesses if they don’t care. (but with being asked to do so much more with fewer resources over the years, i’m starting to cut back on creating more work for myself just to improve learning for the students who are apathetic or going out of their way to cheat, because that’s time i could be spending focusing on the vast majority of students who are actively engaged.)


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