Feeling disadvantaged in CS courses at University of XXX

May 11, 2018 at 7:00 am 7 comments

Even at Berkeley, the home of the great course emphasizing CS teaching for everyone, The Beauty and Joy of Computing, there are students who don’t feel that they belong in CS.  See the post quoted and linked below.

Of course, the story below is not about Berkeley.  This is about the slow pace of change, and how difficult it is to get whole CS departments to buy into the vision of “CS for All.”

CS 61A was a completely different story.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to work as a lab assistant for Data 8: “Foundations of Data Science,” and I couldn’t help but notice the difference in atmosphere between the students in Data 8 and my own experience in CS 61A.

Data 8 is one of the alternative courses offered for UC Berkeley students who are new programmers. Data 8 and CS 10: “The Beauty and Joy of Computing” are offered to students who want to test the waters of programming before jumping into 61A.

Data 8 uses Python, just like 61A. But the concepts are taught more slowly so new programmers can really understand how to use these concepts properly in their code.

Source: Column | Feeling disadvantaged in CS courses at UC Berkeley

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  May 11, 2018 at 8:08 am

    I wish I hadn’t learned to program so long ago (as a job 1961): I feel quite out of touch with blogs such as quoted here (I read the whole blog article).

    One theory (I certainly have subscribed to it over the decades), is that having one’s own interactive computer with a “live language” should make it a lot easier to learn to program, especially the first real round of it. This compared to punched cards, one or two batch runs a day, and at most about 3 minutes a day of active poking (where a computer operator did the poking via your suggestions), then getting an octal core dump to pore over offline, along with your program listing.

    After 5 years of programming with punched cards as above, I finally got the chance to interact with interactive systems like CAL, and the sweet sweet JOSS. This actual practice solidified the theory in my mind, and I didn’t worry that I was bringing all that programming experience to the interactive systems.

    More than 50 years later, I still incline to the theory.

    The theory could be wrong in small details (learn machine/assembly code programming on simple HW) or in the large (that plus minimal interaction). The first might have some force, the second would be frighteningly “interesting”.

    On the other hand, there is this quote by the writer, who is now a senior: “I still make mistakes, and my code is never bug-free”.

    Where did this come from after 4 years? And in those four years at one of the top 10 schools in the countury did the writer never come across what Maurice Wilkes wrote almost 70 years ago?: “I can remember the exact instant when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs.”

    I don’t understand quite what is wrong (or “are wrong”) here, but this is worrisome.

    Reply
  • 2. Karyn Voldstad  |  May 11, 2018 at 8:34 am

    I’m a little confused. If Berkeley offers alternative classes for rank beginners, shouldn’t someone who has never done any programming start there, instead of suggesting that 61A go more slowly?

    Reply
    • 3. cycomachead  |  May 12, 2018 at 11:46 pm

      Two things: When she was a freshmen, the new Data 8 course didn’t exist. But, even CS10 (BJC) students feel a pressure after taking it and passing.

      One way to look at the idea of “going more slowly” is that it could be applied regardless of beginner-status. We all know that there’s a point where you try to teach waaay too much in a course. Where 61A fits on that spectrum is open for debate.

      There’s also the fact that if you want to major in CS, then taking anything other than CS61A as a first course means taking an extra course. Personally, I think for Berkeley this is totally doable, and even worth it, but it’s something that is concerning for many students.

      Reply
  • 4. Doug Blank  |  May 11, 2018 at 8:39 am

    I don’t think that this is about the “slow pace of change” but rather the opposite: things are changing fast! There are a lot of students, and some of the students already have some CS experience. What to do? Who to teach to? Every institution needs to decide: can a student with little or no CS experience in high school still major in CS? If so, the institution will at least have to offer the right intro courses at the right pace.

    Reply
  • 5. gflint  |  May 11, 2018 at 10:38 am

    I had about the same experience with my first “modern” CS course (no punch cards). The number of assumptions for a CS101 Intro to Programming course was ridiculous. The drop out rate was over 50%. Looking back on the course after 30 years of teaching CS I can understand what was wrong. The instructor knew Java, the instructor had no idea of what teaching Java was. The level of the material was appropriate, the ability of the teacher to impart that material was not up to the level of the students needs. I have had many college courses like that. Things are changing. True intro courses exist. CS 101 is no longer a rite-of-passage to eliminate the weak. CS departments are working to increase enrollment and are eliminating the elitist attitude “CS” was labeled with for many years.

    Reply
  • 6. cycomachead  |  May 13, 2018 at 12:24 am

    I agree with her story. The breadth and speed of a course certainly affect students’ belonging.

    Let’s remember that CS61A is now approaching 1,800 students in a semester. 4 years ago, when she took CS61A it was still around 1,000 students, much larger than all but a few courses on campus. As much as the CS department does a very good job making sure courses like 61A run well, and provide resources to students, I think it’s fair to say that the size doesn’t work well for everyone.

    I do have another hypothesis about the aspects for feeling belonging.

    I think campus culture also plays a part in how people view a course and feel belonging. Course staff, especially the TAs, set the tone and atmosphere. However, every course exists in the context of a department and campus. Students view CS61A, Data 8 and CS10 differently. When your peers tell you stories about a course, it’s hard not to compare to your own experience. Whether true or not, the perception that “everyone” in 61A has been programming since they were 5 years old is hard to shake. Stories like that contribute to imposter syndrome.

    Reply
  • 7. Brian Harvey  |  May 14, 2018 at 5:49 pm

    Before my retirement, I experimented with a self-paced version of 61A, so that a student who could understand the ideas but had trouble with the pace could spread it out over a year. I still think that would be a great idea, but it turned out to be quite expensive in TA time.

    Reply

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