We’re still in session around these parts—our last day of classes for spring term is tomorrow, followed by reading days and exams, followed by the mad dash to get senior grades done 36 hours after the final projects come in…good times. This has been a particularly brutal term, work-wise and stress-wise, so I will be happy to see it end.
This week I’m juggling both wrapping-up-the-term activities and ramping-up-for-the-summer activities, which frankly is making my brain hurt. I’m ending the term like I started the term: frantic and behind on my work. I like to try and end each term on a strong note, but this year I am definitely exhausted mentally and physically and feel like I’m limping into the summer instead of leaping energetically and enthusiastically into the summer.
This summer’s workload will be substantial, with five major initiatives (just thinking about it all makes my head hurt even more!). Here’s what I’ll be spending my “lazy” summer “off” doing:
- Starting a new research project. I submitted a grant application late last year for a new project. I’m super-excited about the project: it combines my previous research on rich media and quality of experience with some network measurement, human-centered computing, and tool-building thrown in for good measure. But starting a new research project is always a bit daunting: what if it turns out this is a bad idea? what if we don’t get anywhere? where the hell do we start? And starting a new research project with students (see below) is doubly daunting. I have a vague plan of where to start, but frankly part of me is terrified. We could easily spend the entire summer just trying to get things up and running and still not have anything up or running at the end. I think the chances of that are small, but it’s enough to keep me up at night. At any rate, I’ll definitely be busting my ass this summer trying to get this project off the ground.
- Teaching in a brand new high school program. Because clearly starting a new research project from scratch is not enough excitement for one summer! Seriously though, Carleton is starting a new CS summer program this year for high school students for 3 weeks. We teach the students in the morning and work with a subset of them in the afternoon, in our research labs, on “real” CS research problems. I am very excited about this program, but know realistically that it will be a lot of work. We had our curriculum meeting today, so I’ve already done a bunch of planning for my classroom portion of the program, but still need to hammer out details about the research problems, as well as the software/programming language. Not to mention that the research problems, as I envision them at this point, rely heavily on progress we make on the new research project leading up to the high school program….yeah, there’s no way THIS could fail!
- Supervising 3 undergraduate research students. I took a hiatus last year from supervising students in my lab, mainly because I thought I’d be on parental leave, but this summer my lab will be full of students again. None of the students working for me have experience doing CS research, so my involvement will be very hands-on at the start of the summer. However, most of my former research students had no experience either, and things turned out well, and this group seems really eager and ready to get to work. (Plus I’ve been working with 2 of the 3 of them this term.) The one worrisome part is the new students + new project combination. I think I just need to go in with a flexible mindset and plans B-Z if things go awry. Again, what could possibly go wrong?
- Taking over as department chair July 1. And just like that, my service commitments increase exponentially. My big tasks out of the gate will be getting the agenda together for the department retreat in August and sketching out job ads for our tenure track search—and, of course, figuring out how to be department chair.
- Planning a brand new course for the fall. I’ve always wanted to teach a human-computer interaction (HCI) course. I sort of did so with the dyad a couple of years back, but this time around I’ll be teaching an A&I (freshman) seminar on the topic. I’m wildly excited about this opportunity, but (a) this is not my area and (b) we don’t have a senior-level class which I can raid for ideas. I met with some great people at SIGCSE this year who gave me some great teaching and course construction ideas, and my high school course in the summer program is on HCI, so I’m not completely starting from scratch. Still, this should be quite the adventure. (And did I mention that by definition this is a writing-rich course? Yikes!)
In addition, I have some assessment tasks to wrap up in July before handing over the assessment reins, and organizing our contingent for Grace Hopper will of course take place throughout the summer. And did I mention I’m running a half marathon in early August?
The good news is, with the exception of #4, everything on my plate this summer is fun-to-me and exciting and intellectually stimulating. Yes, I’ll be working hard, but it’s all on things I’ll enjoy immensely. So that definitely makes things a bit less daunting. That said, my goal is to get through the summer sustainably, without burning myself out….because I’m really going to need to be fresh and well-rested and renewed before the absolute insanity that will be my next academic year.
- We’ve now officially reached the point in the term/school year where there is no schedule—there is just running from one crisis to another. I am too tired for planning anything beyond the next half hour.
- Signs your job might be adversely affecting your family life: You joke about quitting and your spouse says “can you? really? please?”. Uh-oh….
- Everyone (neighbors, day care parents, random people on the streets) keeps asking me when my summer starts. This is the problem with the term system: we have 3 more weeks of classes. Heck, I just finished grading midterms! This is the tradeoff with terms: August is awesome, May stinks.
- 2/3 of the readings in my Software Design class have been, well, let’s say not your typical textbook readings.* The tone is easy and conversational and a bit irreverent, but the content is still pretty hefty. Which is why I chose these readings—they get all the important points across in an engaging but nontrivial way. What I’m finding interesting, though, is how the students are reacting to these readings. A few off-hand comments and questions from a few students indicate that the tone obscures the fact that there’s quite a bit of substance there. This is especially true of the web usability reading. Next time I teach this course, I will make a more conscious effort to point out the theory behind the readings, but it’s been an interesting lesson.
- We are not quite there yet, but someday (someday!) I will not find it remarkable that I have an all-female final project group.
- Officially I don’t become department chair until July 1, but it’s kind of already started for me. Students have started coming to me asking all sorts of complicated questions about graduation and major requirements and special cases. I have a hiring meeting w/ some deans later this week. I’m already getting all manner of chair-related emails (particularly about budgets). I’ve started thinking about all sorts of processes and agendas and such. I’m glad for this transition time, but at the same time part of me is like IT’S TOO SOON! AAAARRRRGGHH!
- One particular chair-related issue that’s keeping me up at night: We have 57 newly-declared CS majors. Yes, you read that number right. I’ll wait for you to pick yourself off the floor…. So, we need to put all these majors in project teams for Comps in 2014-15. How do we do this without completely overwhelming our faculty resources? Great question. Let me know if you figure it out.
- Next week I’ll be at the NCWIT summit in Tucson. I look forward to the Summit every year (look for live tweets again!)—I always learn a whole bunch of new things, and it’s a great excuse to see the people I see at Grace Hopper and/or SIGCSE again (there is a lot of overlap in those crowds). This year I’ll be running a session in the Academic Alliance meeting along w/ my other team leaders. I’m excited—we have a great plan and great panelists lined up—but also nervous because part of our session involves a software demo. Trying not to panic about the many things that could and might go wrong there…yikes!
* Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! and Freeman/Freeman/Sierra/Bates’ Head First Design Patterns
This term I am teaching in Carleton’s “interactive classroom”, more commonly referred to as the Sandbox. This is my first time teaching in this particular classroom, although I’ve admired it from afar since it opened for business in 2011.
The classroom is set up for collaboration. It’s a long, narrow room with 8 round tables, 6 chairs per table. Each table has a microphone, a large wall-mounted monitor, and a hookup to the projection system so that students can hook their laptops, etc to the monitor. (As the instructor, I can theoretically project this input onto the projection screen too, although I haven’t tried to do that yet.) The room also has whiteboards on 3 of the 4 walls (the 4th, narrow wall has windows), allowing each table access to plenty of drawing/scribbling space. There’s a teaching station in the middle of the room which also hooks up into the room’s projection system.
The setup of this room is perfect for the type of class I’m teaching. My class, Software Design, focuses on the art and science and practical aspects of programming, design, and development. It’s the perfect class for flipping, since much of the content is best covered by doing and not by telling. It’s also the perfect class for collaboration of all sorts: small group discussions, code reviews, design critiques, etc.
So, now that we’re five weeks in, how is the classroom working out? Is it everything I envisioned it would be and more? Or am I desperately wishing for a more conventional space? I thought this would be a good time to evaluate the good, the bad, and the ugly of this little interactive space experiment.
I’ll start off by saying that there’s a lot to like about the space and overall I’m really enjoying teaching in it. The students have really utilized the space well from the start. Sure, they sometimes still play with the microphones before class starts, but in the first class meeting students were already playing around with the laptop hookups and using the whiteboards. The tables are excellent for discussions. One thing I didn’t anticipate is how loud the room gets during group activities (there are 38 students in the class, so we fill most of the room), but I think the round tables help everyone hear and participate (and focus!).
The room layout is also a good visual cue for me. As I’ve mentioned before, one thing I still struggle with in my flipped classrooms is just shutting up already and letting the students get to work. Seeing the students all set up and ready to collaborate reminds me (most of the time, not always) to make my remarks brief so that the students can get to the task(s) at hand. The layout also makes it easy for me to visit each group during collaborative work and to interact with everyone in the group. It’s harder to hide/not participate at a small, round table! There’s definitely a community and a camaraderie in the classroom, and a pretty relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, and I think the space plays a large role in that climate.
Basically, the room makes collaborative work so easy and natural that it seems a shame to “waste” it on lecturing, so I’m more mindful of how I structure my class meetings. My pedagogy has really benefited from the space as a result.
There are some definite quirks of the room that take some getting used to. Luckily many of these quirks can be creatively managed.
First, with the teaching station in the middle of the room, I have my back to about a third of the class when I stand there. This forces me to walk around the room, which I tend to do anyway when I talk, so not a big deal. But it is problematic if I have to do a demo, or write notes (see next paragraph). I made a few jokes early in the term about my “rudeness”, so I don’t think the students mind too much, but it’s a bit off-putting to me.
Second, even though the room has tons of whiteboard space, the glare and sight lines mean that there’s no good spot for ME to write notes for the class. This is the biggest drawback, because I primarily teach using the board (I only use slides for complex diagrams and discussion questions.) So I don’t write on the board—I write notes on a tablet PC which is projected to the main screens in the room. It works, but it’s not the most natural thing in the world for me, which means I don’t write as much in terms of notes, summaries, etc. as I usually do on a typical board. Which means I think much more carefully about the points I do write/project for the class, so I guess that’s a net win.
Third, the room gets surprisingly loud. Now, I definitely don’t have a problem with vocal projection (I inherited my grandmother’s lack of brain/mouth filter and lack of an “indoor voice”), but even I have a hard time getting people to simmer down when I want to move on from an activity. There’s enough of a delay on the lights that flashing the lights doesn’t work well. I’m still working on a good mechanism to quiet down the room without destroying my voice in the process. (Suggestions welcome!)
There’s a lot of collaborative work we can do without computers in this course. However, at the end of the day this is a SOFTWARE design course, and every so often it makes sense to do collaborative work on computers (duh). There are no computers in the space other than the one at the teaching station, and students don’t reliably bring their laptops to class. This means that we end up sometimes meeting in the classroom and sometimes meeting in the computer lab—which is all the way across campus, in my building. (For instance, last week we met in the classroom on Monday and in the lab on Wednesday and Friday.) Now, there is a lab in the same building, but there was not enough time to get the software I needed installed in this lab before the start of classes, hence this imperfect solution. I do try to announce well in advance and multiple times when we have a classroom switch, but students are understandably annoyed when they accidentally go to the wrong room (it’s a 10 minute mistake—the time it takes to walk across campus). Also, I would much rather have the students working on computers in the classroom space, to facilitate cross-pair sharing and discussion (which is harder to pull off in the lab, set up like a conventional computer lab—long and narrow, computers in rows).
The room is quirky, and I wish it had dedicated computers, but it works, and works very well for this class. Here’s the most telling testimonial: I’m teaching this same class next spring, and I’ve already put in a request for a room switch so that I can teach the class in this room again. (Hopefully this will give me enough lead time to get the proper software in the computer lab in the same building.) I’m enjoying the way the space challenges my approach to class planning and to pedagogy, and I’m really enjoying the classroom climate fostered by the space. It will be interesting to get my students’ perspective on their mid-term evaluations—I am curious to see if their experience of the space is as positive as mine. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed the chance to try out a new-to-me space and break out of my normal teaching routine!
Long(ish)time readers of this blog know that I’ve been experimenting with a variation of the flipped classroom lately. I plunged in last spring with my Intro CS class, and it went so well that I decided to flip both of my classes this term. Overall, I am still pleased with the results, but in flipping two classes I’ve learned a bit more about the practical aspects of the flipped classroom (and time management, too).
For the purposes of context, the two courses are 200-level courses that are required for the CS major. One of these contains a broad mix of ability levels (everyone from seniors who have taken almost every course we offer to sophomores fresh out of Intro CS, and one intrepid first-year student), while the other is mainly students who have just taken Intro CS.
What’s gone well
I have yet to post a video: I’ve stuck with my original model of posting targeted readings for each class, along with a small assignment to test comprehension of the material. This strategy continues to work well. While I could probably buy myself some more class time if I posted mini lectures online, I’ve found that doing very targeted mini lectures in-class on the trickier concepts works well and usually leaves plenty of time for in-class activities. And the daily assignments, when I have time to review them, show me immediately what students are grasping and where they are struggling.
My teaching, I feel, is more creative as well. When your goal is to minimize lecture and maximize problem-solving, application-oriented activities, you have to think very carefully about what you’ll present and how. This has made me view the course material in new ways, and caused me to re-evaluate some of the topics I typically present.
I’ve also found that I stress less about getting “behind” in the content. I’m less concerned overall with presenting content and more focused on “are the students learning what I want them to learn from this unit”? Content can always be finessed to match the schedule. And again, this sharpens my focus on what’s really important in terms of learning objectives.
Finally, having the daily assignments worth a small number of points continues to be a fairly sufficient motivator for having the students do the work ahead of time. This is more true in one class than in the other, but I find that most of the students are doing the prep work most of the time.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced is finding a sustainable model for the daily assignments. Obviously, this was much easier to handle when I was teaching one course, but I completely underestimated how much time keeping up with the grading (even if it’s just a quick check) would take. I am way behind on the grading here!
Surprisingly, Moodle (our course management system) is much more of a hindrance than a help here. It takes FOREVER to grade even simple assignments: so many clicks, so much navigation! I’ve resorted to having students hand things in on paper at the start of class, which is easier for me to grade but means I can’t peek at their submissions before class to plan out our class time.
I’ve had more success with two types of assignments in particular: Moodle quizzes and discussion forums. Quizzes are auto-graded, which is wonderful, but the Moodle quiz interface also allows me to scan all the quiz attempts and see which problems people are missing and how many attempts they require before they can answer the questions correctly (and color-codes them too!). I find I am better prepared for class when their daily assignment is a quiz. With discussion forums, I can also scan the responses quickly and grade them fairly quickly too. In the future, I will definitely rely more heavily on these types of assignments.
Another challenge is that this type of course takes a lot more energy than a typical lecture course. I’ve found that when I’m tired or extremely busy (which is often the case this term), I fall back on lecturing because it’s “easy”. Yet I definitely feel like the more lecture-heavy classes are less effective overall—I joke that the more I talk, the less my students learn. The investment of energy up-front reaps way more rewards in the end, and if I invest the time up-front my students will, too.
What does the future hold?
Next term will pose a very interesting challenge: I’m teaching basically a new prep (a course I haven’t taught in 4 years that I am completely overhauling), an elective course on computer security. Essentially I’ll be inventing and flipping a course at the same time. Oh, and security is not my area of expertise, either. I’m glad I got the chance to play around more with flipping two very familiar classes and work out some of the logistical kinks before tackling a much more challenging-to-me course. Luckily, I have a lighter teaching load (1.5 instead of 2.5 courses) next term too, which should alleviate some of the time management issues as well. My experience in flipping 3 courses has strengthened my commitment to the concept, and I look forward to next term’s flipping adventure!
Tomorrow is the first day of school…for me, sort of (it’s our faculty retreat—classes start next Monday), but also, for the first time, for my daughter.
My daughter starts Kindergarten tomorrow. It’s a short day for her, just a quick orientation and a spin around the parking lot on the school bus and then she’ll go back to daycare for the rest of the day. The real stuff starts on Wednesday, when she gets on the bus and goes for the entire day, and then repeats that every weekday for the next 9 months.
She’s very excited. I’m very excited for her. I loved school as a kid (and still do, obviously, since I’ve chosen to work at one!). Loved the rhythm of the school day and the school year. Loved learning and mastering new material. Loved the challenges.
My daughter starts kindergarten knowing some simple math and knowing how to read a bit. (Fittingly, she read a bedtime story to her brother and me tonight.) She’s also starting with a ton of creativity and imagination. She has a love for science, computers, and rocks that is a joy to behold. I am excited to watch her add to her skill set this year. I am excited to watch her blossom. I hope school allows her creativity and imagination to continue to flourish. I worry that her love of science, math, and technology won’t be nurtured enough.
Having a school-aged kid (ack! I’m too young for this!) reminds me just how important my role as educator is. I hope that during this academic year, I remember that my students all come to me with their own skill sets, with creativity and imagination and their own passions. I hope I provide them with the right challenges to help them master the course material. I hope as well to allow their creativity and imagination to flourish in my classes as they become better, more effective problem solvers. Finally, I hope I can help them develop a new passion for CS (if they don’t have one already!), and help them mesh their other passions with this CS passion.
Happy first day of school, to those of you starting tomorrow! And secret message to my daughter: we are so very proud of you, and wish you all the best on your school adventure!
- Which is better: a book that provides excellent explanations/development of concepts but less-than-stellar examples, or a book with really compelling examples but scattered explanations/development of concepts?
- Why do so many books present stacks and queues before linked lists? We’ve always done the opposite. Huh.
- Is it time for lunch yet?
- Is it time for a snack yet?
- How much code can I expect students to read before their eyes glaze over and/or they start skimming? (even if it’s well-written code)
- Where is the line between “too few sorting algorithms” and “too many sorting algorithms”?
- Is this a damn-it’s-hot-and-I’m-dehydrated headache or a I’ve-read-too-many-textbooks-today headache?
- Will my students get confused if they have a generics-based textbook but we don’t code with generics in class?
- Will my eyes really pop out of their sockets if I read one more textbook?
- Why is this process so damn hard?
- Carleton students will put the work in, even for low-stakes stuff.
As part of my flipped classroom experiment this term, my Intro class had daily assignments based on the readings. Sometimes these were short programs, other times they were pen-and-paper algorithm development exercises. These were worth 5 points each and account for 10% of the course grade, and as long as they handed in something related to the assignment, they got full credit. This was my way of getting them in the habit of daily practice with the skills in a low-stakes manner. I was not sure if the students would “mail it in” just to get the points. What I actually found was that the students spent as much time and energy working on these assignments as they did the larger projects. In fact, I had to go into class at one point and remind them to put an upper limit on the time spent on the exercises, after hearing about one particular assignment that the students spent hours on! (Oops.) Carleton students continue to impress me—they are fully dedicated to their learning, and that makes my job much easier for sure.
- I am incapable of “quick-grading” anything, even low-stakes stuff.
My intent with the daily exercises was that I’d spot-check them, giving a little bit of feedback where necessary, so as to minimize my grading load. In reality, I found myself giving extensive feedback at times, and spending more time grading these than I expected. As I fully expect to do the flipped classroom (or some variation) for my fall courses, I need to think more carefully about managing the grading load.
- Never underestimate the power of 25 minutes in getting things done.
This was supposed to me my “light term”, but it certainly didn’t feel like that! Between research demands, teaching demands, and the demands of some new and significant service projects, I was swamped and often overwhelmed. (Add in 2 kiddos that kept getting sick, and the subsequent Sick Kid Shuffles required to deal with that.) I found little tricks like the pomodoro method (set a 25 minute timer) and #madwriting helped keep me on track and on task during my busiest/most overwhelming days. In fact, 2 short bouts of #madwriting in a single day led me to finish drafts of 2 sections of a particularly problematic conference paper. I’m a convert!
- Managing my email reduces both my workload and my stress level.
Checking my email less frequently this term (twice a day during the day, once total on weekends) and limiting the times I respond to email had 2 interesting effects. One, it was amazing how many problems solved themselves if I didn’t respond immediately. And two, my stress level went way down, because I didn’t feel obligated to respond to things immediately.
- Carleton students, for the most part, do well with autonomy.
Ultimately, with my flipped classroom, I made the students responsible for learning more of the details of concepts and programming (the different variations of for loops, the many ways one can structure an if-else clause, etc) on their own through the readings and exercises. Class time was for larger projects and problem-solving exercises, where we applied the material. I left it up to them to try out the examples on their own. I did not cover everything in class that would be on the quiz. And—lo and behold, they took responsibility for their learning, and ran with it. I joke that the less I talk, the more my students learn. More seriously, my job really is to provide the framework and the roadmap for my students’ learning, and to design the experiences that will help them master the material. (Ditto for my independent study—I gave my student a lot of control over projects and readings, and in our last meeting of the term she mentioned how much she appreciated this and how this strengthened her learning of the material.)
It’s Week 5 of Spring Term here at Carleton and I’m wondering where the hell the term went. I’ve been so busy I’ve barely had time to catch my breath, or blog—and this is supposedly my “light” term, since I’m only teaching one class. Ye gods.
So what have I been working on? As usual, too many things, but I’m enjoying all of them immensely. Here’s a snapshot of what’s keeping me out of (too much) trouble these days:
Teaching: Flipping for the flipped classroom
I’ve been reading about, and contemplating, the “flipped classroom” concept for quite some time. (The basic idea is that the “lecture” part moves outside of class—students do this part on their own—and classtime is spent on “homework”—more involved problems that get the students to grapple with and apply the material, under the guidance of the professor, in groups.) Since I’m only teaching Intro this term, and since I’ve taught Intro so many times that it’s second nature to me, I decided to experiment with flipping my Intro classroom this term.
I made some modifications to the model: I don’t post any video lectures, nor do I have an online discussion component. What I have done is assigned very targeted readings and exercises before each class. Most of the exercises the students do on their own. I frame these exercises as a self-check: “after doing today’s reading, you should be able to do the following”. The students hand in one exercise at the start of class. Sometimes it’s a programming exercise, sometimes it’s algorithm development. Based on the exercises that come in early enough and my past experience with certain tricky concepts, I will sometimes do a short lecture/example/summary at the start of class. The bulk of classtime is spent having the students work in pairs on programming problems. I usually have them work on a problem for 1-2 classes, and then hand in the finished product a few days later (so that they have time outside of class to finish up if need be).
The main thing I’ve learned from this experiment is that I talk way too much! The urge to lecture is strong. But I’ve also seen gains in learning and, more importantly, tremendous gains in confidence in my students using this model (particularly when I shut up and get out of their way). They’re working on what’s traditionally been an angst-ridden, tricky project involving datasets and lists this week, and I’ve been amazed at how smoothly it’s gone. They’ve even found conceptual issues with the textbook, on their own. I’ll admit, I’m flipping for the flipped classroom!
There are some changes I’m contemplating. I see myself posting some videos in the future (particularly around class development and recursion), and I may add a discussion board in the second half for students to post (and respond to) questions about the readings. But so far, I’m very pleased with the results. It will be interesting to see what the students say on their midterm evaluations about the model, to see if they are as enamored as I am.
Research: Writeups and grant apps and data, oh my!
My research life is where I feel torn in many different directions. On the one hand, I’ve got a tremendous backlog of data to analyze and stories to tell about that data. I figure I have 3 more papers worth of stuff there. So I’m trying to get those out into the review stream. One’s close, but I’m having problem with the framing. One needs a lot more data analysis before the story becomes clear. And one I haven’t even started yet.
On the other hand, there’s this new research I want to get moving on, on self-healing networks. Even here, I’m pulled in 2 directions: extending my current work, to develop general system heuristics for quality of experience prediction; and extending the general idea of self-healing networks into the home networking space specifically. Thanks to our IT folks, I’ve been able to expand my testbed so that I can try a whole bunch of crazy things, but finding the time to design and carry out experiments is tricky. But I need the data from the experiments so I can write the necessary grants so that I can do more experiments.
When the number of hours I can spend on research each week is in the single digits, finding the right balance between writing and new research is a struggle. I’m still trying to figure out that balance.
Life: Keeping up with the kiddos
Someone told me that going from one kid to two is an exponential increase in work, and darned if that isn’t true. My son’s been home for 4 months now, and I’m still trying to get the hang of being a parent of 2. Not to mention all of the adjustment issues inherent with adopted kids and the daily assertions of independence from my almost-5 year old. One thing my lighter teaching load has afforded me is the opportunity for weekends mostly free of (school) work, so I am enjoying the extra family time. I just wish these kids didn’t exhaust me so thoroughly!
The big project on the home front has been the post-adoption stuff. Reports and social worker visits at 1 and 3 months, plus another one next month. Paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork. We’re also starting the process of finalizing the adoption, which means….yep, more paperwork. But if all goes well, the adoption should be finalized this summer (and then we get to apply for citizenship and a passport and a SSN…the fun never ends. Yippie.). And in the end, it all means we have this wonderful, funny, happy, loving little boy in our family, so of course it’s all so very worth it.
So that’s a snapshot of life, spring-term style. What are you up to this spring?
Image source: http://fgd.trebec.org/posts/fun-and-games/
When I was on the academic job market, lo those many years ago (ok, early 2003), I concentrated my search mainly on smaller, teaching-focused colleges. I knew that I wanted to be somewhere with small class sizes and the opportunity to really get to know my students and interact with them, in class and in office hours, and where I could really focus my time and energy on teaching. I dreamed about small group activities and the opportunity to teach intro in the computer lab and all the cool pedagogical things I could do with class sizes of 15-20 students—certainly no more than 30.
A series of emails from my colleagues last night sent me to the spring registration pages (which I’d been blissfully ignoring—one of the perks of being on leave). Right now, our smallest CS course (an upper-level elective with multiple prereqs) has an enrollment of 36, while every other course is at 40+. We have 3 sections of Intro—all are full with waiting lists. We have a visiting prof teaching 2 courses to help ease our load—both are enrolled at well over 40 students. Our enrollments have been heavy for a while now, but this is the most extreme it’s been, as far as anyone can remember. And let me remind you: I teach at a small liberal arts college, one that’s supposed to have class sizes of 15-20 students—certainly no more than 30.
So much for that small class pedagogy, huh?
Obligatory caveats: We are certainly not the only department experiencing enrollment pressures (hello Econ, Psych, and Bio, and you too, Stats). And CS enrollments have historically been notoriously cyclical. And huge enrollments are an excellent problem to have. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled beyond words that so many want to take CS at Carleton (and at other institutions too, since enrollments are growing elsewhere), and I hope that this trend continues.
But there’s no question that I teach a 40+ person course differently than a 20 person course. For instance, I am a huge believer in lab/practice time in Intro, so much so that I’ve been teaching that course exclusively in the lab. I can’t do that with 40+ students unless I triple people up on computers—and that’s not an ideal pair programming scenario. Last spring, I taught a very different version of Software Design than I had planned, because I quickly realized my plans wouldn’t work with my 30+ class. This meant a lot less individual time with students/project groups and fewer modeling/practice activities overall, things which I think are pretty darn important for that course.
The thing is, I’m loathe to let my small class pedagogy completely go. I strongly believe in the small class model and in individual attention and as much lab time as possible, etc. So how do I make my pedagogy fit when my class size doesn’t fit my model? How do I make my old normal fit my new normal? Is it possible, for instance, to find some way to teach a lab-based Intro when my class doesn’t fit into any of our labs? How can I scale down project-based activities so that the students still get the benefits but in a way that’s sustainable for me?
I also worry a bit about future course offerings. If we are bursting at the seams, how will we justify “burning” a course on a small-enrollment freshman seminar, or a limited-enrollment upper-level seminar? We essentially have no upper-level seminars now—our 300-level courses routinely enroll in the 30s and now 40s. Will we have less room and less freedom to experiment with course offerings if, say, our majors are shut out of required courses? How do we balance obligations to our majors and potential majors, and service to the college for non-majors, with our call to provide a small liberal arts college education?
How can we mimic that small liberal arts environment when our class size reality is no longer so, and may never be again?
There are always a few students in my courses each term who come to me at some point during the term unhappy with their progress. Invariably they ask me for tips on how they can succeed in the course. Towards the end of one particular term, when it seemed like I was fielding the question more and more often, I had the crazy idea to turn the question around and ask the students for their ideas. So I posed the following question on the intro course evaluation*:
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone taking this course in the future on how to succeed in the course?
I also indicated that I’d like to share their advice with future students, and to let me know if they were not comfortable with that. (Most gave me permission to use their advice.)
Some of it was the advice I typically give to students—read the text, try the problems, seek out the lab assistants, read next to the computer so you can try things out. Some of it indicated a desire for better study habits—”start the assignments early!”, “start studying for the quizzes earlier”. Some of it indicated issues with the course structure or with particular assignments—alluding to instructions that were too vague, or assignments that took too long, and how to cope with those. And some of it indicated things—concepts, skills, life lessons—that the students were particularly proud to have mastered as a result of the course.
It was these last two areas that threw me. From this simple question, I could tell at a glance exactly what the students struggled with, whether conceptually or skills-wise or study habits-wise. I could tell what made them proud and in what areas they felt they’d grown the most.
Sometimes, I discovered, it was easier for them to indicate how the course worked for them if I asked them indirectly.
I’ve used this question in every single course since then, from intros to upper-level courses, and it is hands-down the most useful question on the evaluation for me. Sometimes the answers make me laugh. Always, the answers make me think. When I take my end-of-term notes and file them away with the course files until the next time I teach the course, it’s from this question that I take the most notes. I also, as
threatened promised, do include the advice on future syllabi, so that students at the start of the term can get a better sense of what they’re in for, what are the potential sticky points and trouble spots, and most importantly, what rewards potentially await them at the end.
(Plus, for some reason they’re more likely to follow a peer’s advice to “try the problems in the text” than they are to listen to me say the same thing. Peer mentoring is powerful, even when it’s done via a few lines on a course syllabus as a voice from the past.)
What course evaluation questions have you found most useful, whether as an instructor (or, on the other side of the desk, as a student, to help you process and reflect on your own course learning)?
* Here are Carleton, we are fortunate (or cursed, depending on your mindset and where you are in the tenure stream) to have no official, formal course evaluation forms. Course evaluations are entirely optional and, if used, must be developed, administered, and processed by the instructor. No one other than the instructor sees them (unless, of course, you share them with others, which I found immensely valuable pre-tenure).