Bumps in the teaching road

Readers may recall that this past winter, I experimented with a new (to me) way of teaching Intro CS, using case studies. The experiment was such a success that I decided to try it again this term in my Intro CS class.

My experience this term has been totally different.

My big assessment tool for student comprehension is my weekly quizzes.  I give quizzes instead of exams in Intro, and have done so for years, for a few reasons.  First, it allows me to pinpoint much earlier the students who are struggling, and (theoretically) get them help earlier.  Second, it drives home the point that learning CS requires you to continually keep on top of things and to continually practice what you’ve learned.  Quizzes (theoretically) force the students to keep up with the readings and with studying the concepts.

Quiz grades this term are at an all-time low.  In fact, I just finished grading the latest batch and they were so horrible that I just want to burn the whole pile right now.

I am trying to figure out what makes this section different from last term’s section.  Is it spring-term-itis?  Is it the fact that last term, my class was almost exclusively juniors and seniors, whereas this term it’s almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores?

Are they not taking the quizzes seriously?  (even though they are 40% of the grade!)  Or are they just studying wrong?

Am I teaching them differently?

I went back and looked at the quiz topics page I posted on Moodle for this week’s quiz, just to make sure I didn’t inadvertently leave something off of the list.  Every single question I asked on the quiz was listed on the page.  “Know how to use split() on a string”:  check.  “Iterate through a list and operate on each item”:  check.  etc.  And the kicker is that every single problem on the quiz is something that they did multiple times, either in class or on the homework, or both.

Clearly there is a disconnect here.  So how do you deal with a class that’s underperforming relative to your expectations?

Tomorrow I plan on going in to class and having them do “one-minute papers” on their quiz study habits.  I’m curious to see if the latest free-fall of quiz scores is a time management thing or a conceptual thing, or if there’s a lingering perception that “quiz” = “easy grade”.  And if nothing else, perhaps having them reflect on their study habits might trigger some of them to crack down a bit harder on the studying.

But I’ll also spend some time reflecting on my own teaching, to see if there’s something I should be doing that I’m not doing that will help them master the concepts and skills they need to pass the course.

Hopefully this is just a speed bump and not a mountain!