When the stereotype fits

DePaul is in the middle of spring break, which is the official description of the week between winter and spring quarters. A colleague of mine recently called it “spring prep,” a phrase that better describes the experience for faculty and staff. But while I am spending a lot of my time grading winter-quarter classes and preparing for spring-quarter classes, I am getting to do all of that work from home this week and that most definitely feels like a break to me. Spending my days in my home office and not having to commute is a definite rest, even if I’m still working fairly hard.

My joy at getting to stay home and spend the majority of my day alone also reminds me that in some ways I do embody the computer science stereotype. I like being alone. Working by myself is fun and relaxing. I can easily lose myself in things for hours on end before I manage to look up and remember that I need to eat or drink or deal with something beyond whatever is staring at me from my computer screen. Given that the most prominent part of my job is teaching, which involves standing in front of large groups of people for hours at a time, I sometimes forget that I enjoy the quieter parts of my job just as much.

I also forget that the behaviors I see in my students are ones that I also possess. There are two recent events that remind me of this. On the last day of the quarter last week I finished teaching my first class a bit early which I typically never do, and as a result, I made it to my second class early. As I was sitting in the room preparing for class, students slowly filtered in. One of them was busy on his phone trying to cancel a newspaper subscription. It started a conversation about ways that companies require consumers to interact with them, and I forcefully exclaimed that nothing annoys me more than starting to make an online purchase and then having to talk to someone on the phone about the purchase. I finished by saying that I’m buying online because I don’t want to talk to people, causing one of the students there to laugh either because he agreed, because it’s a geek stereotype, or both.

Also last week I held an end-of-quarter party for my students, which primarily consisted of me reserving a conference room and buying them donuts. I have to admit I was stunned when over a dozen of them showed up. They sat around chatting with me before the donuts ran out and I had to go get more. When I got back they had put some music on the sound system in the room. At one end of the room a bunch of them were on their laptops making music and working on games, and at the other end of the room a bunch of them were playing a card game. Only a small group in the middle were still talking to each other without other distractions. I laughed about it and pointed it out to the middle group, causing one of them to protest that some people were interested in conversation.

What didn’t dawn on me so clearly at the time since I’m realizing it only in retrospect, is how completely comfortable that room felt to me. Hanging out with people who find it acceptable to distract themselves with games or their laptops in the middle of a party just feels right to me. Acknowledging that feels important to me, but it’s something I’m not sure I do a good job of conveying to my students. Given that my daughter has embraced her geek identity, I probably don’t do a terrible job of talking about the ways that I’m a geek. But I think I need to be more conscious the ways that my behavior mirrors that of my students and also of the messages that I send about those behaviors.

The small successes

In the past decade my research and teaching have been strongly connected, and that’s never been more true than for my most recent project. A colleague and I worked in the past 18 months to create a linked-courses learning community for first-year students who are required by their major to take the Python courses. We’ve already written several articles about the project, so I’ll keep the details here sparse. Our FECS article described our initial plans. The SIGCSE article talked about the baseline data we gathered in the Python courses. And an upcoming ITiCSE article discusses initial results. Happily we found that the linked-courses learning community had made a significant difference in attitudes among participants, with students in the two courses reporting that they felt supported and felt like they were a part of a community of programmers. The initial results are good enough that we’re trying to run it again this fall.

But I also have to confess that it was a lot of work. The logistics of trying to get 20+ students enrolled in two classes during their first quarter are difficult, and arranging the extra activities was exhausting. At times my colleague and I both felt that the project wasn’t worth all the work we were putting into it, especially when we failed to fill the two classes and only had a handful of women in the community. Even more discouraging was that only seven of the students followed me from the first to the second Python course. While the numbers speak of success, it didn’t always feel that way on the ground.

So something that happened yesterday was a much-needed boost. After the final exam for the second Python course I walked down the hallway toward my office and walked past five of the learning community students who had just finished their exam. They were talking among themselves, discussing the solutions to the problems. One of them exclaimed: “I need a hug!” And they all, without fail, ignored me, not because they were upset but simply because they were completely absorbed in their group. And those five seconds made it feel like the work had been worth it because they were busy supporting each other just like we had hoped when we put the project together. They won’t have me or my colleague moving forward, but they’ll have each other. And that’s what we wanted all along.

A rare group

In the past several years I’ve taught the introductory Python classes a lot, and in particular, the second-quarter class for novices has been my most frequent assignment. A big reason for that has been that it’s tougher to get instructors who want to teach it. The topics in CSC 242 are harder than the first class (objects, event-driven programming, recursion), and students who have been successful in the first class often hit the wall. I’m also the only instructor for the accelerated Python class for experienced programmers. The combination has meant that I almost never teach the first-quarter class for novices, which results in me being the new instructor who beats up successful CSC 241 students in CSC 242. As you can imagine, that makes for lots of challenging moments in the classroom.

This year because of a research project I ended up being assigned a section of CSC 241 in the fall and a section of CSC 242 at the same time in the winter. Some of my students followed me from one class to the other, which tends to improve the mood in CSC 242. When they know me they’re more likely to tolerate the toughness of the material with good humor. But what surprised me this quarter was how much the students who hadn’t taken my CSC 241 section responded to me. Some of the students who most frequently answered questions in class were the ones who were new to me, and they all displayed humor and tolerance to the material and to me. Normally my accelerated class is my favorite, but this quarter both classes have been so great I haven’t managed to develop a favorite.

But I don’t think I realized how extraordinary the students in my CSC 242 class are until course evaluations started. Despite spamming from the DePaul administration, getting students to complete evaluations is an uphill battle. I’ve never had more than a 75% response rate in any of my classes. So I was stunned to discover that my response rate in CSC 242 this year is 100%. Yes, you read that correctly: every single student in my CSC 242 class completed an evaluation. I won’t be able to see what they said until the grading period is over, as it should be, but I’m already pleased that every one of them took the time to let me know what they think. Good or bad I want to hear from them, and I’m stunned that every single one of them listened to my pleas. They are an amazing bunch.

I love them both equally, if differently

I have previously written about the fact that every quarter I end up having a favorite class. I should probably know better than to say never or always at this point in my life, but I said it and now I get to retract it. This quarter I love both my classes equally, although I don’t love them in the same ways. My accelerated Python class, which is usually my favorite, is a dynamic, curious, and engaging bunch. It’s easy to enjoy them, even if there are a significant group of students who never come to class suggesting that it’s really a subgroup of the class I love. But my second-quarter regular Python class, which is typically a tough group to bond with, have also captured my heart. They listen to me much better than a typical CSC 242 class, and in an astonishing turn 75% of them have perfect attendance so far. They also seem to care about my opinion, and that’s always an endearing quality.

So I’m doing something I’ve not done so far in any quarter. I’ve bought them a second round of donuts.

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We know how much students love donuts, so I’ll be able to let them know how I feel without embarrassing them.

Reflecting on exam note sheets

Because I teach the very earliest programming classes, giving exams is something that I do frequently. In the Python classes the exams are done on a computer where students can write and test their code, but I still find that it’s helpful to allow them to bring some sheets of notes with them. It’s my experience, both as an instructor and student, that preparing note sheets is a good way to review material. Having some set of notes that they’ve preparing also seems to calm some students, which is important in stressful situations like exams.

I require that they hand in their notes with the exam so that I can review them, and I give them a (generous) page limit for the notes. But other than that, there are no restrictions on what they can place on the note sheets. They can be handwritten, typed, or some combination. They can include pages from the book, stuff found online, code discussed in class, or anything else they think would be helpful. One of the most interesting things about grading exams is reading their note sheets to see what they felt was important to have during the exam.

Over time some patterns have emerged. First, despite the fact that I allow them a minimum of 5 sheets of notes, and in some cases up to 20 sheets of notes, many students bring nothing to the exam at all. Still others bring the barest of note sheets, with the following showing a good example from my recent midterms:

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The people with the bare-bones note sheets are almost always handwritten and rarely more than 1-2 pages. On the other extreme are the people who have carefully distilled all of the most important things from the class notes, examples, and homework. A particularly well-organized example of that can be seen below:

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Tabs with summaries of sections are rare, but having sections for each part/assignment of the class aren’t for the well-documented note sheets. But my favorite part of note sheets are the people who put pictures in there. I tell them that diagrams and pictures are fine, and some people get creative. For example, one of my students on the most recent midterm included the following picture:

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I have no idea what it is, what it means, or why he included it, but it did make me laugh. Another category of pictures are the memes, like the following from the recent round:

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The purpose of this one is certainly clear and also made me laugh.

What I find most interesting is that it’s nearly impossible to tell from the note sheets who is going to do well. Students who have bare-bones notes are equally represented among those who earn near-perfect scores and those who earn failing scores. The same can be said for students who have extensive note sets or pictures or memes. So while the note sheets give me a lot of information about individuals, like who has a good sense of humor, they haven’t yet helped me to figure out what advice to give students about studying. Maybe that’s because studying is an individual thing, so that there are no hard and fast rules.

They do sometimes hear you

The shortest classes I teach are 90 minutes long, and anyone who has done any reading about learning knows that’s much too long for any person to be continually paying attention. I experience it myself when I go to conferences and find myself unable to listen the entire time during a 30-minute research presentation. In recognition of this, I never spend the entire time in class talking. I aim to talk for no more than 15 minutes, although to be fair I have to say that when I’m introducing a new topic that can stretch to 30 minutes, and then give them an activity to complete using the ideas I’ve just discussed. Before I talk about anything new, we then develop the solution to the activity together in class. Breaking up the material this way is helpful for everyone’s attention, including my own.

But despite my best efforts, I still occasionally have trouble getting students to pay attention in class. Midterm week and the spring quarter as a whole are particularly difficult times, but it occurs with regularity at other times too. If I had $1 for every time a student asked about something I directly discussed in class, I would be a significantly richer person. I try to handle it with humor, but I admit that I do get frustrated about it.

Still, there are times when students absolutely blow me away with their attention to what I have to say. Recently a student told me that he was going to work to start assignments early, like I’ve been pestering him to do for the past quarter and a half. Unlike a lot of students who say that, he actually did it. As might be expected, he’s had significantly better success with the assignments since he changed his approach. I told him I was proud of him, and jokingly asked him if he would give testimonials to try to convince his classmates to do the same.

My favorite example of students paying attention to what I have to say involves the accelerated Python class for (moderately) experienced programmers that I teach. Unlike the Python classes for novices, it’s taught in a regular classroom. Nevertheless, I treat it like I do the other Python classes, and break up the introduction of material with in-class programming activities. Students aren’t required to use computers, but I do tell them that bringing a laptop (if they have one) is helpful since writing code on a machine allows you to test what you’re doing. At the start of the quarter very few students bring laptops, no doubt because instructors in other fields discourage them from doing so. But by the end of the second week, my classroom always looks like the following:

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The majority of students in the picture have their laptops with them. And they bring them to class every day. I never have to cajole them into it either since I make it abundantly clear that I think it’s useful by giving them in-class activities over and over.

The idea that you tell students what is important by the things that you do is also my theory as to why my class attendance is so high, even though attendance (other than for labs) isn’t required. I take attendance every day, so they conclude (correctly) that I value it. I need to remind myself of this when I’m frustrated about a student who clearly wasn’t paying attention to something I said in class. They do sometimes hear what I say, and the most I can do is be clear about what I value.

Students love donuts

I have a long history of buying edible treats for my classes. I started by bringing my students chocolate or cookies when they took exams as a way of trying to take their mind off the stress. I eventually discovered that their appetites are better when they’re not having an exam, and I starting bringing things at other times during the quarter. And I’ve tried just about every treat imaginable including chocolate, cookies, brownies, donuts, and donut holes. My very unscientific study has shown that donuts are by far the most popular treat. Students love donuts with a passion, and I finally have evidence I can post here too. Below is a meme that one of my students spontaneously made for me in response to the donuts I brought today.

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I rest my case.

 

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