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.

 

And rationality prevails

I have fabulous news for anyone who has had to endure one of my rants about MOOCs: it looks like I get to stop ranting now. A new article about MOOCs appeared in an ACM news feed, and the title alone makes me happy: “The Hype is Dead, but MOOCs Are Marching On.” In it, the Coursera co-founder gives a remarkably grounded description of what they’d like to do and the progress that they’re making. My favorite quote is:

If you think about the “Gartner Hype Cycle,” I think we’re emerging from the “trough of disillusionment.” The previous hype was completely unmerited because it was based on the presumption that MOOCs were going to put universities out of business […]

Now I think I’ll start wishing for some articles discussing the fact that online education predates MOOCs (by decades!). It’s fun to be a dreamer.

No good choices

We’re in the middle of the second week of the winter quarter, and I’ve had a great start. I have two wonderful groups of students, so much so that I’m not even sure I have a favorite this quarter. They’re dynamic and engaged, and I look forward to going to class every day. And in a great surprise, I have a record number of female students. In the accelerated Python class I have 9 women out of 29 students. I don’t think I’ve ever had a class that was that close to an even gender balance.

In the bigger picture we’re having record enrollments in the majors that feed the introductory sequence and the computer science core classes in general. We had a huge increase in computer science and gaming majors last year, and they’re saying that we’ll see another big increase this year. Unfortunately, at the same time we’ve also had a large number of computer science faculty retire. Because of budget issues, it’s not clear that we will be hiring anyone to teach computer science core classes either this year or next, and as a result, we can’t cover the number of sections we need for all the new majors.

Several colleagues of mine just suggested that we consider capping the computer science and gaming majors as a way to get a handle on the situation. While I understand that the suggestion is logical and reasonable, it has me beyond frustrated. I teach at an enrollment-driven institution that focuses on teaching. History suggests that limiting enrollments in computer science has the largest impact on underrepresented minorities, including women. And yet here we are, about to turn away enrollments because we can’t find faculty to teach students. I know there are no good choices. But this is an extraordinarily bad one.

Work resolutions for 2015

The start of 2015 is around the corner, which means it’s time for New Year’s resolutions. For the most part I avoid making them in my personal life, other than the perennial “I will read at least one book a month for fun” resolution which I typically am able to keep. My work life is a different story though. Last year I vowed to keep my expectations for the December break realistic, which I managed to do this year. But overall I was terrible at keeping work under control in 2014, resulting in pretty severe burnout. I would like this year to be different.

So I give you my three work resolutions for 2015:

  1. I will keep at least one day every other weekend free of work. Yes, I realize this is likely to be the hardest to keep, especially in the hell months of March and October, but I think that also makes it all the more worthy of being a resolution. It would be great to make it both days and every week, but I’m also realistic. I spend a good deal of time during the week being a mom, so some work on the weekends is likely going to be needed. I just don’t want to go months and months without a break from work.
  2. I will find the joy in everything I do or I will do my best to get rid of that task. Again, this needs some disclaimers. First, I doubt I’ll find the joy in grading, but I can’t get rid of it. And I hate meetings, but those aren’t likely to disappear. But in general I want to find the positive in the work obligations I have or I want to seriously consider if they can go.
  3. I will keep myself open to finding a new research collaborator. This one is slightly at odds with the first one, since I have plenty of research to keep me occupied. But I think it’s worth making since new collaborators and projects keep me energized, which supports the second one. I haven’t found a new collaborator since 2013, and I think the time is right to consider finding another one. Of course like all relationships, you can’t just wish for it to happen and have it suddenly appear. It’s a matter of timing and luck, and it may not be a part of my 2015. But I want to keep my mind open to it.

I’ll be sure to report back during 2015 to see how well I’m able to stick to these resolutions. I think my life will be better if I can.

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