It’s the middle of summer for me, so teaching feels somewhat far away right now. But the spring quarter showed me something interesting, and I want to share it.

For the past two academic years I’ve taught a Java class. The class is designed as a transition between the Python sequence and the data structures sequence in Java. While another colleague who’s taught the data structure sequence wrote the syllabus, I was the one to develop the class. It’s only two credits instead of four, so trying to fit all the Java syntax you need to write somewhat interesting programs into the first week or two is a challenge. Between the flood of new syntax and the significantly more complex IDE that the students have to use, it can be overwhelming. But that’s precisely why we created the class. We want students to be comfortable with the language and environment before they’re trying to deal with the added complexity of data structures.

The first year I taught it the class attracted very few students, in part because none of the students knew about it or why they should take it. That was probably for the best since it made it easier to manage for me. But during last academic year I did a better job of advertising the class, and I ended up with a packed class of 60 students during winter quarter. The size of the class was a bit overwhelming for me, and I struggled more to teach it. My course evaluations also showed the change — for the first time in a long time I had a course evaluation slightly below 4 (out of 5).

I spent a lot of time reflecting on what was different in winter quarter, other than the size of the class, and decided that I hadn’t done as good of a job at motivating why they were facing the fire hose of information in the first few weeks. I also added some practice quizzes, although not for credit, to help them transition from exams on the computer to paper exams. And it would appear that the two relatively small changes made the difference. Although I still had almost 40 students, my evaluations in spring quarter were back above 4.5. I always knew that understanding why they were doing things is important to students, but I’ve never had quite such a clear demonstration as during this academic year. Putting things into context just isn’t optional.