Friday, September 17, 2010

How Do You Understand if Students Understand???

Wow. Class starts in six days and we are down to the wire on some hard questions for our APCS  Principles pilot course. We have some very nice labs shaping up (we think. we hope). We have some very nice homework assignments shaping up (we think. we hope). We have some awesome lectures shaping up (we think and hope). But arrrrggggggggg. We will want to know, really want to know, if the students understand what they are doing! And we want to know it right away. Silly desire huh? Why would we care about THAT?

There are going to be some well tested uses of Peer Instruction in lecture, which will provide one mode of rapid feedback to us and them (and some other nifty lecture related in-class assessment activities). Good. Good. Good.


But what about those labs and homeworks? Let's just talk labs although a similar principle applies to homework. There was a loooooooong and painful** discussion today about how to assess the labs not just for a grade, but to really understand and to help the student understand if they understand. Do they understand the "while loop" construct or not? Conditional expressions - understand or no? or parameters - understand?

Especially for the purpose of this pilot offering we want to find out what is going on cognitively - immediately.  Not just after an exam or a week or so later. But while it is still fresh. And to transmit that in a formative way to the students. So a score or a checkoff sheet may produce a grade (recall: 4 assistants per 40-46 students in a 2 hour lab) but we want more. In itself this is not new - it is always a pedagogical goal to have assignments not only produce a grade, but produce deep learning that both student and instructor can be aware of.

For our project data gathering purposes the goal is even more important. We are considering asking a set of questions as the last part of each lab that will serve as formative feedback and thought provocation for the student and give us some concrete info to pore over.

Set aside the large numbers of students for a moment. What exactly do we ask in this short list of questions? This is not the kind of question we ask our CS1 students. ("Do you really and truly and in a deep and meaningful way understand what you just did? Write an answer that thoroughly convinces us one way or the other please")

We are in uncharted territory. But we understand that.

** PAIN: definition provided by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary b : acute mental or emotional distress or suffering

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