Friday, November 26, 2010

Visiting Scholar Quintin Cutts & the APCS Principles pilot (part 1)

For those of us in the States who, as a result of the Thanksgiving holiday yesterday, may feel we do not need any caloric intake for the next week, exercise is a good thing. Most of my exercise today came in the form of talking (wondering how many calories are burned by vocalization - anyone studied that?) to Quintin Cutts, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Computing Science at the University of Glasgow. Quintin is here in San Diego on sabbatical to work with Beth Simon on the APCS Principles pilot class. Quintin, showing good form, rode his bike to our meeting, facing a daunting straight up hill on the way back. So extra points for Quintin on this post-holiday day. For agreeing to meet with me, and for exercising at the same time.

Choosing to take his sabbatical here made perfect sense. Quintin has been teaching computing with Peer Instruction and clickers himself for some time, and has just finished 4+ years work on a large grant-funded outreach project to the pre-college schools in Scotland. Quintin has extensive experience with project development and curricular issues that bridge university and pre-college computing, and he has taught classes for both non computing and mixed majors for nearly 15 years. He is also involved with revisions to Scotland's computing curriculum (those of us in the States might sigh wistfully to learn that there is a national computing curriculum in Scotland and all secondary schools teach computing).

Asked about his interests and how they relate to working on this particular class, Quintin didn't pause for more than a second before saying: a focus on finding blockages in learning; getting feedback to students as quickly as possible; keeping students engaged. These three items are clearly present in the structure of the class:

One of the pedagogical approaches Quintin has used in the past and which he helped implement in his collaboration with Beth Simon, he refers to as "turning the teaching model on its head".  In a common form of the "traditional model" the student does the "easy" part first: attend lecture. Not to imply that the material in a traditional lecture is necessarily easy - not at all. Content may be seriously complex and challenging from both the student and lecturer point of view. What is meant by "easy" is that in many lecture situations, the typical student is passive. She or he listens, takes notes, perhaps asks a question, perhaps not.

Later comes the "hard" part, where the student goes off and works by themselves on homework, lab assignments etc. Blockages in understanding may become show stoppers and timely helpful feedback difficult to obtain.

This class implements a different approach. Students do a homework assignment *before* attending lecture. The homework is a prerequisite for success in class, and the assignment is part of their grade - hence a two-fold motivation to take it seriously. When students arrive in class Beth engages with them, and they with each other, participating in "hard stuff" with the presence and support of the instructor, the teaching assistants, and their peers. These activities include the interactive quizzes, group discussions, and other activities that keep them sitting up and engaged (ok, good posture is neither always present nor required). With that experience and immediate feedback about their understanding under their belts, the students do additional reinforcement activities  in their labs.

Quintin and Beth are gathering real-time data about this new process to monitor how well it is working. In addition to the typical measures of scored assignments and exams, the pair are regularly collecting feedback sheets from students. They are also audio recording (with student knowledge) class discussions, in order to understand what is happening in all those group conversations about the clicker quiz questions. There are 4 audio recorders circulating through the class during each lecture period.

When asked how he felt the course objectives were going so far, Quintin was quite optimistic, citing many of the same items mentioned in this past Tuesday's post: the increasing scores on clicker quiz questions, the midterm scores, and the sense he is has from various other sources that students are picking up on complex concepts. He is looking forward to digging into and further analyzing the data as it comes in.

Part 2 of our talk to come....

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