Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Alice -> Excel in the APCS Principles Pilot

Midterm follow up, but I'm afraid there isn't anything earth shatteringly new to add. As Beth Simon had promised, the (34) questions on the midterm looked very much like the in-class quiz questions. If you have been following the podcasts, then you know exactly what those questions look like. There were exam questions on virtually all the major topics covered in the course.

Having started to tally the types of topic questions, I began to decide that this effort probably wasn't going to help out those of you who are still interested in details about the excellent midterm results. I believe that the varied analyses of the project that will take place after the course concludes may produce more engaging information than if I list out a topic frequency count.

It is more interesting to briefly discuss what happened in the class sessions in which Beth discussed Excel. As mentioned in a previous post, she went to great lengths to make a smooth transition between Alice and Excel, showing the relationships between two seemingly disparate programs. Alice is an animation oriented programming system and Excel is a spreadsheet program, albeit a now quite sophisticated piece of software. However, in working through complex concepts such as relative vs. absolute addressing (often a tricky distinction for learners), Beth demonstrated through example how an Alice exercise (such as a singing group called The Beetles - no that is not a typo, they were insects) had underlying code similar to formulas they could create in Excel. She discussed similarities and differences in concepts such as loops and conditionals. All very creatively.

This type of teaching supports what the learning literature describes as Transfer - the ability of a learner to successfully apply understanding from one learning experience to another and to rapidly learn new related information. Observing the class it appeared that transfer was likely occurring because students asked intelligent and thoughtful questions about the Excel exercises and remained engaged throughout the lectures.

This is also a good time to note that the course has been supporting two other types of well researched learning that I have not specifically referred to previously:  problem based learning and collaborative learning. If you are not familiar with the research in these areas, an excellent read is How People Learn put out by the National Academies Press. It has become a classic and very accessible reference on learning in educational settings. Well worth the read.

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