Posts from SIGCSE: Differentiated learning through reading

Posted on March 27, 2008

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Leigh Ann Sudol from Carnegie Mellon takes a different approach to get students thinking about bigger pictures: she makes them read. In forging connections, she describes a reading assignment and the impact of that assignment on getting students thinking about computer science and its connections to their life.

She sees that:

students are entering with ever increasing knowledge of computers but a decreasing appreciation for impact. A dwindling, ever less diverse group of students see computers as finished product.

How can we make small changes in computing to bring to students relevance of computing without losing actual knowledge. Sudol argues that the usual approach of embedding ‘real projects’ into programming assignments suffers from students perceiving “short task, move on…”, and the intended reflective work never happens.

Students were required to read a fiction and a non-fiction book from a list and to write an opinion piece, how they saw themes applied to their own life. Importantly, there was no mention of computing in the assignment. Here’s the grade table:

F no evidence of reading book
D plot summary
C small connections, mostly plot summary
B personal connections
A personal reflections made and student showed evidence of reflection. possible reference to current news articles or other current event sources outside the reading
(still no computing)

Sudol then coded the essays according the form and nature of mention of computing and emergent categories:

Societal Implications – the student directed a statement about or to society and the necessity for understanding. (“Thus it makes no sense that as people we choose to remain ignorant of such precautions to protect (our) personal data” )
Broader CS Concepts – the student made reference to or recognized the applicability of a CS concept within their life (”Overall I would have to say that I found the book to be very interesting. It really gets you thinking about the roles of computers in every day life”)
Programming – this category is for statements made that indicate or make reference to a programming concept covered within the class. (“What I found most interesting about the book was how it ties to the material we are learning in class…just seeing the use of strings and loops can be used in such a way … makes me realize that we can do so much with programs. It makes me want to learn more about programming”)
Liked Anyway – I suspect this is a subcategory of a larger “enjoyed assignment” category. These quotes are students who voiced displeasure about the assignment, but indicated after the reading that it was worthwhile. (”I must say that at first I was really angry that I had to read a book and write some paper about it in programming class…, but I’m glad I got a chance to read this book because it was actually very interesting”)
General Inspiration – not a major category, however it is useful as a repository for inspirational quotes. (”If we can’t ask important questions we can’t proceed”)
Negative Comments – again a minor category but perhaps useful over time to weed out poorly chosen books. (”The book sounded like it was written for just computer scientists because of the technical words and technical software company products described. This gave the reader a sense of disability of not knowing what was going on.”)

A higher percentage of women made women made qualifying statements, and these were much deeper than the males:

“I also find it interesting that in order to create Blondie24 the experiment required a lot of programming, similar to the kind that we do in class…I find it cool that the work Chellapilla did is the beginnings of what I am learning to do in class … [I] can only hope that one day I can use the skills that I am learning through this course to accomplish something as well.”

Sudol discusses the role of instrinsic motivation. Differentiated learning such as this benefits girls in particular:

By personalizing the content we are creating a type of differentiation that helps all students, but especially girls, create their own reasons for being interested in the subject. Various projects initiated to interest girls in computing have shown that girls are intrinsically motivated by subjects seen to have a larger impact on society.

Q: List of books?
A: http://www.virtualcompsci.net/blog (I can’t find it there, but is the second last slide here).

Q: how do you know students internalising.
A: don’t know, teacher’s delimma. Survey at end of course, increased impact

Q: how to make books available
A: library

Q: different majors
A: recommend different books to different majors

q: CS students too
A: reflection good. CS majors probably have understanding of cs

Q: connections to community

A: don’t allow students to go to extreme scifi

Sam’s thought: How would it work the other way – getting CS students to think about wider issues ie relevance of sustainability?

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Posted in: ethics, research, sigcse