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Mike Clancy

Senior Lecturer
EECS Computer Science Division
UC Berkeley

Mike Clancy

UC-WISE pedagogical overview

Current status

We have so far produced lab-based UC-WISE curricula for three courses. CS 3 has been run in a lab-based format since spring 2003. More recently, we have piloted lab-based curricula for CS 4, a new Java-based introductory programming course for engineering majors, and for CS 61B; the "beta version" of the CS 61B curriculum was run in fall 2005 for all CS 61B enrollees. CS 61B will also be run in UC-WISE format in spring 2007.

What's wrong with the traditional course format?

Our lower-division courses previous to UC-WISE involved two or three hours of lecture, two hours of lab, and one hour of discussion section. We observed a number of flaws in this organization. Lectures at best provided passive "learning". The traditional format provided little support for students. In the words of a student involved in our early work:

In lecture, they listened.
In lab, they started to experiment.
In discussion, they listened.
On homework, they struggled.

It was common for students to encounter confusion late in the term about concepts that they were expected to learn early in the course.

Our UC-WISE courses attempt to address these problems. The table below compares them with traditionally formatted courses from a student's point of view.

Traditional UC-WISE
The student attends 2-3 hours per week of lecture. The student attends 0-1 hours per week of lecture.
The student works through a set of short exercises, perhaps with a partner, in 2 hours per week of lab. The student works through a wide variety of exercises in 4-6 hours per week of lab.
The student attends 1 hour per week of "discussion", in which examples similar to upcoming homework exercises are covered. Students engage in online collaboration; occasional impromptu discussions may arise in lab with a neighboring student, or between lab instructor and a group of students.
The student works on homework, not always clear about skills and techniques that need to be applied. Help, when available, is found through a class newsgroup, fortuitously scheduled teaching assistant office hours, or communication with fellow students. Most exercises formerly done as homework are now completed in lab. Relevant context is clear from earlier exercises. Help from instructors is always available in the lab section.
The student is not always aware of misunderstandings, and may wait weeks to address them. Staff review quizzes and gated collaboration submissions in lab, and engage a student in timely tutoring if necessary.

UC-WISE benefits for students

Replacement of lecture with lab: UC-WISE courses replace lecture time with supervised lab activities. More lab time means more work and, we hypothesize, more learning. With the variety and breadth of materials in a UC-WISE course, the increase in difficulty as students move between activities is small, in contrast to the significant differences in complexity between lab exercises, homeworks, and projects in traditionally taught courses.

Frequent embedded assessments: In a UC-WISE class, the typical day in lab begins with a quiz that tests material covered in the preceding lab section. Instructors and assistants can view student answers immediately after they are submitted. Subsequent student activities include self-assessments, gated collaborations (which provide students opportunities to check their understanding of a given concept against that of their classmates), and scripted assessments that provide varying degrees of help for incorrect answers. These frequent assessments keep students apprised of their progress in the course, provide opportunities for staff intervention when students are confused, and motivate students to seek help if necessary.

Just-in-time targeted tutoring: The lab format and the frequent embedded assessments allow instructors to engage in one-to-one and group tutoring sessions. Tutoring has long been known to be the best method of instruction, and has been shown to work without extensive training on the part of the instructor. The main drawback of tutoring—that it is very time-intensive and, therefore, costly—is reduced by the UC-WISE format. Students spend most of their time learning from the materials and their collaborators, while the tutoring is efficiently used when confusion occurs.

UC-WISE creates additional benefits by providing tools for the instructor to monitor student progress and, more importantly, understanding. With such information, instructors can initiate tutoring sessions at the moment a misconception or confusion is occurring. This crucial advance not only makes tutoring sessions more efficient, but also effects deep student learning.

Collaboration among students: Research has shown that collaborative activities have a myriad of benefits in all phases of learning and coursework. In traditionally formatted CS courses, collaboration is commonly limited to project work and solving laboratory activities; students collaborate during the act of programming, but rarely while engaging in higher-order thinking and meta-cognitive reflection on the practice of programming.

In contrast, a UC-WISE course engages students in a variety of collaborative activities. A "gated collaboration" presents students with a prompt; after answering, they can review the responses of their classmates. (Contrast this with a question posed to students in a recitation section. Ideally, all students consider the question and contribute their answers to discussion; in practice, only a few consider the question seriously, and only a few—always the same few—contribute answers.) Focused discussion activities provide opportunities for sharing strategies for debugging or avoiding particular kinds of errors, for comparing design or development approaches, and for criticizing and defending alternatives.

Engagement of traditionally underserved groups: A UC-WISE course provides a much wider variety of activities than its traditionally taught counterpart, allowing more students to shine. Shy students are encouraged to contribute in collaborative exercises, and receive help without seeking it out. Students who might otherwise drop out are kept in the course with the support provided by staff and the learning environment: UC-WISE has succeeded with groups of students typically at risk for success in computer science.

Qualitative analysis (from surveys and interviews) suggests that UC-WISE technology and pedagogical approaches promote positive views towards computer science by women and non-CS majors. This success was due in part to the support provided to students in monitoring their progress on a daily basis. In addition, the course pace and materials have been pilot-tested and refined to ensure that all topics are communicated clearly and that course demands and grading rubrics are unambiguous. As a result, students know where they are and where they are going and can use this information to develop their own ability to monitor progress.

More efficient interaction with staff: Consider the obstacles presented to a student seeking help in a traditional course. Only short focused questions are appropriate for the class newsgroup. Staff office hours may not coincide with the student's free time. A staff member, presented with the student's question, will lack context—why is the student asking this question?—and history—what does this student already know?—on which to base a response. In contrast, students in a UC-WISE course ask questions in the context of the day's lab activities, consulting a staff member who most likely has been observing the student's work throughout the term. As anecdotal support, tutoring sessions for our introductory programming course at Berkeley's campus tutoring center have been cancelled because of a lack of students seeking help. This coincides with the course's use of UC-WISE, and this is the only computer science course for which this has happened.

UC-WISE benefits for instructors

All UC-WISE activities are archived. The instructor portal allows efficient access to a curriculum's activities, convenient rearrangement of their sequence in the curriculum, and easy substitution of one activity for another.

The fine-grained activities in a UC-WISE course expose a substantial amount of information about student conceptions and misconceptions. We have learned in three years of the UC-WISE version of our introductory programming course of a variety of previously unrecognized misunderstandings, and have modified or invented activities to address them.

A UC-WISE course typically involves less lecturing than its traditional counterpart, and correspondingly frees up instructor time to be spent flexibly. Example activities include teaching assistant training, review of student work to diagnose problems, and inventing new pieces of curriculum. In this way, instructors can concentrate on their strengths, devoting efforts to the aspects of teaching that they do best and enjoy most.

A UC-WISE course also provides more subtle benefits for a lecturer. Lecture preparation in a traditional course is often done without much awareness of student understanding; a lecturer is likely to overprepare as a result. Student performance on UC-WISE activities, in contrast, provides data on actual misconceptions that a lecturer might target. (Techniques such as peer instruction have the same goal, but in our opinion achieve it less effectively.)

Teaching assistants in a UC-WISE course work essentially the same number of hours as in the traditional version. Extra time needed to supervise lab sections is offset by reducing or eliminating office hours; reducing or eliminating preparation for recitation section; and, because most questions are answered in lab, a drop in class-related electronic mail and newsgroup traffic.

Summary: benefits of UC-WISE

Our experience thus far with UC-WISE courses suggests that we can improve three aspects of introductory programming education.

  • We can provide more opportunities and more timely opportunities for student learning. Our online lab activities include all those formerly used in a traditionally-organized counterpart course plus a lot more. Embedded assessments and targeted tutoring help students not to fall behind. This pedagogical support, coupled with the variety of course activities, increase motivation and successful performance of underrepresented students.
  • We can increase instructor productivity. Less time is spent on ineffective preparation for lectures; more time is spent on diagnosing student needs, improving course activities, and helping course staff to help students better. As a result, the instructor acquires a deeper understanding of student conceptions.
  • We can provide customizable materials that are readily adapted to new courses. More and more universities are offering introductory programming specific to disciplines such as engineering, biology, physics, and social science.
Last modified: $Date: 2005/08/30 08:52:21 $ by Mike Clancy