San Diego, CA, August 12, 2009 -- Cell phones, clickers, the Internet, and in-class blogging systems all serve as tools for learning in Beth Simon’s introduction to computer science classes at UC San Diego. Simon’s approach to undergraduate lectures recently caught the interest of journalist Megan Scott from the Associated Press, who wrote about the ways in which college classrooms are going high-tech in order to engage students.
The Associated Press quoted UC San Diego computer science undergraduate Karen Tamayo in a story about college classrooms going high tech.
Karen Tamayo, an undergraduate computer science major at UC San Diego, is quoted in the Associated Press story. Tamayo took Simon’s introduction to computer science class sequence, called CSE8A / 8B last academic year after transferring from Riverside Community College.
“The [CSE8A/8B] sequence helped me decide to shift my major to computer science. I liked the instructor-student interaction, and the peer interaction. It was very motivating…very helpful,” said Tamayo.
One of Simon’s strategies for engaging undergraduates during lectures is to use the Peer Instruction pedagogy, a research-tested approach developed by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur. This approach combines clickers—which enable all students to answer multiple choice questions anonymously and instantaneously during class—and informal small group discussions and brainstorming.
In Simon’s introduction to computer programming classes, she routinely poses questions to her students and then gives them about a minute to work individually in silence. Next, everyone uses a clicker to select the multiple choice answer they think is right.
“Then I say, ‘discuss the problem with your team around you,’” Simon explained.
At this point, the students dive into lively conversations. They point at the screen. They start drawing on paper. Each group works its way to a consensus, at which point all the students vote again.
Simon then shows the breakdown of how many students voted for each of the answer choices. If B is the wrong answer, and everyone knows ten students voted for B, then the students who incorrectly chose B are often more willing to describe why they thought B was the right answer, explained Simon.
“Or a student who voted for answer C will say, ‘Well, I thought it was B, but then I realized it was C.’ And then the student will explain their thought process. The students are often very good at describing the material to each other because they are at the same level of learning,” said Simon.
This summer, Tamayo and fellow computer science undergraduate Michael Kohanfars are working for Simon as student researchers, thanks to funds Simon earned by teaching a freshman seminar. Tamayo and Kohanfars are analyzing the influence that the in-class peer-to-peer interactions that Simon facilitates have on learning computer science.
Karen Tamayo, Michael Kohanfars and Beth Simon (L-R) are working to improve undergraduate computer science education at UC San Diego by making lectures more interactive and engaging.
“I hope everyone uses clickers in their classrooms. This kind of technology really helps out in learning,” said Kohanfars. “We know first hand how much [the clickers] helped out…those classes inspired me and made it more fun.”
Tamayo and Kohanfars’ work will be incorporated into academic papers that will be submitted to at least two different peer-reviewed conferences. They are also helping Simon to develop and improve pre-lecture reading assignments for future classes.
"I want to be a computer science teacher, so this whole how people learn thing is actually really interesting to me,” said Kohanfars, who transferred to UC San Diego from Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA. He took the CSE8A / 8B sequence with Simon last academic year.
“It’s a nice gig!” Kohanfars offered.
“Very!” chimed Tamayo.
(Below, watch a three minute video on how Beth Simon is using graphics to teach computer science.)