Teaching Webcraft / Compare your practices to IES report's recommendations

I'm taking an online course at the P2P University, on "How to teach webcraft and programming to free-range students" taught by Greg Wilson.

Looking at the initial comments on the course it's possible I misunderstood what "free-range students" means ; from the course description I took it to mean teaching in various non-traditional settings, but it might actually be specifically about online learning (?). It's fine, the general concepts of "what is good teaching", "how people learn" and how to encourage independent learning will be helpful anyway. :)

First task

Our first task is to take a look at the IES (Institution of Educational Sciences) report on "Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning" (summarised in Greg's post here) and compare their recommendations to our own approach to teaching programming.

For the record, I teach sporadically in my own time, to small groups of 6 to 10 complete beginners, usually-but-not-always adults, in the local hackerspace.

Recommendation 1: Space learning over time.

Arrange to review key elements of course content after a delay of several weeks to several months after initial presentation.

In a 5 or 6 weeks-long course, this can be difficult. However, most concepts do build on top on each other: once learnt, they will be used every week from then on. The later concepts could benefit from regular review, but by then the course is about finished unfortunately.

Recommendation 2: Interleave worked example solutions with problem-solving exercises.

Have students alternate between reading already worked solutions and trying to solve problems on their own.

From the 2nd session of the course, I start by showing a short, working program to the class and ask them to think about what it could be doing, (trying to) figure out as a group what could be its purpose. This sounds more like review though, as it reuses the previous concepts. The report also reads that alternating working examples + exercises is hugely important. "Worked example solutions" should go into much more details than what I've been doing as well (showing intermediate steps, rather than only the final solution).

Recommendation 3: Combine graphics with verbal descriptions.

Combine graphical presentations (e.g., graphs, figures) that illustrate key processes and procedures with verbal descriptions.

I can't say that I'm really doing this. I'm projecting code, sometimes working out solutions in front of the class but this isn't particularly graphical. I'm not sure how to do this either. It actually reminds me of the approach to learning that Sean O'Leary mentioned in his talk on differentiated learning at the Reimagining Learning conference, where he told us about adding visual cues to quizzes and concepts to help dyslexic learners and students with a more visual approach. Although useful, this doesn't exactly match the IES report recommendation which advocates making sure the graphical element is directly relevant to the concept being taught.

Recommendation 4: Connect and integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts.

Connect and integrate abstract representations of a concept with concrete representations of the same concept.

The report explains that students gain an understanding faster when using concrete examples, but then don't know how to transfer the knowledge to new problems ; while students who learn the concept abstractly struggle more initially but are then more flexible with the knowledge. The report advocates mixing up both, which I'm not doing or not doing well as my students tend to have trouble reusing previous concepts to break down more intricate problems on their own.

Recommendation 5: Use quizzing to promote learning.

Use quizzing with active retrieval of information at all phases of the learning process to exploit the ability of retrieval directly to facilitate long-lasting memory traces.

5a. Use pre-questions to introduce a new topic. I don't do this. I wonder if "previewing" an unknown programming concept would help learning, or increase confusion. It'd definitely need to solve a concrete problem, ideally that we encountered in the previous session.

5b. Use quizzes to re-expose students to key content. I don't do this either. (Actually, reading on the report, presenting small programs and asking students to figure out what it does may be considered a quiz, as it encourages them to retrieve previously learnt material). It's interesting, and I wonder how to apply it to teaching practical programming while keeping the questions short and meaningful (maybe tiny programs with missing bits, with a multiple choice as to what to fill the blank with?)

Recommendation 6: Help students allocate study time efficiently.

Assist students in identifying what material they know well, and what needs further study, by teaching children how to judge what they have learned.

6a. Teach students how to use delayed judgements of learning to identify content that needs further study. I'm not doing this, except perhaps brutally when giving exercises that a student doesn't know how to solve.

6b. Use tests and quizzes to identify content that needs to be learned. This advises giving a quiz, written or oral, could be done as a game, right after presenting new material, so students can assess what they actually do remember. I don't do this. Considering most of my students don't make the time for homework or studying at home, I don't know if this would be very effective on its own. Or perhaps it would highlight that they do need to study outside of the class and encourage them to do so...

Recommendation 7: Ask deep explanatory questions.

Use instructional prompts that encourage students to pose and answer “deep-level” questions on course material. These questions enable students to respond with explanations and supports deep understanding of taught material.

I do a tiny bit of this when I introduce a new concept or explain what an existing program does, but not very deeply, nor involving the class enough (it can be tough generating discussion!). Some of the suggestions include having students think aloud, then comment and build on each other's understanding.


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