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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Aino Corry on Teaching Computer Science

Aino Corry on Teaching Computer Science


2. You're teaching at the Department of Computer Science at the Aarhus University. Which classes do you teach?

: I teach several classes. I teach introductory programming in Java to first year students, and I teach a third year course in software architecture. And then I also teach how to teach computer science.


3. That's an interesting one. So do you use different teaching methods to teach students at different levels?

Yes, there are some changes also because of the way that the classes are set. For instance, with the first year students, I teach a class of about 150 students in a theater classroom and it goes without saying that you need to use a different kind of teaching technique than with 15 people around you in a flat room. So for the first year students where it's introductory Java, I make use of different things. So one thing is what we call the inverse classroom where I ask the students every week, so what did you find interesting? What are you still struggling with? What would you like to know more about? And then they send that information to me Sunday evening the latest. And when I have my presentation or my lecture Monday afternoon, I can take that into account.

When you hear that the first time, people are thinking, "Wow, that's really amazing. Can you from Sunday evening to Monday afternoon actually create your lecture based on that?" Of course, I'm cheating here because since I have been teaching this course for, well, three years, I know almost what they are struggling with. So it will only be minor changes that I need, one more example of this or skipping that detail and pointing to this detail instead. So it's not as hard as it sounds. If it's the first time you're teaching this course, you could ask somebody who taught it before because it's normally the same caveats and misunderstandings that the students have with this class. So that's one of the things I do.

Another thing that I do is that I make use of what I call the think-pair-share. It's also something which is used a lot in retrospectives. So instead of just asking these 150 students, so what do you think the answer to this? What's the output of this program? Why can't you use exception handling here? I tell them to, okay, you can think about this on your own for two minutes. And then they'll be absolutely quiet in the room thinking about it. And then I say, now you can talk to your neighbor about it. And then the people who are sitting next to somebody and who are not afraid of talking, this is Denmark we're talking about so people hate talking to people they don’t know, but they talk to the neighbor. And then after that, I will ask, so does anybody have an answer? In that case, the people who need to reflect first have a time to reflect, and the people who are insecure whether they come up with the right answer have at least somebody else who either said, "I think this is the same," or they've had a little discussion about what the right answer is. So it feels a bit more secure for them to shout out the answer here.

What I really find magical about this the first time I tried it out was that when I asked them to discuss this in pairs, you would think that they would be discussing the party next weekend or the food in the canteen or something like that. And I'm sure some of them are doing that. But when I'm wandering around in the room and I've also had spies put around the room to check this out because of course it's pretty obvious that I'm wandering around, but the spies and what I hear tells me that they now have 150 first year students discussing this piece of program thinking about the same thing at the same time. It's an amazing piece of parallel thinking that really makes me happy every time I use it.

So I like teaching that way, making them more active even though it is a presentation because I think that if I'm just talking to people for 45 minutes, they won't get that much out of it. Research says that lectures only give people less than 10% of what you say.


4. This sounds like a great way to learn and a great way to be in a class. How do students react to the changes that you do in teaching?

Well, the first year students, they just accept it because they know nothing else. They don’t know anything about university life so they will just say, "Well, apparently, this is how it's done in university." And then they'll be awfully surprised when they have another course. The third year students, I started teaching a class in software architecture with another lecturer. He had been teaching the class for five years, very successfully. People loved his class. He had written part of the book that the course was based on. He knew his stuff and we had some guest lecturers.

So I said to him, "Would it be interesting for you if I helped you with some of the teaching to make it more fun, more interactive and maybe even more valuable for the students?" I said to him, "We could do it two ways. Either I look through all your slides and I've got these minor changes that we can make and pop in some exercises or we throw away all your slides, we start from scratch, and then we use interactive sessions instead of lectures for 75% of the time. What do you think?" So he had a little think and then he said, "The second thing sounds most fun."

So what we did was that when they came, these third year students, to the first lecture, we told them, "We're going to teach in a different way than you used to. We're not going to give you two hours of presentation. We're going to give you small presentations, 10 minutes, and then you'll have group work and we'll have discussions. And there will be things where you have to walk around the role play and you'll be playing with paper." So we did that. I thought that we had described our reasons for doing that very well. It was founded in research about teaching and learning that it's not what the teacher does that makes a student learn; it's what the student does that makes a student learn.

But after this first session, we had some students coming down to us saying that they really hated it. They were considering maybe dropping the course because what they had in mind and what they had been taught at university was to just sit back and relax and let people put the knowledge into their heads while they were sitting in the back row maybe even playing with their computers. And that is their expectation. So already the third year students had different expectations. So we said to these students, "Well, you can have the slide from the previous years and you can look at the slides if you want to. You can even make your own little slideshow." And they said, "Okay, that's fine."

And we moved on with these sessions and we had a lot of interactivity and think-pair-share and discussions in groups and strip sequences and concept maps and games where we threw candy at them. In the end, we had evaluations. We had evaluations in the middle of the course asking people how they liked it and they really liked it. Eighty-five percent loved it. And at the end of the course, it was 90% who really liked that way of teaching. And based on the assignments from the previous years, the original lecturer could see that they were better or the same. And you could also see that the grades were actually better.

Unfortunately, the number of people attending the course was so small that it wasn’t statistically sound. So we can't really say it's research, but at least we can say we didn’t break anything. So it's different how they react to it.


5. What makes teaching to first year students interesting and rewarding for you?

Well, originally, when I wanted to be a teacher I wanted to be a teacher in math because I really liked math. It's sort of evolved over the years. Now, I wanted to be a teacher in computer science for grown-up people at the university instead of teaching kids math in school. What I've noticed with myself is what really kicks me off is not the challenge in the material, the content. It's not teaching something which is really hard. It's actually teaching something which I think is very simple but you use your pedagogical skills or didactic skills to make them understand.

The first year students I taught in computer science were a bit different because it was a huge class where 300 students had chosen computer science, and my 150 students had not chosen computer science. They were studying biology or physics or chemistry or something else, and they had been forced to take this class in programming. So most of the people that I was teaching hated the fact that they had to learn programming. They couldn’t see the point of it and they thought that computers were only for geeks.

So what I really liked about that was trying to convince that it is fun to program. I told them that in the beginning I started studying math and I was forced to do some programming. I really loved having that power of the machine and that you could become rich and happy like me if you were a computer scientist. I think that sort of resonated with some of the people in the room. And every time I had the chance, I would tell them how happy I was choosing the path that I had chosen because you could be a teacher, you could work with people, you could work with computers, you could do all sorts of things with computer science.

So I liked that because it was first year students, I felt that I had a chance to form them, to sculpture them. And after the year, some of them even said to me that now I have decided to choose computer science instead of what was my original thought. That's what I like.


6. What about teaching to third year and PhD students, what do you like about that?

The third year students, they are very opinionated already. So the challenge there is, as I mentioned before, in getting them to understand and acknowledge that another way of teaching can actually be more helpful for them. Of course, I hope that they can use this knowledge when they have to explain something, when they come out in the industry or even if they become teachers. Maybe it can inspire them to have their meetings in a different way, maybe in a more fun way to understand and accept that fun doesn’t mean it's not serious.

And when it comes to the PhD students that I'm teaching how to teach computer science, it's very different because the people that I have in these classes are people who just started their PhD or just came to Denmark to start a different part of the PhD, and they are going to teach most of them for the first time in their life. They're going to become teaching assistants and in turn into lecturers but right now teaching assistants. For them the biggest problem often is that they're very afraid of it. They are worried, what if I can't answer all the questions? What if I'm so nervous I can't say anything? What if people won't answer my questions? What if nobody wants to go to the board and go through the exercises?

So what I'm working on there is to empower them to feel relaxed with the fact that they can teach, and they don’t have to see the teacher as an oracle who can answer all the questions more like a mentor or facilitator helping the students in the right direction. That takes a lot of the burden off their back. I find that very inspiring as well.


7. How do professors react to the kind of teaching that you do with the PhD students?

Yeah, that's another interesting thing. In the beginning when I was teaching in that fun interactive way at the University of Aarhus, I found there was a lot of resistance to it. It came in many different ways, some people would ignore it. Some people would laugh at it. Some people would be directly obstructive to it. One thing was, sometimes I tell the PhD students, it's okay to use props in a lecture. You can use a red nose. You can use a ball. You can use a paper plane or you can use pieces of paper. Because if you bring something and you make things more tangible, even if you can bring something from the students' everyday life, then it makes the students relate more to what you're saying and it motivates more to listen to you.

So that, for instance, that thing was obstructed by one of the lecturers saying that if you bring anything to a presentation or a lecture like that, nobody will respect you. Nobody will take you serious and you will lose all respect. Of course, as a newbie PhD student or a newbie lecturer, what you don’t want to do is lose all respect so I think that was kind of obstructive. Another thing also is that it had been the acknowledged truth at computer science that when you are giving a lecture, what you do is that you take a book and then you go through each chapter and you take the examples from each chapter. And when you've gone through the book, you've taught the course.

What I was saying was instead of doing that, what you need to focus on is the learning goals. It was not my initial idea but I just brought it forward to the teachers and the students. You have to think about the learning goals. What is it that you want the students to be able to do when they walk out of this class? And when you know, when you've realized what you want them to be able to do, not know because you can't measure what they know, but when you know what skills you want them to be able to attain in your course, then you can figure out, so what activities can I do with the students so that they can train this? Like when you're training ice skating, you're not just reading in a book. You are actually doing ice skating.

Some of it you can do during the lecture, not ice skating. But some of it you can do during lecture and some of it you have to do on your own between lectures. But that means that if you want to introduce some activities in the session time where you normally have lectures, you have to take out some of the theory and not cover all the theory. And that was another big pill to swallow for them because I need to cover all the theory in my presentation. And I say, no, you don’t because they can't take all that in. You need to be the mentor and the facilitator for these students. You need to say, these are the three things that are important today and these are the activities that you need to do in order to learn that skill set. All these other nitty-gritty details or all the other less important things that you still need to know, you have to give them some assignments so that they can do that between your lectures. But you do not have time to go through all of the theory.

And that was another thing that was really difficult for them to grasp. Of course, all the playing, I'm introducing all the fun is also difficult to accept.


8. How do you see teaching in the future?

I see teaching much more as a mentoring and a facilitating thing. I see it much more that you're focusing on what the students are doing and the learning goals. I see it much more maybe like the MOOCs where the students are able to watch some small presentations, 10 to 15 minutes of video presentation when they have the time because also studies show that some students can learn something at 8 o'clock in the morning but some students can only learn at 12 o'clock in the evening. So if you can make them choose when they have the lecture, when they are awake in their body, then I think that is a good idea. So if you can make it more flexible in that way but of course you need face-to-face classes with the lecturer to allow them to come up with other examples or ways of explaining things.

Ben: Thank you, Aino, for this interview.

You're welcome.

Apr 08, 2015