by Sid Stamm
Didn’t expect that, did you? Neither did Steve Wolfman’s class when he let loose a bloodcurdling scream on the first day. His goal was to demonstrate the strength of community and
pooled resources. This point was clearly illustrated when he asked the entire lecture hall of two hundred students to scream at the top of their lungs. Why? He was using an atypical teaching technique
to get the attention of the students and keep them interested. Students do not always learn all that
the instructor is trying to get across a lecture. In fact, it is likely that even students who can get the
most out of a lecture grow restless and might be more involved in class if it were taught with a twist.
In order to capture the interest of students more effectively, instructors could use atypical classroom
techniques. Moreover, unlike lecturing and giving homework, these unorthodox techniques can also
keep students attentive and target preferred learning styles. This article presents some experimental
and anecdotal evidence to support the theory that the use of these techniques improves students’
learning in an introductory Computer Science (CS) class.
Students do not always pay attention, especially during long lectures.
They lose interest, because they do not feel like they are learning, or
sometimes they do not care about what is being taught. Being an effective teacher is not always a simple task.
In many cases, an introductory CS class is a general requirement,
therefore, a diverse student body is enrolled; not just CS majors. A
common complaint among students is that the material is not interesting. Many people studying pedagogical techniques agree that “
students who are new to computer science typically find the field full of
theoretical, technical, or even tedious concepts” [ 6]. The lack of interest is likely attributed to the large number of building blocks, such as
procedures, syntax, and algorithms that are initially taught to students
so that they can apply these to more complex and interesting problems. Since the students are exposed to this type of information at the
beginning of their studies, students who have no initial motivation to
learn the basic CS concepts lose interest in the subject early on.
Concepts not Easily Taught
Applicability an incentive for students to learn; the lack of it can make
a course seem irrelevant. Still, this is not the only factor that limits their
motivation to learn. CS concepts can be difficult, at first, because they
are typically alien. Students often need lots of time to gain enough familiarity with the material to understand and apply a concept. In some
disciplines, this can be solved by requiring the students to perform laboratory experiments. However, experimentation is difficult for entry-level
CS students. The students must know a programming language to experiment with concepts taught in the classroom, which can add to the
frustration of learning things that cannot be immediately tested.
Short Attention Span
In order to adequately expose students to CS concepts, they need to
get their hands in the proverbial Computer Science dirt: they must
learn both the theory and the syntax to apply the ideas. The instructor
must put in more effort to involve students who are not initially interested in the class to keep their attention. Steve Wolfman, of the
University of Washington (UW), says “there is a need to jar people at
the beginning of each class to shift them from what they have been
doing to what we are going to be doing” [ 5].
In 2002, Wolfman was given the Excellence of Teaching Award by
UW. The UW Computer Science and Engineering Department Chair,
David Notkin, says that “Steve has outperformed—by a substantial
amount—every faculty member who has taught the other 114 recorded
offerings of these courses” [ 5]. Wolfman has shown that using atypical
techniques to shift the students’ attention is effective and that such a
shift is especially important for instructors who teach first year college
students. Usually, these students take classes in many different subjects
in a given semester and may have difficulty switching their modes of
thinking. For example, an instructor’s effectiveness decreases if some of
the students are worrying about a physics exam that took place earlier
in the day. Gaining their attention takes up a significant percentage of
the course and leaves the professor less time to actually teach. Recently,
the computer science department at Rose-Hulman has moved the
entry-level CS course from four 50-minute blocks to two 100-minute
blocks, because it took students too long to get settled into the class.
This has since proven beneficial because the students are spending a
smaller percentage of the class period setting up and adjusting to the
new subject matter, thus giving instructors more time to teach.
Various Learning Styles
Bonwell and Eison claim that “some cognitive research has shown that
a significant number of individuals have learning styles best served by