Democracy/Student Choice and the Computing Classroom
When multiple implementations
are possible, algorithmic analysis
may be challenging.
Although some topics may fit well
with programming assignments,
other topics (e.g., the analysis of
algorithms) may be difficult to
explore within a programming
In-class Small Groups
• Students work in class on problem sets
in groups (following a type of flipped
• Answers might be written up individually or by the group.
• Answers might be presented in class.
Mechanisms for presenting answers
need to be discussed by the class.
Presentations could be on the same
day or during the next class.
Over the years, I have utilized several
(but not all) of these class formats, and I
have combined ideas of several within a
In his 1835 and 1840 classic, Democracy in
America (volumes 1 and 2) [ 5], Alexis de
Tocqueville described a danger of the “tyr-
anny of the majority,” a situation in which
decisions of a majority may undermine
the rights, well-being, or needs of minority
groups. Applied to student choice and
the possibility of democracy in a course
setting, one reviewer of this column noted
that a possible consequence of a strict
means that the course structure will
be determined based upon what
the majority believes will best meet
their needs. This might negate some
of our goals of making sure that all
students have the opportunity to
succeed. For example, consider if a
class voted to make all the examples
be based upon violent, first-person
shooters. There might be negative
consequences for that for students
who do not like these games.
In my own experiences involving
student choices, I believe I have provid-
ed parameters and structures to avoid
potential pitfalls—often finding alternative
approaches that seem to satisfy perspec-
tives of the entire class. However, when in-
corporating student choices and elements
of democracy within a course, an instructor
will need to anticipate the potential issues
raised generally by de Tocqueville and spe-
cifically within courses by the reviewer.
Does a classroom setting provide an
example of a democracy? Obviously not:
an instructor is in control. A single course
must fit within an overall curriculum, content may be dictated by CS2013 or other
standards, later courses may rely upon
competencies developed in earlier courses,
However, at least with small or mod-erate-sized enrollments, elements of a
course may allow student choice.
• Applications of fundamental approaches and structures may cater to student
• Courses that highlight processes may
allow substantial flexibility regarding
• Even with course content reasonably
fixed, students may be given options
regarding class format, pedagogy, individual versus group work, the nature of
At least in my experience, providing stu-
dents with some options can boost morale,
add motivation, encourage active engage-
ment, and allow students to explore their
interests. Of course, local environments and
demands from high enrollments may limit
options for student choice but providing
some choice can have positive outcomes—
at least in some circumstances.
The author thanks the reviewers of this article for both
high-level suggestions and detailed comments about
1. ACM/IEEE-CS Task Force on Computing Curricula,
Computing Curricula 2013, ACM and IEEE Computer
2. College Board, AP® Computer Science Principles:
Course and Exam Description, updated Fall
ap-computer-science-principles-course-and-exam-description.pdf?course=ap-computer-science-principles. Accessed 2018 June 15.
3. Mountain Goat Software, Scrum; http://www.
2018 May 18.
4. de Tocquville, A., Democracy in America, Volumes 1
and 2, 1835 and 1840.
Henry M. Walker
Dept of Math and Computer
Grinnell, Iowa 50112 USA
DOI: 10.1145/3233187 Copyright held by author.
The last two times I taught an upper-level
algorithms course, I began the semester
highlighting five distinct class formats that
might be considered … Over the years, I
have utilized several (but not all) of these
class formats, and I have combined ideas
of several within a single course.