Beautiful Questions and Big Ideas

This is the first of several posts summarizing ideas from this year’s jmUDESIGN, the annual Backward Design institute offered by JMU’s Center for Faculty Innovation (CFI).

Start at the end

The first stage of backward design is to figure out where you want to go, but not in the way that most faculty think. If you asked most faculty what this would mean, they would probably answer that they start with the content they need to cover and the objectives they have been given by their department, accrediting body, or professional society. This is completely the WRONG thing to do.

The problem with this approach is that it embodies a content-centric teaching philosophy, in contrast to a learner-centered philosophy. One of the key changes to make when adopting a learner-centered teaching philosophy is to reconsider the role of the content. The content is the medium, not the goal.

Instead of starting with the content, the goal of a learner-centered teacher practicing backward design is to consider where you want the students to end up. You need to craft a vision of how you want you students to change, because that is ultimately the goal: Learning is a change in the functional capacity of the students. In any class, students will change and they will learn. But that change and learning might not be the type you intend. In backward design, then, you start by crafting a vision of what you want that change to be. Once that is done, you can move on to aligning your objectives and practices with your vision.

Big Ideas and Beautiful Questions

To get started with crafting your vision, you start the backward design process by crafting a 5 Year Dream, which is an explicit articulation of what you see for yourself and your students 5 years after the course. When articulating your 5 Year Dream, you should consider what you want your students to know, be able to do, and find value in. For instance, in my OS course, my 5 Year Dream includes students appreciating and applying principles of locality and separation of implementation from interface.

Once your 5 Year Dream is established, you should consider how it relates to your course. There are two separate ways of framing this discussion, and you should use one that works for you. One approach is to define Beautiful Questions. A beautiful question is one that leads students to deep learning and encourages the development of connections between content and life. Here are some examples of beautiful questions from various disciplines (some are directly from this year’s jmUDESIGN):

  • Biology: How do tanning beds increase one’s risk of cancer? How has antibacterial soap contributed to deaths caused by superbugs like MRSA? Why is direct access to genetic testing causing some families to fall apart?
  • Social work and sociology: Is there a right way to “do family?” Why are some communities and individuals more likely to relapse into drug addiction?
  • Political science: How will clashes between state and federal laws about marijuana impact cancer patients? Why did the Supreme Court determine that same sex marriage bans violate the Constitution?

As an alternative to beautiful questions, another approach is to identify Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings. A big idea is a major overarching theme or concept, whereas enduring understandings are statements that you would be embarrassed if your students missed it. Many faculty in STEM fields find this framework very appealing. Here are some examples:

  • Big Idea: The theory of evolution. Enduring Understanding: Variations in species have emerged through the natural selection resulting from millions of years of reproduction.
  • Big Idea: Force. Enduring Understanding: The force applied on an object is measured by the mass of the object and the acceleration it experiences (F = ma).
  • Big Idea: Virtual memory. Enduring Understanding: An OS provides processes with the illusion of a contiguous memory space even though data is actually stored in many separate places.


For more information on Beautiful Questions and Big Ideas, as well as getting started with learner-centered teaching, I recommend the following books:


Backward Design Institute

This week is jmUDESIGN, a week-long course redesign institute for faculty. The institute is based on the principles of backward course design, primarily influenced by the work of Dee Fink. I went through this institute 2 years ago, and this is now my second time as a group facilitator. It’s a valuable program that has been very influential in my career development as a faculty member.

The essence of backward design is to start with your Big Ideas or Beautiful Questions (BI/BQ) and work backward toward designing your course structure. From BI/BQ, the next step is to define significant Learning Outcomes (LOs). These should go beyond just understanding concepts, but should be crafted to explain what you want your students to do with what they learn. The theme for this part of the institute is the 5-Year Dream, which encourages you to reflect on what they should do and know 5 years after your course is over. How do you want your students to change because of your course?

Next, we move to crafting both formative and summative assessments that are aligned with your LOs. At that point, we examine our pedagogical choices and practices to ensure that our classrooms are properly aligned to our goals.

Backward design is a fascinating concept to me because it is exactly what we should do when designing courses, but don’t. The week is exhausting, thought-provoking, inspirational, and a lot of fun. Even though this is my third time through the process, I am still learning and developing even deeper understanding of who I am as a teacher and what I want for my students. Over the next couple of posts, I’ll highlight a couple of interesting ideas that I am taking away from this week.

Flipping tip – The role of source material

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that my experience this semester was unique. I converted my Computer Organization course to a flipped classroom using Team-Based Learning (TBL), while also taking a Physics class that was taught in a flipped style. As such, I got to experience both sides of the flipped classroom model at the same time. (Confession: They do it better, but hopefully just because they’ve had more practice.)

This was the first time I taught Computer Organization as a TBL course. To help students prepare for each module, I gave reading assignments along with a guide of questions to discuss beforehand. The discussion never quite emerged to be as interactive as I would have liked, but the students did complete the readings and were in a good position to start the modules. Overall, I am quite pleased with the results and feel confident that those who completed the course took a lot from it. However, my Physics experience tells me that there I still made their lives a lot harder than may have been necessary.

In the Physics class, we were assigned 3-5 videos to watch before every class, each video ranging from 3 to 12 minutes (5-6 was typically). Generally, the total time commitment was less than 20 minutes. The videos were critical to the success of the class. They brought the equations to life, illustrating the manifestation of the concepts rather than just the calculations. (Granted, not all videos were created equal. Some videos, particularly those that were 10-minute mathematical derivations, were less enlightening.)

There were times where I used videos in my course, to great success and relief from the students. Yes, they’re a lot of work (I estimate 8 hours for each 15 minutes of video). But you can get a lot of reuse out of them, particularly if they’re not closely bound to a particular programming language or architecture. I plan on reusing some of these for my Operating Systems course this fall and for some other courses.

But I can hear the collective voice of faculty everywhere: What about the textbook? Why can’t they just read that? Shouldn’t it be a learning objective that they develop their skills reading technical sources?

Absolutely. I very much believe that they need to learn how to read source material. However, I don’t think this can be accomplished by edict. Rather, I believe we need to make this skill a more explicit learning objective and provide scaffolding to support it. Videos can serve that role. They should not be perceived as a replacement for the textbook. Rather, the emphasis should be that videos illustrate main concepts while the text provides the details.

It’s incredibly tempting to think that reading guides can serve this role. Provide them with a list of questions that they need to answer as they read, possibly with some hints about what major points to think about. The problem with reading guides is that they are using the same language as the text: words and concepts the students don’t yet understand. And frankly, my view is this: If the students aren’t reading the textbook, are they really going to read your guide in a meaningful way?

I’m going to audaciously suggest that we in the active learning community underestimate the importance of source material supports. When flipping the classroom, we focus on changing our in-class activities, homework, and projects. That is, we put all of our work into refining the things that we and our students will do. We do not put nearly enough thought into what resources our students will use.

So, if you are thinking about flipping your course, you need to re-evaluate your relationship with textbooks and other source material. You will probably find that you need to provide additional support in the form of videos. Yes, they’re a LOT of work. But they really help the students progress. And it’s okay if they suck. I’ve produced some pretty bad videos in the past, and the students still loved them.

Flipping tip: Respect students and team dynamics

“This is physics by intimidation.”

That Monday had started like many others, with most students a little groggy and not quite fully alert. I could offer my own rationalization, such as how I was up until 2 AM the night before working on my own classes. But that’s beside the point: our students are often exhausted from balancing commitments. So we were all in the same boat, a little bit too tired to process details about (as I recall) inelastic collisions.

As we did every day, we formed our teams of 4 to start working on the day’s problems. Our team was often quiet, as we read the problems and thought for a bit before discussing how to tackle them. Somehow, our silence seemed to strike a nerve with the instructor that day, and he decided to tower over our table and drill us on the questions.

We all answered the first one, quite confidently. Instead of any acknowledgement, he immediately demanded the answer to the next one. Our answer was slightly more hesitant, but came out nonetheless. No break. What’s the third answer. We just lost one student responding. What’s the fourth. Now we’re down to two half-hearted attempts. The fifth. Mumbles. The sixth. Then came the gut punch:

“This is physics by intimidation. Now. What is the answer to the next question?”

I had been uncertain about our response on the fifth, so I looked down to re-read it and try to clarify it in my mind. As I was deliberating, I heard fingers snapping. “Hey. Buddy. What is your answer on [the sixth question]?”

“Actually, I haven’t looked at that one yet, because I’m still trying to make sense of [some detail about the fifth question].”

“Fine. You go ahead and work at your own pace. You can do whatever you want.”

[Editorial note: I really wish there was an obvious font for expressing condescension. I guess italics will have to suffice.]

I was dismissed. A figurative wave of the hand to exclude me from his tutorial. But my teammates weren’t. For the next 20 minutes (yes, I kept watching the time), he stood by the side of our table, occasionally interjecting comments about how wrong an answer was.

As a student, I was infuriated. Our group had a quality working dynamic. We weren’t exuberant in our discussions, and we probably spent a lot more time in quiet reflection than anyone else in the class. But that was our dynamic, and it had been working. Instead of letting it work, his intervention disrupted it and ejected me from that day’s discussions.

As a faculty member and education researcher, I was embarrassed. I cannot think of any sound pedagogical reason to berate a team this way. I can give him a small benefit of doubt and state that he may have legitimately thought we were not working. As I said, our preferred modus operandus did not exhibit the outward activity that many flipped classroom groups do. Regardless, there were many, many superior ways to address such a concern.

In the end, I felt (and still feel) that this particular instructor does not respect students. He routinely makes comments that make students wince. I have no doubt that he believes it to be wit. But that doesn’t matter when you’re an instructor. Your students’ perceptions of your classroom IS the reality of your classroom.

So how do you avoid this? I have a few tips/observations:

  1. In a flipped classroom, you are handing over responsibility. When students are forming their teams, allow them to establish the standard process of working and respect it.
  2. Offer guidance, not intimidation. Instead of demanding answers, ask more questions: “What information do you need to get started with this problem?” “What is unclear about the instructions here?”
  3. Trust and respect your students. If you don’t, do not be surprised when they fail to trust or respect you.

I wish I could say that this was a freak occurrence and everything returned to normal after that, but I can’t. Two students missed the next class, having not missed a day previously (we were more than half-way through the semester). Within two weeks, one of them disappeared and never returned. Another one made it to class every 3 or 4 days.

Ultimately, our group–which had previously been quite successful and enjoyable–never functioned again. As it turns out, intimidation is an easy way to destroy students’ motivation. In a flipped classroom, that is the death knell of learning.


I am a college drop-in

I am sure they are being picky, reading more into casual responses than is really there. But since we students are so vulnerable in the relationship [with our teacher] and the verbal exchange is so rare, we have to read meaning into things like smiles and frowns and recognizing an uplifted hand. Those very subtle gestures are all part of the process of teaching. Somehow, we students need to tell our teachers that we notice everything–every word, every action.

That quote comes from Cliff Schimmels’s book I Was a High School Drop-In, in which Schimmels documents his experience as an educational philosopher enrolling as a high school freshman. Schimmels had spent years studying and teaching how to teach effectively prior to this experiment. By enrolling as a student, he gained greater insight by seeing a different perspective of high school.

I mention this book because I can relate. I am a college drop-in. I haven’t enrolled full-time or anything of the sort, but I enrolled in calculus-based physics classes last semester and this semester. For a variety of reasons, I never took physics, or at least never learned it. For complete disclosure, I took physics in high school, but the trauma of our teacher’s suicide meant that I didn’t really learn anything from the class. And I didn’t have to take it in college, being a mathematics and CS student (thus, no need for a quantitative science general education requirement).

Regardless of the history, this was a hole in my education. And I finally decided to do something about it. I managed to spend half a decade working in semiconductor engineering, as well as published research and taught courses in embedded systems, without ever understanding force or electromagnetism. I’m not sure how, but I did. So I decided that enough is enough and enrolled.

And it has been eye-opening.

For starters, I can attest to what Schimmels describe above and go beyond. The little things really matter. If your students are quiet on a Monday morning and you get impatient and try to prod them, they will notice your tone and shut down. If you make a quip that you think is witty but could possibly be interpreted as condescension, I can guarantee you it will come across as the latter. If you make mistakes on the board when working out problems, it will damage the trust your students have in you (though that’s a discussion for another day).

There are many other insights that I plan to discuss in detail, but I wanted to lay this out as motivation and background for those posts. For now, I will say that I think it would be a valuable experience for every college professor who values teaching to take the time to enroll in a course–and make it one that will actually push you and make you work–as a student. The effect of this experience, if undertaken with good faith, cannot be understated.

Flipping tip: process matters

This semester, I converted one of my courses to Team-Based Learning (TBL). I’ve dabbled with TBL (or parts of it) in previous semesters, but this was the first time I’d tried it in this class. If you’re not familiar with TBL, the first thing to note is that TBL does NOT just mean using teams in class. It’s a specific process as follows:

  1. The course is broken up into 5-7 modules that each take about 2-3 weeks.
  2. Each module starts with a Readiness Assurance Process (RAP) that requires pre-reading and holds the students accountable for it on the first day. To assist in this, I give out a reading guide that includes key questions for them to consider. The rest of the module is spent on in-class application activities.
  3. Students are assigned to persistent, diverse teams for the entire semester.

The  RAP includes an individual test (iRAT), team test (tRAT), and clarifying instruction. What I’ve found from this semester’s experience is just how critical the RAP is to the success of the module and the course as a whole. While module 1 went decently (it’s always expected to be a transition), module 2 was a disaster. No one had done the readings ahead of time, so they weren’t prepared to use the concepts on activities. The blame for this falls solely at my feet. I didn’t adequately explain the process.

So I took a mid-semester break and showed them this flow chart:

TBL Process

I also gave them these pieces of advice for completing the readings:

  • Start by reading all questions, get a feel for terms
  • Skim the reading assignment to identify where to find information
  • Try to answer SOME questions on a scrap of paper
  • Read the assignment in a bit more detail, checking answers
  • Propose an answer to a single question
  • Monitor others’ responses and verify their responses
  • Ask follow-up questions for questions you doubt

To me, these seemed like no-brainers. CS textbooks are, in general, awful. They are dry, boring material. They have mistakes or opinions masquerading as facts. They are not necessarily written with scaffolding and conceptual reinforcement in mind. And yet, many students had been approaching them as novels, reading the chapter from beginning to end.

Since giving out these tips and explaining the process in detail, the turn-around has been dramatic. In fact, the midterm grades for this group far exceeded those of previous years. But for that to happen, they must understand the process. Just putting it on the syllabus and hoping for the best won’t work.

From this observation, I’ve come up with an idea to try in future semesters: Have a module 0 that serves as an introduction to the course. Include a custom 2-page reading assignment with multiple pages and clearly marked terms and sections. At the start of the second page, include a statement such as the following:

If you read the first page in its entirety, you should reconsider how you approach reading assignments. If you would check the reading guide, you’ll notice that none of the material from the first page is mentioned in the questions.

If you are considering a flipped classroom model, it is critical that you work early in the semester to train your students to follow the process. If you don’t, you will experience disastrous modules and/or courses.

Motivation and what to expect

As an undergraduate, I went to a professor’s office hours once for clarification on a certain topic. I had attended the lectures, but there was some aspect that just didn’t make sense. Here was the professor’s response, as close to verbatim as I can manage (it was almost 20 years ago!):

I know, I didn’t explain that well. The truth is, I suck at teaching. I hate it. The only reason that I teach is because they make me. It’s the only way that I can get to do my research.

And that, in a nutshell, has been my professional motivation for the past two decades. I love computer science (CS) and mathematics, particularly at the undergraduate level. But the traditional way that these and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines are taught is ineffective. This is not news, either to those who have taken STEM courses or those who research undergraduate education. I think that is unfortunate.

Even before I completed my B.A. many, many moons ago, I established one professional goal: to teach undergraduate CS, and to do it better than those who taught me. I’ve achieved that. I am now in my fourth year as a CS professor, surviving the tenure process at an institution designated as a comprehensive Master’s university. In our department, that means primarily teaching three undergraduate sections per semester. In contrast to major research universities, our promotion and tenure process is based primarily on teaching excellence. Yet, unlike exclusively teaching schools, we continue to engage in research within our discipline. Thus, we get a nice blend of the two. I’m proud to be where I am, and I love working in an institution that values teaching.

But I’m not done.

Since becoming a professor, I’ve learned how little I knew about teaching, despite the fact that I spent 26 years in school! I knew CS subject matter inside and out. I gave interesting lectures that included jokes where students actually laughed. I assigned complex projects that challenged students. I treated my students with respect and knew they’d respond by taking all of my lessons to heart. In short, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not sure that I do yet, but I think I’m on the right path.

So here I am, a not-yet-jaded faculty member in a fascinating and fast-moving discipline that has a burgeoning education research community. I am also fortunate that my institution and department doesn’t just tolerate my focus on CS education research, they actually welcome it. This is my scholarly focus, and I am constantly learning how to get better. And now that I have published works in multiple CS education conferences, with more work in progress, I feel comfortable referring to myself as a CSEd researcher, in addition to CS professor.

So I’m not done yet, because I still think that we don’t know how to teach CS. There’s a lot we do know, but there’s still a lot to learn. And that is my goal: to learn how to teach CS effectively, particularly in a way that opens computing up for broad participation. I also want to help others do this.

That’s primarily what to expect here. I’ll be creating a mashup of terms ranging from binary representation to neo-Piagetian learning theory, from memory management to flipped classrooms, from buffer overflows to concept inventories. Hopefully, I’ll provide enough context that the signal makes it through the noise and a variety of readers can make sense of my posts.

Along the way, there will be diversions that may get political at times. Unfortunately, the current state of politics does impact our ability to teach CS, and I try to keep tabs on current events. I can only promise that I will try to keep those discussions civil.

So, welcome, and let’s get started.