Category Archives: reflections

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.

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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.

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.