Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Assessing Active Alternatives for Teaching Programming

Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Assessing Active Alternatives for Teaching Programming

Article excerpt

Literature Review

History and Definitions

In the introductory chapter of their book on cooperative learning, Millis and Cottel present an excellent history and rationale for learning as a social affair. In the early 1990s researchers, such as Slavin, Astin, and the team of Johnson, Johnson and Smith, synthesized studies conducted during the 1980s (Millis & Cottell, 1998). Their conclusions continue to ring true as cooperative learning has been soundly researched across disciplines; learning within the context of a group of peers is at least as effective as lecture for content knowledge gain, attitudinal changes are positive, and students gain important interpersonal skills. The terms "collaborative" and "cooperative" are often used interchangeably. When a difference is noted, "cooperative" is usually considered a subset, or stepping stone, to the broader "collaborative." For this paper, cooperative learning consists of a structured environment wherein the instructor is a constant facilitator amidst student peer groups whose members work on group processing of specified problems, are responsible for preparation as individuals, and employ team skills. The term "peer learning" will be used to mean the same. This definition does not insist upon group grading or prescribed group composition.

Active learning literature emerged as a specific subject heading in the early 1990s, often cross-referencing earlier cooperative learning studies. However, the two are not the same. Though active learning is often a component of cooperative learning when peer groups work together during class, active learning can be conducted without groups. The most often quoted definition of active learning, coined by Bonwell and Eison in 1991, is "anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about things they are doing" (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). It can include short and frequent pauses in lecture for reflection, sharing, summarizing, and extending, and works well in large lecture halls or small classrooms. Entire class periods can be devoted to an active approach with students working individually or in groups. Structure of the environment (class meetings, the curriculum, and assessment) is a factor deemed critical to the success of active learning (Miller, Groccia, & Wilkes, 1996).

Evidence of Change in Computing Disciplines

In the disciplines of CIS and CS software development courses have traditionally been taught as lecture or lecture + lab/discussion, using theory-based textbooks with examples, and assessed with individually assigned programming problems and tests. In the mid 90s self-paced, highly annotated tutorials became textbooks options. A variety of factors impact the learning environment of computer information systems (CIS) and computer science (CS) courses: subject complexity, student culture, faculty composition and philosophy, technology integration, institutional infrastructure, a dynamic subject, and high industry expectations. Given this setting, educators may be reluctant to risk change an instructional process in place for years.

While student teams were sometimes used for out of class work on sizable projects, cooperative and active learning, as defined in this paper, were generally not introduced until the mid 1990s. An early presentation on teaching approaches in 1994 by Dutt described use of programming teams, a combination of traditional lecture and group exercises, and group testing in a beginning programming course. Students assessed it as a positive experience and realized team synergy (Dutt, 1994). In 1996 McConnell speaks of active learning in CS using modified lectures (brief lectures interspersed with reflective questions or sharing), algorithm tracing exercises, and physical activities to simulate computer processing. Results of his controlled, multivariate experiments in an introductory programming course were that active learning students had higher exams scores. …

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