I spent a lot of in-class time doing group practice exercises during the class I taught this summer (for ruminations on summer classes in general, see this paired post). I just got my teaching evaluations back, and it looks like the students and I agree - group work was a success. To paraphrase my students, having to explain your thought process to others helps you to learn the material, plus the skills and experiences necessary to work in groups will be useful to have in the workplace. It also breaks up the in-class time so that everyone (teacher included) can use their brain in a different way and avoid that lecture class stupor. And while it does take more thought to prepare this kind of class, I'm not convinced that it actually takes more time.
So what is this group work thing I'm talking about? I did group work in three forms with my class this summer:
Short, straightforward exercises reinforcing what we just talked about, done on their own or with the people sitting near them, usually lasting about 5 minutes. After introducing an algorithm and doing a sample run of it on the board, I would often give another input instance and ask the students to run the algorithm again.
Longer, more difficult exercises applying the topic of the day with the aim of making sure all students can see a typical (easy) problem on this topic through from beginning to end, done in groups of about 4 at the boards around the classroom, usually lasting about 20 minutes, with me walking around and talking them through it when they get stuck. For example, proving that a problem is NP-complete.
Out of class group project - I'm putting off a full explanation of this project until a later post, but in short, they were asked to work in groups of 2 or 3 on a 3-week long (out of 6 weeks) in-depth project.
Practice exercises in class - isn't that what discussion sections and homework are for? Yes (though this class didn't have a discussion section). But making sure the students understand the material is important enough to do multiple times, don't you think? In fact, most algorithms classes take the time to run the algorithm on sample input, it's just usually done by the professor at the board. So it doesn't actually take much more time to have the students work on it together, but it seems to me that they're much more likely to understand it if they had to do it themselves than if they watched you (and maybe a few of the more outgoing members of the class) do it on the board. Also, as the teacher, it gives you a chance for some mental breathing space, and a chance to find out what your students are struggling with instead of just guessing.
So, are you convinced? Already a fan? I'd be interested to hear other folks' experiences and suggestions.
(Guest post by Bill Gasarch. Companion post at his blog.)
***SORELLE*** taught undergraduate algorithms in summer of 2009. I proofread her midterm, proofread her final (resulting in one question being taken off and replaced), and sat in on it (at her request) so I could see what's up. This is as good an excuse as any to talk about summer courses, and to have us guest post on each others blogs.
Is taking classes over the summer a good idea? Jamming 15 weeks into 7 weeks might make the class go fast, though if its the only class you are taking and you care about the material, this can work. If you failed it in the regular term and need to catch up and will really put the work in then that can work also.
(Personal note: I took four summer courses as an ugrad: Summer after freshman year I took multivariate calculus and Prob, Summer after Sophomore year I took Physics II and Basic Anthropology. It worked for me, but note that I cared about these subjects.)
Is teaching a class over the summer a good idea? I'll defer to ***SORELLE'S*** post for that one.
Summer courses tend to have an inverted bell curve. There are some very good students who want to get ahead. There are some very bad students who need to catch up. There are less in between.
***SORELLE*** was doing a review for the midterm. This was challenge since some of the students didn't know basic induction. So she had to walk it back to material in courses that were two courses ago! Should she have ignored those students and concentrate on the good ones? The ones that don't need review? How about the middle? I'll let her answer those thoughts.