Glencora Borradaile

         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

October 14, 2011

Death by Powerpoint

In my grad algorithms course, I am teaching in an increasingly Socratic way (not all the way there yet) and covering less material as well.  Well, going through fewer examples.  In my freshman “Orientation to Computer Science” course, I am doing this much less so.  I find it challenging because, while the material is quite easy, I have no idea of the background of the students.  How do you teach Socratically to a group of students, a third of whom already know what you are teaching and a third who think you are speaking Greek?  I’ve still managed to keep the classroom somewhat interactive, but it definitely needs work.  Maybe next year.

But it came to a screeching sleep-inducing halt on Wednesday.  I needed/wanted to teach the students basic computer architecture.  Now, this is a topic that I have somehow escaped learning anything but the most basic of knowledge about.  I scrounged up some slides online as a starting point and decided the only way I too could teach this material is with slides.  I never teach with slides.  This really was only the second time.  The first time was for a 15-minute teaching sample I had to give during an interview in which they refused to provide anything other than a projector.  I was glad to have asked.

It’s a bad sign that I was bored by lecture.  The students certainly didn’t look any better. Never again.

Of course, about an hour after the lecture – having learned, digested, taught the material – I realized there definitely is a way to cover basic computer architecture Socratically and, in retrospect – as this was the one topic that was new to everyone in the class – this may have been the one place that I could have really teach in a deep, meaningful way.

Oh well.  Next time.

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  1.   Suresh Venkat — October 14, 2011 @ 10:47 am    

    How many students do you typically have in grad algorithms ? I’ve tried the Socratic method, but it doesn’t scale to (now) 73 people

  2.   Glencora — October 14, 2011 @ 11:08 am    

    73 is huge! I shouldn’t ever complain – I have 33 in my grad algorithms course this quarter. I alternate Socratic-lectures with problem solving sessions that use peer instruction in parallel on many different problems. For that I can get through 2 questions in series with 6 groups of 4-6 in 2 hours with 2 people (myself and a well-trained TA). That part could scale if you had enough good TAs.

    I’m thinking of trying the Moore Method, or a variation thereof, in my grad topics class later this year …

  3.   Suresh Venkat — October 14, 2011 @ 11:39 am    

    Interesting. I don’t know if theoryCS topics are structured well enough for the Moore method to work !

    •   Glencora — October 14, 2011 @ 5:38 pm    

      Well, I think it will be closer to the “Ryan Method” in practice. I’m not sure I’ll have the guts to try it though …

  4.   Jeremy — October 17, 2011 @ 5:08 am    

    Heya Cora.

    1. When given only a projector, you can use a tablet PC as a virtual board and continue with an “interactive” style lecture. And of course you can always combine slides (make them available to students before class!) with writing on them and on white pages (I think that’s what I did at my talk at your university).

    2. The “Professor Asks, Students Answer” model falls apart for >20 students, but then you should consider Peer Instructing, where “Professor Asks, Students Discuss”. See the introductory videos from Eric Mazur “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer” (short or long If you can convince your students to do the reading before class (not presented in the video, Eric has good online tools for that), each pair of students discussing implement the Socrate way of learning.

    •   Glencora — October 17, 2011 @ 5:56 am    

      I definitely use versions of PI in my graduate class. Although, graduate or no, I have never had any luck getting (a majority of) students to do any reading before. As for this class – I think it is really hard to implement non-standard teaching when you don’t know what the students know, you don’t know what they should learn, you don’t know where they usually have difficulty learning what they need to learn, etc. etc. I think a better solution than what I have been doing (teach first, fix later) is to sit through (most of) the class before you teach it. But for that to happen, you need to know that you are teaching the class before you are teaching the class.

  5.   Daniel Lin — December 8, 2011 @ 12:03 am    

    Hello Professor,

    This is Daniel Lin from your CS 160 class. I accidentally lingered here and thought I will give you my two cents on this post. I think that the reason why we are bored ( ofcourse, this is just a perspective from me, and does not necessary represent the class) is that we do not understand. I think that even though you did a good job of thinking that the “top tier one third of the class” will understand what you talked about in class, but I think that it is also vital to not heisitate and go back to the most basic of CS and start from there and slowly build up the difficulty. Even though the top tier students might be bored, however those students do not represent the class as a whole and it is sometiems quite dangerous to crank up the course difficulty during the first few weeks of class to make them feel not bored. Therefore, I think, you should, instead of going Socratic, go a bit like a piano professor, start from the basic, and help the students build a solid ground work so they will have no trouble in CS 161. I remember my piano professor’s story about her expereince at her Conservatory during her undergraduate years, where the her Professor required all,from advanced students to prodigies, to start on the very basic of piano playing, which is tonal production. The end result, all of the students were able to play wonderfully on the piano with a clean, beautiful tone. Anyway, that is just my thought.
    Daniel Lin

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