Learning How to Learn in CS 50

Anyone momentarily tempted to lend credence to media-driven narratives of “the decline student engagement” needs to familiarize him or herself with David Malan’s Computer Science 50 course–and a good place to start would be the annual Innovations Fair that showcases the CS 50 students’ labors and learning. If you missed it this year, you can find the Gazette’s write-up here, and our own Bok TV video is embedded below.

Three things become clear in our conversations with the participants (both teachers and students):

1. The students are deeply invested in the final projects because they are solving concrete real-world problems rather than abstractions.
2. The students are engaged because they have ownership over their final projects (note the way Ben Massenburg ’11 emphasizes that the students’ capstone projects aren’t the product of “what we tell them to do”).
3. The final projects reveal not merely that the students have learned the course material, but, as Kristiana Laugen ’13 puts it, they’ve “learned how to learn,” so they can now teach themselves.

I’m particularly struck by this final point–the metacognitive leap whereby the students move from simply knowing some pre-established body of material to “knowing how to know.” But all three points resonate with some of the most widely accepted claims one finds in the recent scholarship on teaching and learning.

Those interested in creating similarly rich learning experiences in their own classes (or in exploring the research and theory that lies behind these practices) should feel free to drop by the Bok Center, either to chat with the staff about concrete tactics and strategies, or to browse through our library of recent (and classic) works on teaching and learning.

4 thoughts on “Learning How to Learn in CS 50

  1. I agree that as the author mentions there is a lot of hype around “the decline of student engagement” – what is REALLY going on is a change in engagement modality and vehicle. I study the art of studying and am currently working on making tools to engage students fully in the slices of time they have, when they have them.

    It’s the difference between accepting that the whole new generation of learners is suddenly in need of treatment for A.D.D. and realizing that it takes a different approach to get and HOLD the attention of today’s learners.

    In attempting to teach students a complex task like learning to fly an airplane – our initial topic – we found that if we could deliver the content in an “anytime anywhere multimedia education” format (audio, video, quizzes, etc) on a device that the students already have with them in most circumstances – their smartphone or more recently an iPad – we can more easily get engagement and keep it long enough to get the information imparted. We’re doing well with the tools – you can see them at http://www.anywhereeducation.com

    What did we find while doing this however? – Students allowed to learn in this “slice of time” method are able to get through the content quickly – even if they re-play certain parts multiple times to ensure they understand and do well on the mini-quizzes. They repeat the parts they want and need as often as they want.

    In other words, give today’s students the ability to learn when and how they want, and the concept of A.D.D. seems irrelevant.

  2. I think a good way to engage students more is by providing mobile web-based teaching material. Nowadays adolescents are increasingly addicted to their smartphones, so this might be a method to boost their productivity.

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