Between a rock and a crazy place

First-year introductory course for programming

28 Sep 2013

tl;dr: I gave a very introductory programming course and saw once again how the basic ideas underlying the modernization of teaching just work when implemented right.

This last week I organized a (very basic) introductory course on programming for our first-year students. I was set on C++ because it is the language used in the introductory lecture and we wanted to give people with absolutely no background in programming or proper use of a computer the necessary tools to start in this lecture on mostly equal grounds to people who already took a basic computer science course in school. We had five days, with 3 hours a day to try to reach that goal, which is a very limited amount of time for such a course and we had 50 participants.

The whole concept of the course was very modern (at least for our universities standards) - instead of just giving lectures, telling people about syntax and stuff we divided up the whole course into 19 lessons, each of which was worked at mostly independent. That had two big advantages (and was very positively perceived): First, the amount of time, we needed to spend lecturing and doing frontal presentations was minimized to about half an hour over all the course. The saved time could be invested in individual tutoring. This enabled us to react to every student needing help in a few seconds, using only about 3-4 senior students (with mostly pretty minimal background themselves actually) to teach.

Second the students where able to just work in their own speed without external pressure or a limit on the time spent on any lesson. Missing deadlines for lessons meant more experimentation, less competition amongst the students, less stress and less pressure to finish with all lessons in time. The course was not designed to be finished, so even though many students didn't reach the last lesson, I think the additional experimentation (combined with a less content-driven curriculum) added much more value for the students.

The content also was rather different from what you usually read in tutorials or get in lectures at the university. Instead of systematically developing syntax and different language constructs, we used the language less then the object to learn, but the mean to learn basic skills needed, when tackling a programming lecture (basically: „How do I start“ and „what can I do, if it doesn't work?“). We introduced every lesson with about a page of text, describing the key constructs underlying the object of that lesson, gave some basic code-examples and (without explaining the details of the syntax) then presented some basic exercises, which could be mastered without much understanding of what was happening, but which ensured the reproduction needed, to properly learn the syntactic device or the idea. We then added some playfull, very open exercises, where through experimentation and through their own mistakes the students where supposed to discover themselves the more intricate details of the subject matter. Thematically we restricted the syntax to the absolute minimum to get some basic, but fun and usefull programms to work (for example, we introduced only one kind of loop, and we introduced only the datatypes int, bool, std::string and double, as well as arrays thereof)

Though this all might sound fairly „new-agey“, it worked remarkably well. We saw a fair amount of experimentation, we saw very creative solutions to seemingly easy and straightforward, we got very positive feedback and though we introduced many special subjects (for example debuggers, online references and detailed lectures and exercises on how to read manpages or error output of the compiler), I think it is fair to say, that we reached at least the level of proficiency and confidence as the more traditional courses we held the last years had.

So, the bottomline is: We took a very huge bite out of the ideas and thoughts underlying the ongoing effort in europe to modernize teaching at universities (The „Bologna Process“, as it's known at least here in germany) and though I totally agree, that the implementation of these guidelines at the universities is currently pretty misguided and plain bad, I once again feel confirmed in my view, that if you put some effort into it and really use what the underlying ideas of bologna are (instead of just picking up, what you hear from the media about it), you can create a really kick-ass curriculum, that is both more fun and more informative at the same time.

All used content is on github, if you are interested in what exactly we used in the course.