Date Posted: 4/27/2020

As the university has shifted to virtual instruction in the wake of Covid-19, CS Professor Emeritus David Gries and Senior Lecturer Michael Clarkson ’10 have transformed their approach to teaching CS 2110 Object-Oriented Programming and Data Structures. As an indication of their successful transition, a student in the class posted to Reddit “I appreciate that they listened to student feedback and changed things, and explained all of their decisions. That kind of communication and transparency should be a model for the rest of the school.” So that others, beyond the classroom and in other classrooms, can benefit from a glimpse of their model, CS News inquired about what steps they have taken. Gries and Clarkson kindly replied with the following notes from their experience:

1. In redesigning the course, we have emphasized learning and compassion over grades and logistics. We made careful choices about which topics to emphasize based on the learning objectives of the course, streamlined the remaining assignments, eliminated a prelim and final in favor of weekly quizzes with clearly defined scope, and produced a series of short lecture videos with interspersed check-your-understanding quizlets.

2. Organization can be a real challenge for students right now. We have tried to make it easy for them. We have communicated changes in the course structure clearly, early, and frequently.  

3. Listening closely to student feedback has been a priority for us. We launched an anonymous suggestion box before virtual instruction began, and we frequently review the ideas found there.  We also get suggestions through Piazza, and yes, even Reddit. The anonymous feedback and suggestions we get help us understand the struggles students are facing. When possible, we adapt the course to reduce unnecessary stress.

4. We take time to explain not just what we’re doing in redesigning the course but why we are doing it, when it becomes clear that changes have become a stumbling block for students. We’ve found that the class is quick to understand (and forgive) when we articulate the tradeoffs that are involved with virtual instruction.

5. We admit our mistakes. When we got negative feedback after the first two weekly quizzes, indicating that students were stressed out, we changed the quiz design to ease stress while still effectively assessing what students are learning. We publicly explained our reasoning and apologized for the stress. One student publicly responded, “Thank you for actually listening to your students’ worries; it really shows how much you care about us.”

6. Our course staff of fifty-one TAs and consultants have been critical to making virtual instruction work, and especially to providing one-on-one human interaction. Our TAs are conducting weekly interactive recitation sections on Zoom. Students are benefiting from virtual help on programming assignments through Zoom and Piazza. Our course Piazza is used even more heavily now, but the average time for an instructor to respond to a student request is only fifty seconds.

7. Virtual instruction has increased the workload on instructors. Fortunately, the two of us work well together and have complementary strengths. We share the load together, and we take turns at keeping different parts of the course moving. We keep in synch on communications with students and do our best to respond to student emails within a few hours. And even if there are times we have differing thoughts about how to make virtual instruction work, we trust each other and put the students’ needs first. That never fails.