Dr Simon Katan (Computing) reports on his project of last year:
Having observed many under-practiced student programmers in my teaching career, the tell-tale signs are obvious: slow and error riddled typing, poor mouse control, unfamiliarity with cut and paste patterns, disorganised screen space, poor workflow. Compared to the required conceptual learning these skills might seem trivial. However, my experience as a former music teacher tells me that fluency and conceptual learning are strongly interrelated. Time and again I encounter students who are overwhelmed with theoretical learning before having achieved basic fluency. Concepts develop in fingers as well as heads.
Just as in music, developing fluency requires repetitive practice, and this is where things become difficult for us lecturers. The burden of creating enough exercises and marking them places an upper limit on how much practice we can facilitate. We also face the problem of how to motivate our students.
To address all this TaLIC funded me to create CSI Goldsmiths, a gamified programme of learning consisting of 24 film noir-themed code puzzles. Students play the role of a police cadet rising through the ranks of the force by solving code crimes.
The puzzles are automatically marked. Not only does this save a lot of work, it also allows the students to repeatedly improve attempts in response to automatic feedback. In another feature the puzzles are varied slightly with each download. Each variant presents the same problem but with the detail changed. To improve their score students solve multiple variants of each puzzle. They also have a dashboard to keep track of their progress. The result is an environment which facilitates and motivates repetitive practice.
I tried all of this out last term with our cohort of 278 undergraduate students last term with some interesting results. 57% of students said they found the assignment difficult, whilst 58% of students scored above 60% on the assignment. 61% of students believed that they spent more time on this than other assignments, and the majority of students disliked the repetition. However, the majority also agreed that the assignment had helped them – practice is always something of a bitter pill. The real test for effectiveness will be in the students’ performance and fluency this term.