Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

February, 2008

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    How To Study For A Computer Science Exam

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    Many years ago I came up with a personal philosophy about studying, especially cramming, for test taking. I looked at my peers and realized that a lot of them worked very hard to cram a lot of information into their heads in a short period of time to prepare for taking a test. Shortly after the test, weeks a the latest, they forgot most to all of what they had crammed into their heads. All that mattered to them was taking the test and getting a good grade on it. Now to me learning was the most important thing so any practice that didn't lead to holding the knowledge for the long term seemed at best to be wasteful. At worst I decided that short term study for a specific test or exam was hard to distinguish from cheating. After all the results of the test did not reflect what they had actually learned.

    Now I admit that some of my friends accused me of using this idea as a way to avoid work. But honestly I used this philosophy to push myself to study (read the book, pay attention in class, put time into the projects) in ways that would let me keep a higher percentage of knowledge longer. In the short term I may not always have gotten the best grades but I like to think that if we'd all taken the same test a year later without warning I would have out scored them.

    Later in life when I was writing and giving tests to my own students I wondered just how good the tests were evaluating what students really knew. One of the things that complicates cramming for students of computer science is that everything builds on everything else. A student needs to know everything they were taught in the first week of class in the last week in class. It is not like a student will be tested on variables and not need them again after the test.

    I used to tell my students that anything I had covered at any time (in the past of course) could show up on any test or quiz. Personally I would have liked to make every test a surprise test. But of course students hate that and parents would have had my head. My testing philosophy is that tests are there to help the teacher know what students have learned and what they need more help on. I'm not a big fan of grades but I am a big fan of students learning as much as possible. Only if I know what they are and are not learning can I as a teacher help students learn. Cramming seems to be a barrier to me getting that information accurately.

    Now I have helped students review for the AP CS exam. I didn't feel completely good about this but I did feel some responsible to help them do as well as possible on that important exam. It was not an easy exercise though. It is not something one can do in a day or two. I didn't mind talking about test taking strategies though. The AP CS test is complicated and has some unique characteristics. Those things one can teach and I don't really see that as cramming or studying in the conventional sense.

    For the longest time it seemed like my philosophy was unique to me. No one I explained it go seemed to agree with me. And then I found this blog post by Steven Downes Tony Targonski. There is a good little discussion there. It ends with this paragraph:

    For my last CS exam I found more benefit in relaxing, enjoying some music, and reading blogs. Though maybe I’m missing something. What does everybody else do for their exams?

    I remember in middle school when one of my teachers told the class much the same thing. That it was more important to get a good night sleep and to be as relaxed as possible before starting the exam than to drive oneself crazy cramming information that would not stay in the brain. What do you think?

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Time To Take Out The Garbage - The Interview

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    Channel 9 is one of my favorite tech websites. It's designed and targeted for professional developers but I find that a lot of the videos have educational value for anyone seriously interested in computer science and technology. Many of the videos are grouped into regular shows. Some of them I pay particular attention to.

    This Week on Channel 9 is a new talk show that stars a couple of people I've known for a while (Dan Fernandez and Brian Keller). I'd have watched once just because I know them but I'm watching regularly now because the show is interesting and fun.

    WM_IN or Women in Microsoft is a long time favorite of mine. In these series they interview women who work in various roles at Microsoft and with technology. There are inspiring stories here and it is great to get a chance for people to see the female faces of technology.

    Behind the Code is the show I find myself referring people to most often for "education topics" though. In this series Microsoft’s most influential technical employees are interviewed. The interviews cover important technical content as explained by some of the field's top experts. More then that though the interviews cover how these people got into the field and how their careers developed over time.

    In the interview that inspired the title to this post Patrick Dussud talks about garbage collection, what it means, why it matters, and how it works. It's an interesting interview with an interesting man. In the beginning, as a student, he had a difficult time getting computer time. Students who have easy access to computers and software may find that part of his life interesting and different.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Reality Check: Teaching Students About Intellectual Property Rights

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    More and more computer science programs are including units on ethical and legal issues. Perhaps one of the most controversial issues involving computer technology these days is that of intellectual property (IP).

    One of the problems is that young people (and many older people) really don't understand the laws around IP. From a recent press release about a survey commissioned by Microsoft said:

    Microsoft Corp. today announced the results of a new survey that found teenagers between seventh and 10th grades are less likely to illegally download content from the Internet when they know the laws for downloading and sharing content online.

    About half of those teens, however, said they were not familiar with these laws, and only 11 percent of them clearly understood the current rules for downloading images, literature, music, movies and software. Teens who were familiar with downloading rules credited their parents, TV or stories in magazines and newspapers, and Web sites — more so than their schools — as resources for information about illegal downloading.

    To help with educating students Microsoft has created some teaching resources for teachers (available here) that make up "a comprehensive set of cross-curricular classroom activities designed for grades 8-10 (but easily adaptable for use in grades 6-12) and organized into thematic units."

    A companion site for students called MyBytes allows students to create their own content (or Intellectual Property) and to learn more about the why and what about IP. There are a number of interviews there with creative artists who talk about what IP means to them and their way of life.

    Now on the other hand not everyone agrees with these ideas of intellectual property, especially where copyright is concerned. At Wikipedia you can read about the anti-copyright movement. The Creative Commons organization supports a number of licences that allow various kinds of access rights for different purposes. The use of technical means to protect copyright, often called Digital Rights Management or DRM) is the heart of a controversiy that is both of its own and part of the greater discussion of copyright. The Free Software Foundation has a lot to say on that score. I think of them as extremists but others see them as heros. Your views may vary.

    Now are ethics and the law in agreement or in opposition here? That is the big question. I'd love to hear the thoughts of others but especially of students. If nothing else I think this is an important topic to discuss with students no matter which side you stand on the issues.

    [Thanks to Blake Handler who blogs at "The Road to Know Where" who sent me a link to the WGA blog where I learned about the Microsoft curriculum.]

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