Feedback Tools To Support Student Learning

There were 31 students in the classroom when I first taught CIS3750. As a team based, flipped, and community-engaged software design classroom, this number was extremely manageable. There were 6 teams, which meant that I could spend a sufficient amount of time with each team during every classroom and lab session – answering questions about specific methods, chatting about their implementation plan, and challenging some of their ideas. That is, I had the time and luxury to provide immediate formative feedback to each team regarding the work they were doing. So what do you suppose happened when, over the years, the class of 31 became a class of more than 130?

CIS3750 is a required software design course for the Bachelor of Computing majors. It has been designed to foster skills related to problem identification & analysis, solution ideation & development, and implementation planning. To help achieve these outcomes, students work in teams of 4 to 5 in a flipped classroom setting. Moreover, they work with a challenge provided by a community partner – specifically a not-for-profit or charitable organization. Each student team is required, among other things, to develop a design document (usually 70 pages or more in length) and a high fidelity prototype that meets the needs of our community partner.

The use of the flipped classroom has been extremely beneficial in this particular situation, because it has allowed me to use classroom time to reinforce or clarify details related to the different methods the students must master to identify a problem, break it down, identify and evaluate potential solutions, and develop a plan to turn their ideas into a functioning tool. It has provided me the opportunity to literally sit with each team to observe first hand their understanding of each method, and to correct or challenge any misunderstandings in real time.

Of course, as the classroom size has increased1, the time that I or my teaching team have to spend with each student team has drastically decreased. At the same time, the volume of design documents has increased. When I first taught the course I had 31 students, 6 student teams, and 1 teaching assistant (whose efforts was focussed on grading assignments and other course deliverables). In 2017, when last I taught the course, there were 132 students, 32 student teams, and 3 teaching assistants. Most of the teaching assistant time is currently focussed on grading assignments and design documents as quickly as possible so students can use the feedback in a formative manner. This limits the amount of time that the teaching assistants can be in class working interactively with the students. When last taught, each ninety-minute classroom session included me and only one of the teaching assistants. Assuming each classroom provides the student teams with 60 minutes of active time to work on the community project, we’ve gone from offering about 10 minutes of face time with each team to slightly less than 4 minutes. This fall the course capacity has been increased to 160 students with no increase in the number of teaching assistants. At this rate, each student team can expect no more than 3 minutes of face time from me or the teaching assistant in the room. This is clearly a problem.

Growth in the class size has led to a significant loss in face time with the student teams. This means that we can no longer provide the type of immediate formative feedback that is critical for students learning the software design process. As a result, students have indicated in their course evaluations that they are less connected with the community project, feel more confused and frustrated about what they are supposed to do, and feel that they aren’t learning.

As a result of all of this, I have spent part of my sabbatical developing a free course manual for CIS3750 (which I will be testing out this fall) that should help guide students through the software design process when a community partner is involved. However, I’ve also been thinking about ways to provide students with immediate formative feedback in the classroom, even if me and my teaching assistant only have a few minutes of face time with each student team. That is, I’ve been thinking about new (or existing) tools that I can test in the classroom that might allow students to assess their understanding of a software design method or concept during those times when direct face time is not feasible.

Fortunately, I have just received funding from the Physical Science & Engineering Education Research Centre in the College of Engineering & Physical Sciences to work with Erin Doherty, Program Manager of the John F. Wood Centre for Business and Student Enterprise in the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics to identify, develop, and evaluate in-class immediate feedback tools. The funding will be used to hire a summer undergraduate research assistant to conduct a literature review, develop tools for each of the course learning outcomes, and set up pre-, post-, and pulse surveys to measure their effectiveness in the classroom. Funding will also be used to hire a graduate research assistant in the fall and winter semesters to host round table discussions with the students to better understand their opinions, engagement, satisfaction, and perception of mastery of learning outcomes in relation to the tools used, and to analyze the data that are collected. The goal is to develop a set of tools that can be used in CIS3750 to provide students with immediate formative feedback, but that also might be useful in other courses that guide students through the design thinking process.

If you are a student and interested in working on this research project, please contact me. The summer undergraduate research position is available immediately (24 hours per week for 16 weeks).


1 160 expected in F19; a 433% increase since 2012. Students/year: 31/2012, 32/2013, 72/2014, 92/2015, 86/2016, 132/2017, 154/2018.

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