Anthony Robins – Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Anthony Robins (Department of Computer Science, University of Otago) – Award for Sustained Excellence in tertiary teaching 2012.
I was not naturally a good teacher, it was something that I had to learn. The key insight that I needed to understand is no secret, every good teacher knows it. It is the realisation that teaching isn't about me, the teacher. It's about them, the students. They do the learning. Being a “good teacher” is useful shorthand, but what a good teacher actually does is facilitate learning. Understand that and it shapes everything that you do.
Teaching as collaboration
I see teaching as a highly collaborative endeavour. I had plenty of support to facilitate my development as a teacher (and most of the good ideas that I use I’ve borrowed from someone else). So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the teachers that I had over the years. The good ones inspired me, the bad ones made me determined to do better. Thanks to my teaching colleagues, friends and family; I couldn’t do it without you, and I have learned a lot from all of you. Thanks to the University of Otago, which has supported me in every way and at every level, from the Department, to the professional development unit (HEDC), to central administration. And thanks to my many wonderful students; I have learned a lot from you too!
To me, facilitating learning means taking a holistic approach to a course, and trying to see it from the students’ point of view. It means thinking about the course not in terms of what I will do, but what the students will do. What is their background? What will motivate them and engage them? What is the best use of their time? What resources and opportunities do I need to provide to help them maximise their learning? What are the intended learning outcomes? These questions shape the course design, planning and delivery. I will use our department’s first-year programming course, COMP160, which I have taught for over 20 years, as my example.
For COMP160 the main intended outcome is basic competence with a programming language. The classes are large, and the students come from a wide range of backgrounds. Programming has not so far been taught in schools, so they come with varying expectations, some of them wildly inaccurate. Much more than any other subject that I know of in the educational literature, programming quickly separates a class into a group that performs very well, and a group that struggles, with fewer students left in the middle range. This highly polarised class creates many challenges!
Programming is a skill that must be practiced; like playing a violin it cannot be learned from books or lectures. In this context the experience of students in the course should be laboratory focused. Lab exercises provide plenty of practical, hands-on experience, with immediate feedback. They are structured so as to provide plenty of support for struggling students, while being open ended enough for the more confident students to experiment and extend themselves. In COMP160 early labs supply extensive scaffolding for each task, but this gradually reduces as the course develops, so that students end up creating programs independently.
The laboratory based focus of COMP160 means that the actual front-line teachers are the lab demonstrators (senior students). Thus the recruitment, training and pastoral care of these demonstrators is the most important aspect of course delivery. I am very fortunate that since 2000 these tasks have been coordinated by a highly skilled and dedicated colleague, Sandy Garner. COMP160 is now driven by many years of combined experience of what actually works in the labs, and the whole is much the better for it (thanks Sandy).
When it does come to lectures, one of the most important lessons that I learned early on was the importance of “delivery”. For every item of content included, equal effort should be devoted to how best to present it. It’s important to resist the continued temptation to add more “stuff”, and instead make sure the students have the opportunity to actively engage with the concepts. To this end I developed a lecture structure based on “topic cycles”. In each cycle new concepts are introduced, students have time to work on some relevant “Try This” exercises, and then the answers are discussed. It feels like agony sometimes to sit there quietly in a Try This break while “my” precious minutes tick away. But they aren't my minutes at all, the students are making much better use of them if they are engaging with the material!
Other innovations that I use in lectures include extensive animations of program state. These are the most effective way of representing the vital “notional machine” which must be understood in order to grasp programming, and they cater particularly to students who are visual learners. Each lecture is also punctuated with “Bug of the day”, a short reflection on a famous or interesting program bug and the havoc that it caused (this is often mentioned in evaluations as the best part of the lectures!). I make full lectures, including animations and worked answers, available online for students to access at their own pace.
COMP160 is assessed by completed lab exercises and exams (in a predominantly short-answer format). To further encourage the formative impact of exams I allow students to take in their own A4 sheet of notes. As I discuss with students, the exam is about understanding, not recall, and the main function of the notes sheet is to help to motivate and provide a focus for their revision and preparation. For each student the process of reviewing and condensing what they want to record into a single piece of paper is, of course, far more valuable to learning than actually having it in the exam. Many students have commented to me over the years that they didn’t actually use their “cheat sheet” (sigh!), but they were very glad that they made it…
Teaching and research
One of the main strengths that I have developed as a teacher is the use of, and contribution to, the computer science education (CSEd) literature. It began with my frustration at the high failure rate in COMP160. That drove me to the literature to find out if the results were typical (they are), and how best to teach and facilitate the learning of programming. I have been active in CSEd since 2000, participating in two large scale international studies of novice programmers, and publishing 19 papers in the field so far.
My most recent paper explored the possible reasons for the polarising effect observed in typical first programming courses (compared to other courses a relatively high proportion of students fail, a relatively high proportion get excellent grades, and fewer get mid-range grades). I proposed the “learning edge momentum” (LEM) mechanism, based on the well known observation that learning takes place “at the edges” of what is already known. The more connected the concepts in a body of knowledge are, the more the edges matter. Thus early success or failure builds momentum to drive learners towards one or other end of the outcome continuum. The implication for teaching programming is that the first weeks (or even days) are critical. In 2011 the insights of the LEM mechanism led to changes in COMP160 that appear to have been effective in significantly reducing the failure rate (similar changes at the University of Victoria also seem to have been effective).
Highlights past, present and future
My exploration of the varied backgrounds of COMP160 students led me to an interest in the way programming related subjects are taught in schools. Since 2006 I have been actively engaged in promoting programming and robotics in schools via the annual RoboCup Junior robotics competition. I am one of the organisers, and the chief coordinating judge, for the Otago regional competition, which attracts around 100 pupils every year and provides a fun, exciting, and challenging introduction to programming and technology. I coach teams in several local schools, and have provided support and workshops for teachers. This year our local committee is hosting the national finals!
This contact with schools and teachers, and my background in educational research, led to my recent involvement (working for the Ministry of Education) in the development of new high school NCEA Standards for programming and computer science related topics in Digital Technology. The new Standards will help to shape the teaching and learning of programming in NZ schools for thousands of students every year. In conjunction with this process, I also co-authored a range of much-needed programming related professional development resources for teachers.
I have also been involved with some curriculum development internationally. In particular, I coordinated the delivery over a four-year period of many Otago papers reorganised and packaged as a Bachelor of Information Technology degree to be taught at new universities in Oman. I am very proud to have been involved in this development education project, establishing new access to degree level education in a country with an emerging tertiary system.
Looking ahead, I will be continuing my research into computer science education, and the teaching and learning of programming. I will also be continuing to develop resources for teachers, and supporting the new NCEA standards in schools. I'm a firm believer in the importance of technology education, and look forward to helping students to have the best possible experience at both secondary and tertiary levels.
Peer and student comments
It says much for the departmental trust in [Anthony] that they left the course development in his hands alone. This trust was entirely vindicated. ... in summary, the design and delivery of COMP160 was a tour de force on a scale I have never seen before. This was a marvellous piece of work.
Professor Mike Atkinson, Peer Review, 2000
Anthony has provided and continues to provide a valuable service to the Ministry of Education, the computing teachers of New Zealand, and their students. Both on their behalf and my own, I take this opportunity to thank him for his commitment and significant work in this area.
Dr Vicki Compton, MOE appointed coordinator of Digital Technology Standards, 2012
This is my fifth year at university, and COMP160 is one of the best organised and best instructed papers I have ever taken. Excellent job Anthony.
COMP160 student, 2012
Honestly the best lecturer I’ve had, he makes things easy to understand and kept things interesting.
COMP160 student, 2012
I have found Anthony's contribution to this course to be excellent – well planned, coherent, organised and well presented. He has succeeded in turning what I had thought to be a difficult subject into a thought-provoking and engaging one.
COMP160 student, 2002
I have found COMP160 to be exceptionally well organised and clearly taught. The use of examples in lectures helped explain concepts very well. The course serves as a great advertisement for the standards of the department and the lecturer. It is probably the best run course I have taken so far at Otago Uni.
COMP160 student, 2002