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Changes in the Technion's Teaching Strategies During the Pandemic


Top, from left, Orit Hazzan and Efrat Aviram. Bottom, from left, Yael Erez and Waseem Makhoul.

It is common knowledge that many pedagogical changes took place during the pandemic (2000-2021 academic years) in higher education. This post describes three significant changes that took place during the pandemic in the instructional strategies at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. The changes we will address here were made in three major, mandatory mathematics and computer science courses, each with enrollment of hundreds of students. Each of these three changes was, therefore, significant in terms of its actual execution, the fact that many lecturers and many students were involved, and its potential to create a meaningful impact on future teaching methods at the Technion.

The investigations of these changes were conducted by graduate students at the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology. In addition to being graduate students, they were also TAs or lecturer in large courses offered by the Faculties of Mathematics (Aviram) and Computer Science (Makhoul and Erez).

The following three subsections describe the three cases, each of which addresses a different facet of teaching strategies: The first one explored a pedagogical change, the second, a change in location, and the third, a change in the evaluation method. In all three cases, the attitudes of both the students and the teaching staff towards the change were investigated.

The explored changes in Technion teaching

Change in pedagogy: From a lecture-tutorial format to a flipped classroom format (by Efrat Aviram, a TA in the course):

This research explored the transition from the traditional frontal teaching format to the flipped classroom format in the Calculus 1M course, learned by about 1700 each year. In a flipped classroom, the students are introduced to new content at home, at their own pace, prior to the lesson, and practice live problem-solving during class time. The purpose of the flipped classroom is to increase student engagement and raise their level of responsibility over their own learning processes.

The main findings are:

  • Both the students and the teaching staff think that the tutorial should be taught in the traditional frontal teaching mode, since a flipped classroom does not have any added value in the case of tutorials (since it is based on active learning anyway). Therefore, if the tutorial is taught in the flipped classroom format, the students would feel it is a waste of time.
  • With respect to the lectures, different opinions were expressed. While freshmen tended to prefer the flipped classroom mode, students from more advanced years, who most probably were repeating the course, preferred the traditional frontal teaching format.
  • Excelling students tended to prefer the flipped classroom format, while the others tended to prefer the frontal format. This observation may indicate that, on the one hand, students who invested the necessary study efforts in the flipped classroom format, succeeded in the exam and not surprisingly, saw its advantages while, on the other hand, students who did not study well in the flipped classroom format, got lower grades and, accordingly, did not see its advantages.
  • The research participants believed that if the course is well planned, the flipped lecture is preferable over the traditional teaching method, since it enables better assimilation of the learning material.

The main research recommendations are:

  • Two conditions should be fulfilled when the flipped classroom method is applied in freshmen courses:
    • The teaching staff should invest time and effort in the preparation of the learning material.
    • The learning material that the students are to study on their own, should be of high quality.
  • To avoid excessive burden on the students, the number of courses taught in the flipped classroom format each semester should be limited to only one or two.
  • When more than one lecture group is offered, it is recommend offering several groups in the traditional teaching method and several others in the flipped classroom method so that each student chooses the learning method he or she prefers.

Change in teaching location: From on-campus only teaching to hybrid teaching (by Waseem Makhoul, a TA in the course):

When COVID-19 regulations enabled to return to teach on campus, hybrid teaching was applied to the Logic for Computer Science course, learned by about 400 each semester. Hybrid teaching combines face-to-face and online teaching into a cohesive learning experience. This combination enables the integration of both synchronous and asynchronous learning activities and teaching strategies.

The main findings are:

  • The teaching staff expresses varying opinions: Some of them prefer frontal teaching, others prefer remote teaching via Zoom, yet others prefer the hybrid format.
  • Students mentioned both advantages and disadvantages of each of the following teaching formats: frontal teaching, synchronic remote learning via Zoom, and a-synchronic learning via recorded lessons.
  • When asked to indicate their preferences with respect to a single teaching method, the majority of the students preferred remote learning (either synchronic via Zoom or a-synchronic via recorded lessons) over frontal learning. Furthermore, most of the students preferred a-synchronic remote learning via recorded lessons over synchronic participation in lessons (either via Zoom or frontal lessons).
  • Many students declared that they prefer that the hybrid format continues since it meets the needs of all the students, and that they would be offered the option to study remotely. At the same time, the students stated explicitly that they do not wish that all of their studies be conducted remotely since such a learning format would harm their learning experience.

The main research recommendations are:

  • The most suitable teaching method for the coming semesters, pending COVID-19 regulations, is hybrid teaching since it meets the need of most of the students.
  • Excluding certain kinds of courses, such as labs and physical education classes, which require on-campus attendance, it is recommend that some lessons in each course be frontal and some remote, according to their specific teaching targets.

Change in evaluation: From paper-based exams to executable exams (by Yael Erez, one of the course lecturers):

This research explored a change in the evaluation process in the “Introduction to Computer Science with C” course, learned by about 1200 students each year. Specifically, when the exams were moved on line, the evaluation approach was changed from paper based to an executable exam. In an executable exam, students work on a computer in a designated programming environment that enables them to compile their code and run unit tests, all during the actual exam. The teaching staff runs an automatic checker (compilation and unit tests) and if needed, checks the exams manually, taking into consideration the results of the automatic checker.

The main findings are:

The attitudes revealed in the data analysis are categorized into pedagogical, technical, and psychological aspects. In brief:

  • Pedagogical aspect: Students, industry representatives, and some of the lecturers supported the executable exam format, claiming that it improves the exam evaluation and it is strongly connected to the course objectives and its assignments, as well as to the industry’s work style. Some lecturers expressed objection to executable exams, explaining that this evaluation method does not match their pedagogical objectives since it distracts the students’ attention from algorithmic thinking during the exam.
  • Technical aspect: All research participants shared the concern of technical malfunctions. This concern, however, is relevant for any online exam, and not specifically for executable exams. Moreover, simple technical solutions exist to address this issue.
  • Psychological aspect: Both students and course staff expressed concerns related to the change process. Lecturers’ concerns resulted from changing what they had been accustomed to for many years. Students were concerned that the exam would be more difficult and in a new format. Another concern was plagiarism; since it is relatively easy to cheat on an executable exam, all groups expressed more than usual concern about cheating.

The main research recommendations are:

  • Executable exams seem to have the potential to alter learning and teaching processes in computer science.
  • The resistance to and fear of change should be addressed, and ways to overcome it should be examined. Such concerns can be addressed for example by conducting a simulation exam and by keeping the exam format and question types unchanged from the pre-pandemic paper-based exams.
  • Since both lecturers and students can benefit if they "play" honestly, dishonesty can be prevented by enhancing trust and cooperation. For additional recommendations, see our CACM blog from July 7, 2021: 10 Tips for Implementing Executable Exams.

Conclusion

The exploration of the case studies presented in this blog delivers the message that since the world is going through dramatic transformation, the students’ voice should be heard and taken into consideration when new teaching approaches are introduced. Specifically, flexibility is required in teaching and learning styles in order to meet increasing diversity in the student population.

 

Orit Hazzan is a professor at the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on computer science, software engineering and data science education. For additional details, see https://orithazzan.net.technion.ac.il/. Efrat Aviram is a TA at the Technion’s Faculty of Mathematics. She is a Technion graduate in mathematics and holds a Master’s degree in mathematics education, including a teaching certificate, from the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology. Yael Erez is a lecturer at the Technion's Faculty of Computer Science and a staff member of Ort Braude's Department of Electrical Engineering. She is currently studying towards a teaching certificate at the Technion's Faculty of Education in Science and Technology. Waseem Makhoul is a TA in the Technion’s Faculty of Computer Science and a lecturer at the Department of Computer Science at the Open University. He holds Bachelor's and Master's degrees in computer science from the Technion, and is currently studying computer science education in the Technion’s Mabatim (Views) program for Technion graduates who wish to study teaching as an additional profession.


 

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