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New Direction in Teaching Computer Science Emphasizes Activity, Interaction, Critique


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The Washington University in St. Louis computer science department is using a new "active learning" approach to teach undergraduate students in an effort to better prepare them for the work place. Active learning uses a learning-laboratory-based tutorial teaching concept in which students are encouraged to get out of their seats, move around, and interact with classmates. "At the heart of active learning is the hallmark of interactive face time and students taking a more active role and not just repeating what a professor wants to hear," says Washington professor Cindy Grimm. "We think it provides a motivation to learn things that they have to know to do something that they really want to do." Students watch lectures online in the evening before coming to class, enabling them to actively learn while in the classroom instead of using that time for passive lectures. Washington professor Ron Cytron says active learning is based on the Socratic teaching method, which asks students a question and allows them to struggle instead of giving them solutions and a lecture. Grimm and Cytron say the new approach can initially be uncomfortable for both students and professors. Some argue that lectures are being discarded because students have poor attention spans, but Cytron says that is not the reason. "Students today have a different attention span and use more of their sensory inputs when it comes to learning," he says. "Today's freshmen have been doing interactive things with friends for years. We find that we need some kind of stimulus to keep them involved."

From Washington University in St. Louis
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