Computing Profession Education

Preparing Tomorrow’s Faculty to Address Challenges in Teaching Computer Science

Using a "boot camp" workshop for new faculty orientation.
  1. Introduction
  2. Addressing Challenges
  3. Strategy: Teach the New Faculty to Influence the Future
  4. Workshop Content and Focus
  5. Early Results
  6. Creating a Cohort for Change
  7. References
  8. Authors
  9. Footnotes
Preparing Tomorrow’s Faculty to Address Challenges in Teaching Computer Science, illustrative photo

As computing becomes more pervasive, we see increased demand from students eager to start a career in computing, and also from students in related disciplines recognizing the need for computer science skills. The result is increased overall enrollments—in some schools, by a factor of three in the past five years.a,b Higher enrollment leads to ballooning class sizes. Schools struggle to hire and retain faculty in the face of heavy courting by industry. The result is that a sense of resource scarcity dominates the high-pressure environment of large class sizes.

The new challenges compound existing teaching-related challenges for the field. We still need to broaden participation in our field, with the lowest percentage of women majors in all of STEM.c The economic rewards of a computing career make it even more important to bridge the digital divide. If there are more students than faculty can teach effectively, they may be inclined to lean on a pessimistic belief that success is dependent on "brilliance" and innate ability where only a subset of students can succeed. If CS faculty feel there is little they can do to change students’ outcomes in their individual classrooms, it will be true. Research shows that more CS faculty hold this mistaken and unproductive view of students than faculty in other STEM disciplines.3

The truth offers more optimism than this. We have a body of evidence supporting specific, replicable practices for creating agile, student-responsive classrooms that provably scale to large classes, reduce failure rates, and broaden participation. Broad awareness and adoption of these evidence-based teaching practices can help address our teaching challenges and reinvigorate faculty enjoyment of teaching, even in these outsized conditions. To achieve this goal of disseminating effective teaching methods, we are implementing a strategy that has been successful in other academic disciplines—putting newly hired faculty through a CS New Faculty Teaching Workshop,d a rigorous "boot camp" workshop on how to be effective teachers.

Many universities offer some kind of orientation to teaching for new faculty. We are taking a page from other STEM disciplines in teaching a CS-specific introduction for new faculty at research institutions. With the credibility that can only be obtained through being practicing CS faculty ourselves, attendees at the CS New Faculty Teaching Workshop learn methods that have been shown to work in CS classes. Examples are drawn from the specific CS courses and topics the attendees will teach in the coming year, using tools that are specific to the needs of CS homework and programming projects. We teach CS faculty how to succeed as CS faculty, without spending time adapting more general or maybe even inapplicable teaching strategies.

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Addressing Challenges

To address the challenges in teaching computer science, our CS New Faculty Teaching Workshop has two long-term aspirations:

  • Change practices in the classroom to be evidence-based, for the benefit of faculty and students.
  • Change faculty perceptions of teaching so they view it as a scholarly endeavor, leveraging their scientific thinking to continually grow and improve as instructors.

Adoption of evidence-based practices at scale in CS classes could have profound outcomes. Other STEM disciplines are reaping the benefits of active learning. STEM students are learning more and failing less in active learning classes compared to traditional lectures.1 Evidence-based teaching practices in CS classes leads to better performance on final exams5 and increased retention of majors.4 The most common teaching practice in CS remains an apprenticeship model—we lecture and expect students to figure out things on their own. We need broad-based adoption of active learning for the sake of our students.

The second aspiration is to change how CS faculty view education and teaching. CS faculty frequently express beliefs not only that programming is an innate ability, but that good CS educators are "born, not made." There is no incentive for CS faculty to improve, to learn to become better educators, if they think their teaching ability is preordained. And yet, there are many techniques shown by the CS education literature to improve teaching and student outcomes. What we need is for faculty to both value education as part of their profession (we believe most do already!) and for them to leverage the CS education research literature as a source of vetted ideas and ready solutions.

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Strategy: Teach the New Faculty to Influence the Future

New CS faculty going into research-intensive universities rarely have much teaching experience. They are hired because of their excellence in research and innovation. CS New Faculty Teaching Workshop attendees often have some anxiety about teaching. They want to do well at it but recognize the challenges they face in large classrooms with students from diverse cultural and programming backgrounds. These are exactly the faculty whom we want to develop and support. We want to give them the tools to be successful in the classroom; to be effective and efficient so they can succeed at both teaching and research. Because they have a strong desire to do right by their students, they are our starting point for developing a culture that values teaching and computing education research.

New CS faculty going into research-intensive universities rarely have much teaching experience.

For the CS New Faculty Teaching Workshop to have the scale of impact we envision, we had to think carefully about strategic audience targeting. We ultimately want to help teaching across all computer science undergraduate departments address today’s challenges. But we are starting with the research-intensive universities because they serve as models nationally. The top research institutions simply have inordinate influence in the rest of the computer science education ecosystem. Literally, a handful of schools produce most of the Ph.D.’s who go on to be computer science faculty in the U.S.e These newly hired faculty will also go on to hold positions of leadership and influence within their departments and schools, magnifying the impact of the cohort we directly touch each year. As we influence enough faculty that they form a critical mass at each of their home departments, they will have local peer support. With an orientation toward a scholarly view of teaching, we equip them with today’s known best practices, and with an inclination to follow future scholarly advances in teaching for tomorrow’s challenges.

Changing ingrained teaching practices can be difficult. After all, we succeeded through years of our own student experiences, so we see ourselves as experts. This model of offering new research faculty workshops has been effective in other disciplines. The Physics and Astronomy New Faculty Workshop has been successful in effecting change by reaching approximately 25% of new hires—and at least half of those who attended the workshop reporting adoption of evidence-based practices in their teaching after the workshop.2 Moreover, participants and department chairs reported a change in culture based on discussions about teaching. Charles Henderson, who evaluated the workshop, suggests it was successful because it targeted new faculty in only a single discipline and presented a wide variety of pedagogical options for potential adoption. Everyone likes to make choices, and if you know more than one way to teach something, you get to make choices and improve your enjoyment of teaching.

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Workshop Content and Focus

Emphasize best practices underrepresented groups. New research faculty want, and need, to hear about the importance of evidence-based teaching practices from respected research faculty, not just from a bunch of education researchers (us). We were delighted that a well-recognized researcher and leader, Ed Lazowska, was willing to give the keynote address to kick off the workshop. Lazowska is the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. At each workshop, his keynote perfectly articulated his own deep passion for teaching and the case for caring about teaching, striving to improve teaching through practice and from the education literature, and for balancing teaching with other faculty responsibilities.

The workshop included sessions interleaving standard know-how and practical starting materials with more advanced methods and evidence from the research literature. And as workshop organizers, we practice what we preach—not just lecturing but involving participants with a variety of engagement techniques. One particularly lively activity involved faculty attempting to rank various pieces of career advice participants might hear at the water cooler as "definitely a good idea," "sometimes a good idea," or "not a good idea."

Topics discussed included student-centered teaching, syllabus development, academic integrity prevention and response, TA management, essential tools for teaching at scale, creating an inclusive classroom, scientific-minded teaching, peer instruction, and other forms of active learning, exam-writing strategies, creating videos and other online content, and how to balance teaching and research responsibilities. Most critically for addressing the challenges of today’s computing classrooms, the pedagogies taught are able to scale to large classrooms and the tips for creating an inclusive classroom can broaden participation.

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Early Results

We have been very pleased with the success of the two annual CS New Faculty Teaching Workshops we have run so far: A pilot year with eight attendees, scaled up to 22 attendees in the second year. A critical metric of success was the increasing number of applications for our second workshop. This tells us that department chairs at our targeted research-focused institutions are not only getting the word out to their new faculty, but are communicating the value of the CS New Faculty Workshop to junior faculty members.

Additionally, survey highlights from participants in the 2016 workshop indicate:

  • 89% found the workshop to be "very valuable" (with the remaining 11% indicating it was minimally or moderately valuable);
  • The most highly rated session was on "Research on Active Learning" with 95% indicating it was moderately or very valuable; and
  • 100% said the workshop techniques would help improve their teaching.

The most commonly mentioned take-away from the workshop was that participants planned to implement some form of active learning in the classroom. We were pleasantly surprised that in such a short time so many participants came to express the importance of working toward engaging students with more active learning in their classrooms. Consider that participants had just eight or more years of higher education where they likely never saw active learning modeled for them in any of their classes. After less than two days of exposure, they were convinced of the importance, and felt they were given enough concrete guidance and examples that they could start using active learning techniques in their classrooms. Follow-up evaluation on each cohort is being conducted to see how many have put the techniques to use in their classes in the year following their attendance.

A critical metric of success was the increasing number of applications for our second workshop.

Most critically to the future of the program, one participant said: "I’m going to start to recommending this workshop to all new faculty." We will only succeed in making our desired cultural changes if we can draw in a critical mass of new faculty at these institutions. If a second-year professor tells a new hire or a former graduate student colleague heading off to the professoriate, "This is worth your time, you should go," we will have our most effective recruitment device.

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Creating a Cohort for Change

Real change takes time. If our workshops continue to be successful, we will see change coming as new faculty advance and share their new perspective on teaching with their colleagues. As the CS New Faculty Teaching Workshop continues, our CS faculty will be adept at facing challenges in teaching by having adopted evidence-based teaching practices and by having a scholarly attitude about teaching.

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