THE USE OF REFLECTIVE COMMENTARIES IN COMPUTER SCIENCE TEACHING

Dr Simon Polovina, Senior Lecturer, Department of Computer Science,
University of Hertfordshire, UK

(Presented at The European Learning Styles Information Network (ELSIN) 5th Annual Learning Styles Conference, University of Hertfordshire, Hertford, 26-27 June 2000)

Introduction

The discussion that follows is a personal account and assessment of a teaching and learning style that I developed in my University career, starting at South Bank University, London and now at the University of Hertfordshire at Hatfield. In particular I will focus on my use of reflective commentaries that my students are required to produce, augmented by an Intranet interactive discussion group I set up for their course and marking schemes I tailored to their course. (I should state however this was not all my own work as my various colleagues throughout my career have helped me greatly, for which I am very grateful. Indeed am I leaving a good mark as the tutors who have taken over my courses in my past institution have continued to use reflective commentaries?)

Beginnings

Similar to many tutors in higher education nowadays I learnt about our need to be reflective practitioners when as part of my staff development I was required to qualify on the Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE) programme at South Bank University. (This was assessed by my having to produce a written reflective commentary, which was duly marked by my PGCHE tutor.) According to Saarenkunnas et al.:

"A reflective practitioner is a teacher who critically examines her teaching practice and develops it further. Teachers could also be seen as co-learners. This metaphor suggests that instead of delivering content to the students from an expert point of view, a teacher should engage in a collaborative research projects with the students, assisting the students in the process and learning from it as well as an equal participator. As authenticity and originality of the learning process are essential for successful learning projects, and good learning outcomes, the students should also be engaged in planning the learning tasks, processes and environments. In a sense a new working metaphor for teacher could be a co-designer: an expert of learning and content area who designs learning tasks and processes together with the students. When the students are involved in planning the process and contents of learning projects it increases their motivation and engagement."

The added interesting component of this statement is not that tutors alone should be reflective practitioners but that this reflective practice extends across tutor and student. Indeed having seen its benefits I had accordingly formulated a way that the student could co-operatively augment the tutors own research .

The relevance of student reflective learning is heightened by the fact that computer science is no longer simply a physical science involving, say, purely program coding or optimising algorithms . The bulk of today’s computer science in practice involves qualitative thinking, particularly in defining user requirements and system design, both of which draw upon a much more social science or cultural context . In traditional computer science the tutor generally assesses the student’s final computer program possibly with some abstract discussion about the design methodology but not the student’s reflective thoughts as that student goes through this process . The Computing benchmark statement of the Quality Assurance Agency demand more than this previously acceptable method (http://www.qaa.ac.uk/benchmark). By our assessing the student’s reflective commentary as written evidence of their reflective thinking, the student is inherently encouraged to search for answers to underlying contextual questions thus undertaking the same deep learning as we tutors. Consequently the student becomes a reflective practitioner too, thus gaining vital professional skills in the multifaceted, dynamically open-ended world of information technology. Another interesting dimension is that, as the student takes this voyage of discovery, it is the student’s personal learning experience. This avoids the problem of ‘one teaching and learning size must fit all’, and works against plagiarism .

Marking Schemes

Given the value of the student reflective commentary, we need also to consider its assessment. In this respect we have to consider two dimensions: a) how we assess what will be a very individual documentation of each student’s unique ‘voyage of discovery’, b) to account for the increasingly large numbers of students studying computer science. I thus developed the marking schemes originally illustrated in Gibbs et al.’s "Assessing More Students" text from the seminal "Teaching More Students" series . An example of such a marking scheme, developed with the kind aid of my colleagues, is illustrated in the appendix to this paper. As we can see from the items in this representative marking scheme, together with the stated learning outcomes of a given course it is flexible enough to assesses the open-ended issues that the student will engage with in his or her reflective learning. By having a marking scheme that has a predefined checklist of items to assess, it acts a ‘power tool’ to assess a large number of students in a relatively short time. (After all, this aim was the prime motivator of the "Teaching More Students" series.)

Intranet interactive discussion groups

To assist the students in developing their reflective thinking my co-tutors and I set up an interactive discussion group that the students would actively contribute to as an intellectual ‘muscle building’ activity and, in their reflective commentary, synopsise and indeed reflect on what they had learnt. This included subject matter they found easy and difficult, and how they overcame the difficulties. Here they could demonstrate how they used the collective newsgroup environment rather than engaging the tutor in time-consuming (and usually repetitive) one-to-one discussions. When I was at South Bank University we set up a standard Internet newsgroup for each of my course units. Thus collaboration between students was essentially facilitated without the dangers of plagiarism as, in this ‘open’ environment, others’ work is acknowledged and recognised as each student adds his or her own value to the debate. Each student thereby makes his or her own voyage of discovery as already stated, thus understanding the subject knowledge for which they are rewarded according to their particular needs and background. The experiences of this approach were discussed elsewhere . At my present institution, the University of Hertfordshire, I went from using standard newsgroups to the richer Lotus Notes/Domino environment.

Experiences

Presently I, with my co-tutors as appropriate, assess student reflective commentaries on the University of Hertfordshire’s BSc Computer Science degree second year "Information Systems Development Project" and final year "Intelligent Internet Commerce" courses. My experiences thus far match those I had at South Bank. It does force deep learning, an experience many have never had. There was no ‘right answer’ thus no ‘technique’ they could deploy to solicit such an answer; they were being rewarded for their own thinking. Apart from literal plagiarism (where one student reflective commentary is a copy of another’s reflective commentary), the students do take their own voyage of discovery thus gain a personalised learning experience thus getting around the problem of ‘one size must fit all’ that additionally works against plagiarism. (As an aside at my previous institution the direct plagiarism alluded to occurred in one case and one of my co-tutors marked it, then divided the mark between the two students. The students in question did not complain…)

Another beauty of the student reflective commentary is the insight that the tutor gleans of his or her students’ learning experiences. Such useful candid and qualitative student feedback to tutor is not constrained by cumbersome questionnaires that have to generalise across all types of educational styles and be ‘dumbed down’ or misappropriated so they can churn out some (particular) statistics . And yes it did help with my research. When the students reflect on their learning, together with the open-ended but controlled marking schemes used, they discover items that the tutor is previously unaware of! (And given the rapidly changing knowledge base of computer science, e.g. by the increasing importance of the Internet, being kept at least up-to-date is greatly appreciated!) This added synergy vindicates that I had initiated in an earlier paper .

The following extract taken from one student’s reflective commentary aptly summarises the students’ general feeling toward the value of the reflective commentary from the student’s point of view:

"At the beginning of the course, I was concerned that 35% of the final course grade was to be based upon this document, which after learning what the RC was all about, I saw as being a very strange way in which the course was being assessed. Since that time, and having now almost completed this RC, I can see a number of advantages in its usage. There is no doubt in my mind that writing this document made me think about each of the issues that were raised in the lectures, and it encouraged me to go and find some other sources of information relating to each of the subjects that had been taught to us. This certainly helped, because although the majority of lectures were good, more information was needed to fully understand the subject matter, and enforcing a reflective commentary to be written ensures that the appropriate amount of work is done outside of the contact that we had with the lecturers." (Intelligent Internet Commerce student)

Issues

As in all things however sadly not all is sweetness and light. Many students are new to this form of assessment and find it difficult to get the hang of producing a reflective commentary. Though this produces a positive benefit of forcing deep learning it also raises the students’ anxiety levels, and this can generate a lot of work for the tutor who has to try and explain to the student. (Remember that the tutor cannot give the ‘easy’ answer the student seeks, as the tutor does have such an answer as explained earlier, and as my co-tutors and I well know!) Naturally some try to copy another student’s reflective commentary whose may be equally bad, or more likely too inappropriate for the copying student’s learning experiences.

Accordingly we needed to show them example of a good reflective commentary (but not so that they copy that like parrots!). This approach appears to be effective but is only one style of reflective commentary; many good student reflective commentaries still have the occasional, trivial but fundamentally irritating foibles that could potentially spawn a lot of bad habits. Maybe it’s a case of not being so idealist about this; after all the student should developing the critical thinking skills to be good reflective practitioners and this should extend to publicly available reflective commentaries. We do nonetheless give the students special lecture session on how go about producing a reflective commentary. Each student is encouraged to show his or her developing reflective commentary to the tutor during the practical sessions, and get an indication of its progress. Approximately half way through the course the students submit their reflective commentaries for ‘proper’ formative marking and feedback. After they are thus marked, they receive another special lecture session covering general points that arose (e.g. poor referencing) and highlight certain traps that some students fell into.

As student numbers get ever larger and larger scalability issues also begin to emerge, despite the ‘turbocharged’ marking rate that the marking schemes offer. (This is annoyingly so as when the tutor becomes too engaged in the content of student’s reflective commentary!) For instance this year there are 135 Intelligent Internet Commerce students shared by three tutors; the number next year is likely to approach 200. Nonetheless the benefits of this learning and teaching style presently still significantly outweigh these considerations. To mitigate the scalability limitations the students are restricted to producing no more than one A4-sized page per every three weeks of the course, excluding references. We may move towards a maximum of one two-sided abstract-style page for the whole course, backed up by evidence of an ongoing learning log signed off by the tutor at certain intervals. I have attempted to find out if others are employing reflective commentaries in the computer science domain. So far I have found papers that describe the tutors reflective processes in teaching computer science . Another I came across was where the students produce reflective essays . There is very little else documented it seems (given others are taking a similar approach in the first place…); maybe my paper will bring other experiences to the fore and I would welcome this dialogue.

Concluding Remarks

Even if it’s just ‘my thing’ I will continue to include student reflective commentaries in my teaching as it, indeed, facilties student learning, augments student feedback, the tutors own research, and lastly but not least reflects good teaching practice for us. The omnipresent issue of increasing student numbers with its consequent general test on the scalability of our teaching methods is making itself known, and this needs to be addressed in the approach I have described in this paper. The fundamental benefits of the approach require this to succeed and I, as always, remain optimistic.

References

Andersen, P. B. (1997) A Theory of Computer Semiotics: Semiotic approaches to construction of computer systems, Cambridge University Press.

Avison, D. E. and Fitzgerald, G. (1995) Information Systems Development: Methodologies, Techniques and Tools, McGraw-Hill, London. Campbell, P. (2000) Constructing Questionnaires, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~sdcamp/up504_W99/questionnairedesign.html (WWW page accessed May 2000)

Conlon, T. and Pain, H. (1996) Persistent Collaboration: a methodology for applied AIED, International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 7, 219-252.

Evans, J. (2000) The New Plagiarism in Higher Education: From Selection to Reflection, Interactions, 4. http://www.warwick.ac.uk/ETS/interactions/vol4no2/evans.htm (WWW page accessed May 2000)

French, T., Polovina, S. and Vile, A. (1999) Semiotics for E-commerce: Shared Meanings and Generative Futures. In Proceedings of Business Information Technology '99 Conference ISBN 0-905304-30-6, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, pp. 47.1-47.20.

Gibbs, G., Jenkins, A. and Wisker, G. (1992) Assessing More Students. In Teaching More Students Series PCFC, London.

Kotonya, G. and Sommerville, I. (1998) Requirements Engineering: Processes and Techniques, John Wiley & Sons.

Polovina, S. (1996) Student's Assignments as Tutor's Research, New Academic, 5, 3-4.

Saarenkunnas, M., Kuure, L. and Taalas, P. (1999) Teacher roles and interaction in web-based learning environments, http://www-deis.cit.ie/trails (WWW page accessed May 2000)

Schön, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitoner, Basic Books, New York.

Schön, D. A. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitoner. Toward a New Design of Teaching and Learning in the Professions, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

Shaw, S. and Polovina, S. (1999) Practical Experiences of, and Lessons Learnt from, Internet Technologies in Higher Education, IEEE Educational Technology & Society (http://ifets.ieee.org/periodical/), July, 16-24.

Walters, B. (1999) BIT Degree Programmes and Group Projects: An International Comparison. In Proceedings of Business Information Technology '99 Conference ISBN 0-905304-30-6, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.

Appendix

Reflective Commentary: Marking Scheme

Student's Name: 

Marked by:

Total Mark (out of 100%): 

Penalty, if appropriate: 

Approximate key to mark ranges
(total mark out of 100):  

70+: Outstanding
60-69: Some very good features
50-59: Satisfactory overall
40-49: Some serious inadequacies
<40: Inadequate in most respects

  Marks (%)  
Structure: 
Highly relevant [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Has little relevance
Topics accurately and adequately covered [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Superficial, inaccurate or questionable treatment of topics
Logically laid out; structure contributes to transmission of content from writer to reader [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Confusing layout; structure irrelevant or distracting from content
Reasonable length [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Under/over length
Maintains the reader’s interest [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Reader’s interest rapidly lost
Originality:
 Original and creative thought [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Little evidence of originality
Style:
Fluent, succinct and legible writing [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Clumsily written; sentences may be grammatically correct but difficult to follow
Written in good English [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Ungrammatical sentences, incorrect spelling throughout document
Effective use of images or examples [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Lack, or ineffective use, of images or examples
Sources: 
Adequate and accurate acknowledgement of sources [10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1] [0] Some plagiarism; incorrect referencing

(By Simon Polovina and fellow tutors, from an original by Educational Services and Teaching Resources, Murdoch University, Australia)