An all girls team in a CS course?

I teach a course with 76 students and 7 of them are female students. My course is flipped: during class time groups of students are working on various activities, using lightweight teams for practicing the concepts in the lecture on some days and project based teams for applying the concepts to project assignments on other days. I suggested an all girls project team to each of the female students via individual email messages, and each of them said no! One of the female students wanted to know why I would even suggest this.

Why did I ask them such a question? Well, I use reflection questions to provide the students an opportunity to think about themselves as part of a team. In a response from a female student, she said she doesn’t talk much in the team meetings, probably because she is the only female on the team. So, I thought I could make sure there is more than 1 female student on any team that has female students, or, I could suggest an all girls team.

Why an all girls team? The project teams are designing the user experience for an app that would engage people to make Charlotte a better city – sponsored by the City of Charlotte. This app will be implemented if the City sponsors like it. Our course is an HCI course and we are to design the user experience, not to build the app. I thought that an all girls team would come up with a user experience that would be different to an all boys team.

Why did every single female student say no to the idea of an all girls team? Some said that they had already started in a team with male students and they thought their team was doing well. Some said that didn’t think it reflected what they would experience in their career and preferred to learn how to be in a team where they are the minority.

Needless to say, I didn’t create an all girls team in this course. Maybe next year I can start that way, but I am not sure if it will have the effect I am looking for.

I had a similar situation with advising: a Professor that is an advisor for over 100 students, has received awards for their excellent advising, and is a person of color, suggested that our students of color should be assigned to their list of advisees. I liked this idea, but when I asked other faculty, they emphatically said “no!” Why would we single them out? Should we give the white male students white male advisors? Should we give the Asian students Asian advisors? I want to repeat that this suggestion came from a person of color, and that the faculty saying “no!” are not people of color. There are no other advisors that are persons of color.

Should we create all girls teams for design courses? Should we assign students of color to advisors that are people of color?


Patterns of Problems in CS education: perspectives from a reformed lecturer

After several decades of teaching computing using lectures, I am a reformed lecturer and only teach based on the principles of active learning. This does not mean that I do not include lectures as part of my teaching tools. It means that I have come to appreciate the benefits of starting from the concept of active learning, rather than starting from improving engagement during my lectures. This appreciation was realized when we adopted the concept of pedagogical design patterns to identify best practices in our active learning in CS education. A design pattern is a generalized representation of pairs of problems and solutions. Design patterns appeal to those that want to improve their teaching by addressing the problems they experience in practice. Design patterns are also an easy way to describe how to fix specific aspects of the teaching and learning experience: describe a specific problem (students fall asleep in lectures) and a simple solution (keep the lecture short and interspersed with activity).

We decided to compare our active learning patterns to other pedagogical design patterns in CS education and found that a majority of the published patterns are about improving lecture-based teaching. On closer inspection, we saw that many of the same problems appeared in the lecture-based patterns as in our active learning patterns: students don’t remember what they hear in a lecture, students come unprepared to the lecture, students don’t pay attention in a lecture. The difference is that the patterns for lecture-based CS education are about improving the lecture. The solutions in our patterns have a different starting point: make it social. Engage the students in activities that lead to the social construction of knowledge with their peers.

If you start with the premise that active learning is about enabling the students to learn from and with each other, then you think more deeply about setting up the classroom experience to be about activities that rely on communication and interaction among students. This leads to ideas such as lightweight teams, mini lectures on demand, and peer pressure for students to do the preparation before they come to class.

Improving the team experience with reflection questions

We all struggle with how to enable a positive experience for students in teams. Here I explore how reflection may provide a way for students to understand their own experience so they can make it more positive.

One of the hallmarks of effective active learning in our College is the concept of lightweight teams. These are teams in which students are placed in groups before the first class, given seating assignments for the semester, and the impact of the team performance on their grade is small. The term “lightweight” implies the low impact on the individual final grade. The intention is to reduce the stress of students who worry about having people on their team that know a lot more or a lot less than they do. The benefit of lightweight teams is that it encourages students to get to know each other while engaging in activities related to the concepts being taught in the class. At the end of this post are some publications that describe the benefits of lightweight teams in more detail.

Lightweight teams are effective in introductory classes but at some point, the learning about how to be effective in a team needs to transfer to teams in which the stakes are higher. These high-stakes teams are the more traditional use of teams in education. The literature on forming teams is pretty well established.  Students can be placed in teams randomly, algorithmically, or by self-selection. Regardless of whether you are forming lightweight teams or high-stakes teams, many factors can get in the way of a positive team experience such as differences in work ethic, personality, and ability.

To address potential problems with teams, I introduced a reflection survey in my HCI class. The reflection survey consists of 9 open ended questions that the students answer as individuals during a class period. There is no grade associated with the reflection – it is a class activity that allows me to record attendance. The questions are intended to have the students reflect on their experience in the team, not to give the instructor feedback on the quality of their work. The premise is that just answering the questions will change the students’ behavior in a team. Here are the questions:

  1. Do you have trouble remembering the first names of the members of your team? Which names do you remember now?
  2. Who in your team talks the most during team meetings in class? Who talks or communicates the most outside class?
  3. How would you describe the collaborative style of your team? For example: the team waits until the last minute to finish, the team gets things done as quickly as possible, the team does a lot of the preliminary work for the final report ahead of time.
  4. Do you feel like you talk as much as you would like in team meetings?
  5. Do you feel like you talk as much as others, or more than others?
  6. Do you feel like your team works together, or works separately and combines the work after?
  7. Do you feel like you are part of the team? Why?
  8. How do you feel about the quality of the work your team does?
  9. Do your team members like the quality of the work you do for this project?

Students are not very self-aware of their behavior in teams and the reflection questions asked them to think about names, how much they talk and contribute, and how they liked the quality of the work the team produced. Asking the questions was more about asking the students to be self-aware than about the instructor using the answers to change the formation of teams.

Here are some of my favorite answers (names are changed to preserve anonymity):

  • I usually struggle with names but I know everyone’s name in this group. I’m absolutely terrible with last names though. I remember Donald, Keifer, Kay, and Peter.
  • I like them overall, although John’s contribution to the team I wonder about. Other than that, everything is good and I really like my team; John included.
  • I do not feel I talk as much as I may in other team meetings, and I think it’s because I am the only girl in my team. While the guys in my team are nice, I would probably feel more comfortable with at least one other girl on the team.
  • I do not feel like I am fully a part of the team. I feel that way due to my absence in the last class that this team met. I feel as though they may think I’m a slacker because of it. I just do not feel like opening up as to why I was not here.
  • As I have gotten to know my team better I talk frequently to contribute my ideas.
  • I feel like I talk the least in my group and I would like to change that.

I have the students answer these same questions 3-4 times during the semester, even though they are in the same teams. The changes in answers show that the feelings about the team experience improves. The students get better at remembering names and there is a better distribution of talking.

Publications related to Lightweight Teams:

Latulipe, C., Long, N. B., & Seminario, C. E. (2015). Structuring flipped classes with lightweight teams and gamification. In Proceedings of the 46th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 392-397). ACM.

Stephen MacNeil, Celine Latulipe, Bruce Long and Aman Yadav. (2016). Exploring Lightweight Teams in a Distributed Learning Environment. In Proceedings of the 47th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 193-198). ACM.

Maher, M. L., Latulipe, C., Lipford, H., & Rorrer, A. (2015). Flipped classroom strategies for CS education. In Proceedings of the 46th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 218-223). ACM.