Office hours are more fun

By Gregor Kiczales posted on June 12th, 2014

A lot of the talk about active learning focuses on improved learning outcomes. A recent meta analysis shows that in STEM courses blended learning leads to higher final exam grades and lower failure rates (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1319030111 ). Others talk about it being more work and requiring a mix of old and new skills. There are a variety of difficult issues that come up with the digital media, some of which I have blogged about before, and others I plan to write about later.

But my experience is that it is also a lot more fun. Unsurprisingly lecture is more interactive and fun, but office hours are more fun too.

UBC Computer Science 110 is our introductory programming course. Compared to other programming courses it distinguishes itself by focusing on a design method that students can use to systematically design programs. It is a moderately large class, teaching about 1200 students a year across 6 sections.

Over the last couple of years we have progressively moved 110 from a fairly classical lecture model to an active learning model. Lecture is a mix of “true lecture”, interactive design work between the instructor and students and students working alone or in pairs on problems. This format is supported by videos developed for my Systematic Program Design MOOC on Coursera. For a typical lecture students work through 20-30 minutes of video prior to class and the same after class.

Why is it more fun?

Office hours have change dramatically for two reasons. One is that we have videos covering all the course content, the second is that lecture clearly establishes that I work with students by helping them solve design problems.  The first means that when a student comes to office hours saying that they missed a lecture and could I please tell them what happened, or, less egregiously just asking if I can review something then I have the videos to turn to.  I ask them to start by watching the appropriate video so that they can formulate more specific questions. With other students I ask them what they are having problems with and then give them a problem that stresses that, they start working on it and I help them along. What typically happens now is that I will have 3-4 groups of 3-4 students where each group is solving a particular problem together. It gets crowded and it gets fun. I get more students in office hours and I get them earlier in the term. I feel like the better students are coming to office hours more often than they used to as well. I attribute this to their knowing there will be space to work on harder problems and that I won’t be wasting their time repeating lecture. Sometimes I’ve actually teamed better students with students who are struggling with something and asked the better student to explain it.

I had a high-school summer job as a short order cook.  It feels a bit like that sometimes if there are 4 different problems being solved with students who came in with 8 different questions. I am much more tired at the end of office hours than I think I used to be. But I’m happier and I feel like students have learned more and taken more advantage of talking to me.


Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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