Step 78: Assign Essays in CS1

As the semester wraps up, I found myself in the strange position of grading three sets of essays for my introductory computer science class.

  1. The first essay is what I called the “How to Computer” essay. Specifically, the prompt asked students to explain what it means “for everything to be ones and zeros, from numbers to videos to programs themselves”, and “what is actually happening when you run the code that you write”. This assignment served as the culmination of two weeks of lectures, starting with memory, then parsing, computer systems, and finally assembly. It’s my first time teaching this material, and I have more thoughts on this which I’ll share in a later post.
  1. The second essay is for the students’ final project, which is broadly defined structured around data journalism. Their assignment was to find a public dataset, answer a question about it with programming, then write up a report. Specifically, they must answer:
    • What dataset you used and what the dataset describes
    • What question you asked and why it’s an interesting question
    • What your predicted answer was, before you wrote code
    • The tricky part(s) to answering your question (if appropriate)
    • What your code suggests the answer is
    • Reasons why your answer may be incorrect
    • Additional questions that you might ask in the future
  1. The third essay, for extra credit, is an edited paper on diversity. Specifically, I asked students to write about ways to attract diverse students to computer science. In retrospect, I should have been a lot more specific, but asking for actionable strategies for recruiting women and minorities to computer science at Oxy.

I will be honest and say that all three assignments were unplanned – that is, I was not deliberately seeking to incorporate writing into my course. The extra credit essay had the longest history – it has been in the syllabus since the beginning, and was partially inspired by the experiences of my students. The others, however, were mostly spur-of-the-moment decisions as I struggled to find sufficiently interesting assignments. It’s worth nothing that the three assignments are different in both prompt and response. The computer organization paper provides minimal direction and asks students to regurgitate lecture material within a larger framework; the data journalism paper is much more focused in context, but much broader in content; and the diversity paper requires research and editing. I was surprised that the last paper had the highest quality, even by the first draft – my hypothesis is that it’s the closest in style to the other papers that the students have written (not to mention the self-selection for extra credit).

I think these first attempts were in the right direction, and I like the idea of making students write in a computer science course. That said, I’m not happy with how I support student writing. Both required papers could use an editing process, and I wish I had stayed at a higher level when I edited the extra credit paper. The main constraint is scheduling – it’s hard to find a week in the semester for this revision process, and harder still to teach anything substantial about writing. I will have to remember this when I teach this course again next year.

Step 78: Assign Essays in CS1

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