Computer teacher does away with exams
Computer teacher Stefan Nilsson did away with exams a long time ago. He instead evaluates his students through many small assignments. And he is very strict – if a student does not submit his/her assignment on time, there is the risk that they will receive a lower grade. Earlier this year he was awarded KTH’s teaching prize for the methods he uses.
Stefan Nilsson is most certainly aware that he uses grading a little differently. The intention is to motivate the students to work continuously with their assignments.
“Programming forms the foundation of their craft, and learning this craft presupposes continuous proficiency training. But to encourage the students to do this, I needed a special incentive, so I linked together the requirement that students had to submit their assignments on time in order to be graded,” he says.
Stefan Nilsson is a teacher of a one-year course in computer science for beginner students at KTH. There are many students who are not used to university studies and who all have different levels in terms of previous knowledge of programming.
Nevertheless, since he started with the course eight years ago, he has employed the same course strategy. Instead of the usual form of examination, he allows the students to submit an assignment each week. For each assignment, the students receive one university credit, and after they have submitted 20 satisfactory assignments, they receive the highest grade which is an A for the course.
The system of having obligatory weekly assignments is motivated by social reasons in particular. Many new, young students have still not developed the ability to adequately structure their own studies, according to Stefan Nilsson.
“They need some time at KTH before they are capable of finding a method to acquire a good study technique. If they were to receive a major assignment in the beginning which would last for a longer period and would then end with an examination, there is a big risk that they would postpone their studying until the week before the examination. And that is not a sustainable strategy if you are going to learn programming,” he emphasises.
Older students helping out
The course evaluations and the students’ achievements have demonstrated that the structure of the course with continuous examinations works well. This can be seen for instance in the finalised project details for the spring term.
“Many students have come to KTH without any prior knowledge of programming, and it is impressive that they can deal with such advanced project assignments, for example various games and applications. During the past year, it has been particularly popular to program chat clients. They are really solid programs, and it is fun to see,” Stefan Nilsson says.
The students’ own course evaluations indicate that they are satisfied with the teaching method and the system of having to submit assignments. Last year, 75 per cent of the students passed, which is a lot compared to other courses at KTH.
An important aspect of the design of the course is that the students receive a lot of feedback on their assignments. But this also requires a significant amount of work by the teacher. The economy sets strict limitations and Stefan Nilsson therefore engages around 10 assignment assistants – older students of technology who are in charge of the assignments and who provide both verbal and written feedback to the students.
“We have to use previous students as assistants for economic reasons of course, but they really do perform a fantastic job. There are also advantages from a pedagogical point of view due to their recent experience of the course. It is also developmental for them to be in charge of the programming assignments,” says Stefan Nilsson.
Help needed with planning
With regard to the course that has just finished, Stefan Nilsson is expecting even higher levels of achievement than last year. The reason is that the number of students applying to the programme was greater compared to the last round of admissions. This automatically leads to more motivated students and this is also reflected in the grades. Despite this, it is necessary to help even well-motivated students find their way in their studies, he stresses.
“Even if they are motivated to study, they are often too young to have acquired the ability to plan and structure their studies. Motivation and study technique are not necessarily related,” he says.
Stefan Nilsson also requires that his students are present at the assignment seminars as each student must be prepared to verbally present how the assignment was solved. In this way, there is less risk that students copy from each other.
“The verbal presentations are also in Swedish, while the course literature is in English. Translating the knowledge into Swedish provides students with a deep understanding of programming,” he says.
Stefan Nilsson was one of two teachers that received KTH’s teaching award 2011 for “distinguished efforts that favour the students’ learning”.
“I was extremely pleased when I found out. The motivation included how my courses were structured, which feels particularly encouraging” he says.
Text: Christer Gummeson