TITLE: SIGCSE Day 1, Continued: Teaching Honors
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: March 10, 2007 10:18 AM
session on Thursday, Stuart Reges suggested offering an honors section of CS1.
I agree. Many people think that teaching honors students requires
more work, or more material, but it doesn't really. It does
require deeper engagement, because the students will want to go
deeper. From the instructor's perspective, the result is better
interaction and the opportunity to talk and be more like a real
computer scientist. I've worked with honors students before, and
it is a blast when you get even an ordinary group. Unfortunately,
we only recently started an honors program at my university, and
in that time CS1 enrollments have been too small to afford an
David Gries commented on Stuart's suggestion, saying something to
the effect, "It seems to me that it's the weaker students who need
this experience, not the better ones." I also agree with this
sentiment. But unless Gries means that we should never create
targeted opportunities for our better students, I don't think that
my agreement with both is a conflict.
Teaching honors students offers an instructor a great opportunity
to experiment with new ideas. I may not want to risk trying a
different way of teaching -- say, all exercise-driven, no lecture
-- with a group of fifty students in a regular section. If things
go wrong, I may have a hard time recovering the semester, and the
average and weaker students are the ones with the most to lose.
But in a smaller section of more capable students, I can try it
out, confident that the students will help me smooth off the
rough edges of my new approach and identify the places I need to
When I have a new idea worked out, I can then transfer it into
my regular sections with more personal comfort -- and reasonable
assurance that I won't be harming any students in the process of
my own learning!
In the worst case of an approach "failing", honors students are
better able to roll with the punches and recover with me. Every
experienced teacher knows that there are students who will learn
what they need in a course no matter what the instructor does,
by working on their own, thinking about the important issues,
and asking questions. This is the sort of student one usually
sees in an honor section.
As Stuart points out, one of the joys of teaching an honors
section is that you can discuss whatever you find interesting
-- say, a book on computing or a computer scientist, or a current
topic in computing that you can relate back to your course. To
be honest, I do this in most of my courses anyway, from CS1 to
senior project courses. I have to be aware of time constraints
imposed by the curriculum, so I can't wax poetic any time I like.
(But Owen Astrachan told us
on Day 1,
we should not paralyze ourselves with the need for to cover
more, more, more!)
Some of my favorite course sessions in Programming Languages,
Algorithms, Object-Oriented Programming, Intelligent Systems,
and, yes, CS1 have resulted directly from reading I've done
outside of class -- and from attending sessions at OOPSLA,
PLoP, and SIGCSE.
All of our students need a good experience. Teaching honors
-- or as if you were teaching honors -- is
one way to move in that direction.