Computer Science at University Nevada, Las Vegas using autograding
December 9, 2021

Computer Science is growing - support tools can help

The Computer Science field is growing in popularity both inside and outside the classroom. In fact, the British Computer Society found that in 2020, over 129,000 applications were handed in for computing courses in British universities - four percent more than the previous year, and an all-time high. So, teachers need more support than ever to provide quality education to a growing number of students. We spoke to Alex St. Aubin from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, about his teaching and the challenges that arise.

As a Computer Science instructor, Alex teaches a number of courses. Currently, an introductory course in C++, which covers topics such as variables, conditionals, loops and functions. The course is taken by 330 students from a range of educational backgrounds such as Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and even majors like Health Sciences.

The format of Alex’s course is broken down into lectures; where basic concepts of C++ programming are introduced, and labs; where students begin to dive deeper into these concepts and put them to work. Students have labs twice a week and hand in small assignments, as well as a larger, bi-monthly assignment. If you are a fellow teacher, I’m sure you can imagine how much time Alex and his Teaching Assistants need to grade all of these assignments - especially taking into consideration the sheer amount of students. 

Teachers have a busy schedule and as STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) courses continue to grow in popularity and necessity, less and less time is available to focus on teaching itself. Larger class sizes result in a lot more grading, particularly for programming courses, which have many practical assignments and where often each student’s submission must be downloaded, unzipped, compiled, assessed and re-uploaded with feedback. 

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Alex and his four Teaching Assistants started by manually grading all assignments. He says, “we were having a lot of challenges getting the grading done. It was a big burden since we have a lot of students taking the course and not a lot of people to do grading. It was becoming a very big problem”. The high workload of manual grading resulted in another challenge, Alex’ teaching assistants had no time for other work anymore:  “My Teaching Assistants were not able to help the students out when they needed it because they were too busy grading.” This is a crucial issue we see time and again from educators across the world. Less time and resources force teachers to focus on wide-scale mandatory assessment, whilst equally important parts like student questions, individualised feedback and student encouragement must be reduced. 

The result is a less well-rounded educational experience, which for Computer Science may have adverse effects. In fact, a study from The Higher Education Statistics Agency noted a drop-out rate of 10% in Computer Science courses in the UK, more than any other field of study. Almost half of those students ascribed this to a lack of enjoyment, and a third to the course being too difficult (read about how feedback can change this here!). Therefore it is paramount to enhance learning to maintain students’ involvement in CS. 

Furthermore, a final grade workflow is not always conducive to the problem-based learning necessary for assignments involving coding. Students benefit hugely from iterative feedback, meaning they can submit their code, see where they went wrong and try again, gradually improving until their code is functional and efficient. This is simply not possible when grading a large course manually. 

This is where support tools can help. After introducing CodeGrade at University of Nevada, Alex and his colleagues eased the burden of these challenges. “It has really helped our Computer Science Department out a lot. We can focus more on helping the students and making sure that they are understanding those concepts and focusing on reinforcing those concepts, which is especially important in an introductory course like mine.” The benefit of this workflow shift also led to another positive - Alex saw an improvement in grades for lab assignments. 

Despite the challenges faced in large courses, the introduction of support tools in Computer Science classrooms can help students get the most out of learning and make it easier for teachers to facilitate this learning. At CodeGrade, we are happy to help educators around the world do precisely this! 

Read more about Alex’s story at UNLV here. Are you facing similar challenges to Alex and many other CS instructors? We’d love to learn about your challenges and help solve them! Book a call with us here.

Evie Christopher

Evie Christopher

Growth Hacker
Evie manages and creates content, and helps operations run smoothly here at CodeGrade. Trained in Linguistics, she is enjoying delving deeper into the world of Computer Science. In her free time you can find her drinking tea or practising yoga.

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