caregivers' frequently-asked questions to class home page

Many parents and caregivers have question on similar topics. So I have posted answers to these questions, which supplement the general notes on the course.

If you have a question that is not addressed below, I am happy to communicate with individual caregivers. Email is the easiest way to start this communication. Please email me a description of your issue or question, so that I can prepare for an effective conversation. Email

homework is crucial

Homework is the principal way to learn computer programming. To learn, students must do the homework completely, they must compare it to the answers I or other students publish, and they must understand the differences. Tests in this course basically assess "Did you do and understand the homework?"

When, where, and from whom is help available?

The crucial role of help in this course distinguishes it from other courses. Please see the class home page. Students should know these sources because…

Yet the importance of seeking help is apparently difficult for many students to absorb.

The Computer Science Dojo is a leading recommendation for any student who wants to improve. It takes the place of what other departments call "AIS tutoring". In the Computer Science department it was renamed, because the expansion of "AIS" applies poorly to this department's sessions. I mention this because one parent told me that her child needed no tutoring, which unfortunately means that the student was under parental pressure to forgo this valuable way to learn more, more enjoyably, and more easily.

Visits to the CS Dojo show the department's best students working and learning there. Unfortunately, students who are new to the Computer Science department are slow to take advantage of the Dojo. Once they do attend a session, they commonly rave about the experience of working in an atmosphere with few distractions, with other students in the same course, and with advice from students who have already taken the course. The benefits are apparently not something they can learn from my advertising them repeatedly; only experience helps. So please encourage students to give the Dojo a try!

Why do some students earn low grades on early homework?

For many students, this course constitutes an abrupt introduction to a requirement to read a large amount of information carefully. As you can see from reading nearly any of the homework assignments, that attention to detail is required for the rest of the course. It is common for students — including students who later understand this approach — to be making that transition in the early assignments in computer science courses.

The student is the best source for understanding their particular experience. Parents and I are on the outside of this experience. Many of us have already learned when a detailed is approach is required, by our nature or our experience. So it surprises us when that the transition takes time, sometimes motivated by low initial grades. In the long term, however, good students adjust. Experience shows that many grow to understand that different subjects require different approaches to reading.

On a personal note: I remember the pain of that learning, since I only learned it in teacher-training school, when a math professor kindly taught me how to read a book in a course on the history of education. I had been reading every book as if it were a book on math or computer science, and that approach fails in the social sciences. The experience inspires sympathy for students making the transition in the opposite direction. I would like to help them achieve the understanding in high school, a few decades earlier in their lives than in mine.

what if homework is incomplete by the due date?

Late submissions are accepted, but lateness causes trouble...

In my experience, students who fall behind in the homework generally do poorly in the course. On the other hand, students' future academic careers may benefit from their having that experience. The opposing benefits make it difficult for a caregiver to decide whether to supplement a student's self-discipline with externally-imposed discipline.

When a student submits homework after I have reviewed a class's homework, they must notify me by email. Otherwise I will not know about the submission.

how can a student improve their grade?

The class home page has a long discussion of how to succeed in this course. It summarizes a significant amount of thinking, by many teachers, recorded over several years. Students have been assigned to read that material. Interested caregivers might ask students about their thinking in response to that reading.

A student who is dissatisfied with their progress should change their approach. The suggestions on the class home page represent the best advice I have heard or thought of, so a dissatisfied student might try one of them next. But changing their approach matters more than the particular change they make. Rather, a person seeking to improve should make some change that seems promising to them, allow enough time for the change to make a difference, and then evaluate its efficacy.

Most adults will have sufficient experience to know that "Try harder" fails to qualify as a change.

how can a caregiver help?

It is difficult to suggest ways for caregivers to help, for several reasons:

So the best I can offer is observations that I think are generally true. Please apply your judgment and experience to them.

For many students computer science courses are an early exposure to the necessity of keeping up with homework in courses on problem-solving. Doing the homework is the primary way to learn in this course, requiring an average of about half an hour a day in introductory courses, and an hour a day in the advanced placement course. So one way for some caregivers to help is by offering their experience of time-management to the next generation.

But please recognize that although you could help a student in this course by augmenting a teenager's self-discipline, it might be preferable in the longer term to give the student an opportunity to learn by trial and error what works and does not work for them. Learning about the necessity and difficulty of self-discipline is at least as valuable as learning about computer science. One of the goals of this course — particularly for students who stop taking computer science courses — is for students to experiment with study techniques that college requires. In college, homework assignments take hours, not minutes. And in college students must substitute self-discipline for a caregiver's external pressure to finish assignments on time. For some students, homework in this course provides a valuable opportunity to learn the error of procrastination. But no one can learn that error if a well-meaning caregiver supplies the discipline to avoid the error.

Here are some questions students face, and which discussions might help answer:

A caregiver can also help a student by supporting that student in seeking help. Due to their past success, many students lack experience with the benefits of seeking help when that is appropriate. An adult's life experience may allow them to reassure a student that seeking help is a characteristic of successful students, not a sign of failure.

Sources of help are discussed frequently in class and on the class home page. Discussing them with students can help.

how can a caregiver help a struggling student?

When a student is struggling, a caregiver may be able to help by asking the student questions like these:

These ideas were contributed by long-time teachers of computer science. I am grateful for their help.

marking period 1 progress reports

The grades in the first marking period are overwhelmingly "S", for "satisfactory". Here is the breakdown for the three introductory classes in spring 2019:

pie chart of grades

"S" means "satisfactory"

In the first marking period of each semester, Stuyvesant teachers give letter grades, not numerical grades. In response, caregivers often ask why a student received a grade of "satisfactory" when they are used to seeing only grades of "excellent".  There are two answers:

Some people unfortunately interpret "satisfactory" to mean "mediocre" or even "less than satisfactory". These interpretations are contrary to the message I aim to convey with a grade of "satisfactory".

"U" means change is required

Assigning a grade of "U" communicates that, to succeed in this course, the student must change their approach; their current approach will not succeed. Usually this means changing to doing the homework completely and on time. A caregiver may be able to help the student by asking what changes the student plans, or providing oversight for adherence the homework schedule. The homework schedule is available to all. A student can show their record of participation via a page on the homework server that is private to them.

"N" may warrant communication with the student

Communication can be useful, difficult, or both. A student who was assigned an "N" may already have changed their approach, or may have scored an atypically-bad grade on one of the first tests.

"E" is rare

An "E" is assigned to students who are doing extra work with positive results, or have already done that work in a previous programming experience. Caregivers should not be concerned when a good student receives an "S" rather than an "E".

Why does it take so long to grade tests?

I seek to reduce the delay between students' taking tests and their receiving graded results. It takes me 12 to 15 hours to grade tests for five classes, so I have a powerful incentive to work on that improvement. I need additional pieces of the solution, but at least I can explain the sources of the problem:

Details follow.

I have found no way to give multiple-choice tests that satisfactorily enables students to assess themselves and me to assess them. Teachers whom I respect give multiple-choice tests, but I am concerned that students who guess right answers will forget that they were merely lucky, and therefore over-rate their knowledge. Even a student who knows nothing can expect to answer 1/4 of the questions correctly, and mistakenly conclude that they understand a significant portion of the material. So I have found no alternative to students' writing responses to open-ended questions, even though those responses are time-consuming to grade.

In for APCS in fall 2018, students took short quizzes. including writing the questions. An overwhelming majority of the students preferred to try it, and some of them worked hard to support the effort, by writing good questions for quiz 05.

The results were terrible. Even with the questions available, the average for quiz 05 was 75%, rather than the 90% one might hope for.

But wait; it gets worse in the next steps:

  1. The students' answers were speedily graded and returned to them.
  2. The quiz questions were published.
  3. Homework over a weekend asked each student to fill the knowledge gaps that the quiz revealed.
  4. A quiz with essentially the same questions was given after the weekend.

…and the average for the course when down to 63%. It has become clear that this year's cohort of APCS students is less interested than last year's, which might explain the apathy. Additionally, many students seem to approach multiple-choice quizzes as an opportunity to guess, rather than solve problems. But the results discourage more experimentation with quick-to-grade multiple-choice quizzes.

Teacher-training schools recommend that teachers write rubrics that guide their grading. That is, for each problem on the test, a teacher should identify the ideas being assessed, assign a share of the problem's points to each idea, and grade each student's answer accordingly. I do that, as can be seen from rubrics I publish. But it takes time.

The dominant reason for my delay in grading tests is other, higher priorities. My greatest contribution to students' education comprises planning lessons and writing meaningful homework assignments. Grading tests cannot be allowed to materially diminish the quality of either.

Fortunately, students have an alternative to waiting for my grading: after a test has been given, I am happy to publish the questions. Students' education is enhanced if they re-consider the questions and discuss them. I participate in those discussions when they occur on our web forum. That kind of self-assessment — by students, of their own understanding — promotes learning.

how should a student indicate that the student made a strong effort but can't solve the homework?

Conveying effort:  the directions for submitting homework direct that students track and report the time they took to do homework.

If a student takes more than twice as long as my estimate for a homework assignment, they should put the homework on hold and seek help from one of the usual sources.

But if a student finds that they usually require more than twice my estimate to finish the homework, that is a helpful indication that they could benefit from advice on how to work better. They should compare tactics with their classmates', or talk to me, or both.