What I learned teaching jQuery (part 1)

On August 11-12, I taught an Introduction to Programming Concepts via jQuery course at the DLF/Code4Lib unconference at the George Washington University. I was playing with several theories in developing this course:

  • Porting to jQuery so that it could be 100% browser-based: familiar environment, no installfest, maximizes time available for actual programming concepts.
  • Porting to jQuery so that it could be 100% visual (on which more below).
  • Simply giving up on the idea of getting true novices to the point of being able to write real-world-applicable code in a day-and-a-half workshop, and focusing instead on building a foundation that makes existing code-learning resources more intelligible, and leaves students with enough good feelings about code that they’ll be inclined to learn more.

Bottom line: I think it worked really well!

Today I’m going to talk about my theoretical inspiration for the course; upcoming posts will cover teaching techniques I used to operationalize that, and then future plans. (Look, there’s a jquery workshop tag so you can find them all!)

yo dawg i heard you like tests…

The whole workshop was, in a sense, a way to play with this paper: “A fresh look at novice programmers’ performance and their teachers’ expectations”. Its jaw-dropping result was that providing novice programming students with a test apparatus for a programming task quadrupled the number of subtasks they could successfully complete (students without the tests completed an average of 0.83 out of 4 tasks, compared to 3.26 for students who could check their work against the tests — in other words, students without tests didn’t even get one subtask working, on average).

Well gosh. If tests are that effective, I’m obligated to provide them. This is consistent with my intuitive observations of the CodingBat section of Boston Python Workshop — being asked to write provably correct code is the point where students discover whether their existing mental models are right, and start to iterate them. But the CodingBat interface is confusing, and you need to sink some instructional time just into making sense of it. And, honestly, with a lot of conventional intro programming tasks, it’s hard to tell if you’ve succeeded; you’ve got a command-line-ish interface (unfamiliar to many of my students) and a conceptual problem with abstract success criteria. I wanted something that would give immediate, obvious feedback.

Hence, jQuery. Manipulating the DOM produces instant visual effects. If you were asked to make a button disappear, it’s super obvious if you succeeded. (Well. Possibly assuming sightedness, and (with some of my tasks) possibly also non-colorblindness — I stayed away from red/green semantic pairs, but I didn’t audit for all the forms of colorblindness. I need to mull this one over.) And as it turns out, when you ask your students to add a class that changes a bunch of things to have a kitten pic background, it’s also super obvious to you as the instructor when they’ve succeeded (wait for it…wait…“awwww!”).

My hope for this class was that it would provide students who were genuinely novices at coding with the conceptual background they needed to get mileage out of the many intro-programming learning options out there. As Abigail Goben notes, these courses tend to implicitly assume that you already know how to code and just need to be told how to do it in this language, even when they brand themselves as intro courses. People will need much more practice than a day-and-a-half bootcamp to get from novice to proficient enough to write things they can use in everyday work, so I want to get them to a place where that practice will feel manageable. And for the students who do have some experience, hopefully I can introduce them to a language they don’t know yet in a way that has enough meat not to bore them.

Tomorrow, teaching techniques I used to get there, part 1: pacing.

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2 thoughts on “What I learned teaching jQuery (part 1)

  1. I believe that teaching with unit tests will also leave people better capable to learn new things later on.. I haven’t seen evidence for this, but I notice that when I am trying to learn a new language/environment I return to the practices I used when I first learned programming… Inline print statements.

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