10 things that yield happier students and better learning outcomes in lower-division CS/CE courses

Frank Vahid, PhD
University of California, Riverside


In 2012, a group of professors, frustrated by high fail rates in lower-division computer science/engineering courses nationwide, set out to replace existing textbooks and homeworks with new learning content created natively for the web. Six years later, their content for over 15 CS/CE courses is currently used by 550 universities and 200,000 students, and growing. This talk introduces the web-native learning content, with a typical "book's" reading portion consisting of hundreds of animations, thousands of interactive learning questions, and aggressively-minimized text. Auto-graded homework exercises, like small coding problems, are also integrated throughout. We summarize research published over the past four years, showing improved learning outcomes and better grades, and freeing lecture time for more examples, student activities, flipping, etc. We analyzed how universities give points for completing the reading activities and show that only a few course points (about 5 of 100) is sufficient to get over 80% completion rates. We show that most students use the content earnestly, with only a 3% "cheat the system" rate. We show that ultra-concise text can yield even further student learning improvements. We show that simplifying an intro course via fewer tools/logins, a simpler syllabus, fewer announcements, concise text, etc., yields happier less-stressed students. The talk also discusses instructor-created auto-graded programming assignments that can be added to online learning content. In particular, with the ability for any instructor or TA to create such assignments in under 30 minutes, we argue for intro courses to change from the traditional one-program-per-week approach to a many-small-programs (MSP) approach. We ran a controlled study Spring 2017, with one 80-student section using MSP, plus a 70%-full-credit threshold an3 collaboration allowed as well. Students were happier/less-stressed, and performed better on exams (and continued to do well in the next course). Ultimately, interactive content and auto-grading enables new ways teaching lower-division CS/CE courses.