Bowdoin College

Round Table
Problem-based learning with tablets in CS101


The primary goal of Round Table is to create a positive learning experience for students with varying backgrounds, increasing student retention and encouraging their continued study of computer science.

Over 4 semesters, 5 Computer Science 101 courses used the Tablet PCs. The 71 students in these courses were surveyed and interviewed to determine what was beneficial to their learning and what was detrimental or a distraction to their learning. We had a 76% response rate for our surveys and interviewed 30 students.

65% of the students said that the Tablets made their CS 101 course more satisfying. Only 7% of students said the Tablets made the course less satisfying; the remaining students said that the Tablets had no influence on their satisfaction or that they were unsure.

CS Students

Benefits to Learning

When asked what was most helpful about the Tablets, the most frequent responses were:

  1. The immediate feedback from in-class problems
  2. With the anonymity of the submission software, they felt more comfortable submitting potentially incorrect answers
  3. They learned from reviewing other students' anonymous submissions
  4. The Tablets served as an organizing tool

Immediate Feedback from professor

The redesign of the course to incorporate more in-class problems seemed to have a very positive impact on student learning. Rather than having to wait for a lab to be graded, students would get immediate feedback from their professor on how to solve a problem. The majority of students made statements like this student’s: “I liked when professor would field questions, ask us to write code, and then check in class - good way to try stuff out and get feedback in class.” 

The benefit of the in-class problems and their delivery via the Tablet with DyKnow is illustrated through one student’s description: “The most effective part of the Tablet for me was being encouraged to engage in the concept always regardless of whether or not I completely understood it.  I remember in high school taking courses, like physics or chemistry, and I wouldn’t understand something and my page would just be blank. And I would just sit through and try to absorb it or tell myself later I’ll go to the textbook and pick it up. In these circumstances [in Computer Science 101], the professor is able to say, ‘The example is right in front of you’ and they were sent right to our Tablet and we fill them out. Part of it is the electronic disconnect. It’s so abstract and erasable and it’s not like I’m writing down the fact that I don’t know anything and everyone’s going to know. It feels really good. It’s helped me in that respect.”

A few students interviewed seemed to feel that the Tablet and DyKnow gave them more access to their professor. One student noted, “The submitting part was a great way to work through the exercises, and be able to get to the answer yourself in the correct way, having immediate corrections from Professor <Name>. It’s a great way to learn a programming language.” Another student appreciated the access to the professor via the technology itself: “The best function is that there’s a chat function on DyKnow so…beyond public channel for communication, there’s a private channel. You can directly talk to the professor if you feel very embarrassed everyone else understands this point but you don’t.”


The fact that the in-class problems were anonymous to other students made students much more comfortable sharing their work. "I'm actually very shy and I don't like to make mistakes in class usually, so by using tablets [with Classroom Presenter], people don't know who made the answers so it's a lot easier to participate" One female noted, “It [Tablets and DyKnow] made it less intimidating to answer questions in class.”

Students seemed to recognize the value of sharing their often-incorrect answers, so that they could learn. One student stated, “My wrong way of doing it was up there a bunch. I didn’t really feel self-aware. The fast responses between the professor and I were nice.” Another student emphasized that it was important to inform the professor that he didn’t understand: “When I don’t know what’s going on I’m less embarrassed to try to write something that doesn’t make any sense and send it in because it’s anonymous for the most part. Then he’ll see that I sent something in that’s absolutely incorrect because I don’t know what’s going but then he’ll recognize that someone in the class doesn’t understand it to the extent that I don’t understand it.”

Learning from Other Students

Due to the anonymous nature of the submissions, more students participated. Many students saw the value of the increased class participation on their learning. One student explained, “The fact that it was anonymous let other people who wouldn’t normally speak up get their thoughts out there. It’s a really big class. There are lots of people who haven’t said a word throughout the entire class period. When you’re going through examples, you have examples from almost every student. Even if they’re not speaking up, they’re putting their ideas out there. Often times we’ll be sitting in class and the professor will say, “Oh, I didn’t think of this. This is brilliant.”

In the surveys several students wrote that it was “great for learning from others' mistakes.” One student explained, “He [Professor]’d ask us a question and we wouldn’t really know the answer until we corrected someone’s submission on DyKnow, which we did as a class which was good.”

Most students commented on learning from peers when the professor shared their classmates’ work; however it was rare for a student to talk about their own direct interaction with another student. Interestingly, the one who did was a female, who seemed to be comfortable with the material. “I sit next to one of my friends. And we’d write out the answer for DyKnow on our Tablet and say, ‘Did you get this?’…You can swivel the screen. It does actually help…[Checked each other’s work] before we submit it to make sure we didn’t make a silly mistake that’d be shown in front of the class.”

Tablets as an Organization Aid

For two of the semesters, we had enough Tablets that the students could borrow one for the entire semester and take it home with them. They became responsible for the Tablet – charging it, bringing it to class, etc. Several students mentioned that this helped them manage all of the files for the course. “Whenever I was doing my labs, it was really helpful that I had any in-class work I did on the computer, everything that would help me with the lab was all right there.” Another student stated, “I liked having all my programs just on one computer. I could bring it with me wherever….It would’ve been harder to mess with the zip drive with program or email the programs to yourself everyday. It just made it a little bit easier.”

A handful of students took advantage of the Tablets for inking notes during class or using them for other courses. One student was planning on purchasing a Tablet afterwards and another student explained, “I hate paper notes. I lose them. They get crumbled up. I could show you my backpack. I have papers all over the bottom just crammed in there for all my other classes but I don’t have that for Computer Science [because uses Microsoft Journal for note taking].” A student who used the Tablet for taking notes in his Economics class indicated that he reviewed his notes with the Tablet and annotated again when studying, using a different color or highlighter.

Hindrance to Learning

The two hindrances to learning that were most commonly noted by students were:

  1. Time spent setting up or troubleshooting technology
  2. Distracted by having access to the Internet in front of them

Time Spent Setting up and Troubleshooting Technology

Introducing any technology can lead to unanticipated technical issues arising in class. Each semester we tried to reduce any technology problems. Nonetheless, any technical problem takes away from instructional time.  One student commented, “We always had technical difficulties with it. It seemed like every other day.” Another student stated, “I'm not sure if they are worth the struggle. If they worked better they might be." For students who were Macintosh users, the technology would get in the way more often. One student explained, “I have that disadvantage where I don’t really know how to use them [Windows PCs] because I haven’t much. I could never get my BlueJ [programming application] to acknowledge the object draw library so I couldn’t use it for any of the actual work we did in class…so I just used BlueJ on my [Macintosh] computer to do all the assignments.”

More frequently, students would mention the time it took to get all of the technology set up for a class session, i.e., logging into their Tablet, starting the DyKnow software, going onto the Internet to go to the course website to download the class slides. One student commented that it took more time to set up then to actually use.

Distracted by Internet in Class

The majority of students indicated that the way the Tablets hindered their learning was the temptation of having the Internet so easily accessible to them during class. “It’s very tempting to check your mail or facebook,” admitted one student. Another student said, “During class you can get distracted on the Internet. It’s always a problem when you just mean to check your email for a minute and you get off track.”

One female student, who was very comfortable with the material, mentioned that her class participation was reduced because of the presence of the Tablets and the temptation to go online. “Sometimes it was kind of slow and I had the Internet in front of me so I’d not always know exactly what we were doing [and would not participate in class].”

Mid-way through the project we switched from Classroom Presenter to DyKnow software, which enabled the instructor to view students’ desktops. A student explained, “There were some times when I’d be checking my email, with the whole Internet being there. Like if I was bored or if I’d already gotten the answer. But I also knew that she could look at our screens so I would game when I was looking online…when she was at the board or looking at people’s answers.”
Students themselves admitted that this distraction was not about the Tablets, but just having a computer always in front of them, which is not necessarily their typical practice for courses.

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