Pulling Out All the Stops: Engaging Students in Learning Computer Science

Ben Hescott, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, shares insights on inclusive teaching and establishing a supportive learning environment.

Ben Hescott
Ben Hescott, Assistant Professor of Computer Science

Ben Hescott has a zeal for teaching that is evident the moment you meet him, or step into his bright and welcoming office. It’s easy to imagine how he engages students from the front of a university lecture hall. For the past seven years, Ben has introduced students to the field of Computer Science here at Tufts. Sharing his passion for life and learning with students has always been what motivates him. Over the past year, as part of a faculty learning community on teaching inclusively in STEM disciplines, he has reflected on his teaching and how to make it more inclusive.

One lesson Ben learned from the working group was that underrepresented students often have difficulty assessing their standing in the course (many underestimate their abilities and drop when they should stay). In their work, “The Power of Feedback”, Hattie and Timperlay review the importance and pitfalls of student feedback and effective teaching. They point out that timing and delivery is crucial for learning. An early quiz in the semester with a quick turnaround ensures that they will be able to synthesize the feedback and personally assess their learning.

In a recent course with over 150 students, Ben decided to remove the midterm and replace it with in-class quizzes – the first of which comes two weeks into the semester. The quizzes take 20-30 minutes and are mathematical proofs – similar to a short response essay in other disciplines. With the help of an online system created in the computer science department, Ben ensures that the quizzes are graded within 48 hours. Although he grades each one himself, the system enables him to quickly write detailed comments to the students that address specifically how they are doing and what their missteps were. The system also records whether students have viewed their graded quiz, enabling him to see which students may have “checked out.” The early quizzes and feedback have met with very positive reviews from all students, showing that the change was good for everyone, not just the underrepresented groups.

Ben’s Inclusive Teaching Style

Ben’s takes pride in his ability to relate to students, and continually focuses on creating a mutually respectful environment for learning. Open to learning from his students, he is inspired by their perspectives on the content he presents, and welcomes their diverse ways of thinking. For example, he explained how he came to appreciate one student’s unique way of visualizing a concept, and then integrated it (with attribution) into his curriculum.

“I was at the board drawing what [the student] dictated. To be honest it was awkward. I didn’t understand how he thought about it. Eventually I figured it out and we used his method for the rest of the semester, and I used it the following semester. It is essentially a 2 x 2 square dictating the definitions of set membership for the two sets. It is not super exciting visually, but about 70% of student use it to collect their thoughts before they write their proof.”

Ben likens teaching to telling a story. “I identify the moral intended to be learned, and write a fable to deliver that message.” He is acutely aware of the variety of backgrounds his students bring to class, and feels that this type of instruction reaches the most students and has the greatest positive impact. Theatrical by nature, he often uses himself as the center of these stories (he is very self-effacing), and makes his scenarios relevant to his classroom to create a connection on a more personal level while moving students toward the learning goals.

Engagement and Connection as a Learning Strategy

Ben encourages student participation by coming to class early, well before it starts, so he can greet students. “I ask them what they are up to and something current going on around campus. Often they change the conversation to the course and ask a question they might not otherwise during lecture. I learn more about what my students are thinking and feeling in the 10 minutes before class than any other time.” He also learns their names. “If you respond to a student by name when they raise their hand it shows you care. If they feel that you care while they are asking a question, it makes all the world of difference.”

“I immediately start every lecture by looking around the room, making eye contact with as many students as possible, and projecting “everyone is smart.” I begin with the mindset that everyone is prepared and ready to learn. Many instructors focus on what students are missing for prerequisites or their lack preparation. If a student is not prepared, more often than not, it is the curriculum to blame. When I radiate confidence in their abilities, students deliver back excellence. I want students to understand that I believe I will learn from them, making it more likely that they will want to learn from me. If the course has a lab or recitation that is led by a teaching assistant, I show up at least twice a semester. Students respect the hard work of their professors and try to emulate that example.”

Having students work in small groups and then reporting their findings to the whole class allows for multiple people to participate right away at many levels. I then listen carefully to every report focusing on positive feedback while making minor corrections. By respecting their answers on the first day students are more likely to contribute throughout the whole course.

Recognizing Differences and Creating Opportunities for Expression

Ben knows that recognizing differences among students is essential to reaching all of them. He makes a point to list simple key items for each lesson that all levels of students can understand.

“If people are not empowered to control their learning, they aren’t learning. I have a “no tolerance” policy for using your knowledge to bring people down. In computer science there are so many different levels of learners. For better or worse, these differences become apparent rather quickly. For example, to deal with these differences in the lab, we have students who finish early stay rather than leave. They are allowed to work on other projects or homework or, best of all, help other students. We are so lucky at Tufts that most choose the latter. We have many undergraduate TAs, and students want to emulate that behavior. There is nothing worse than sitting a terminal stuck and watching all of the other students leave the room before you. (I was that student!)”

Identifying with and connecting with students outside of class has always been a part of Ben’s approach. He participates in extracurricular club meetings, campus-wide student meetings on important or timely topics, and even social activities upon request. Research shows that one of the key factors in retention is a connection with a faculty member.

While teaching computer science, Ben uses technology behind the scenes and as content, but his style is decidedly “low tech.” He describes his classroom teaching as based on the “old school lecture at the chalkboard” style combined with an expectation of student engagement, encouraged by his own style. In his experience, students respond exceptionally well when given the opportunity to express their thoughts creatively through a variety of perspectives. Ben’s commitment to his students and their learning has been rewarded by several teaching awards as well as through his student evaluations. He continually reflects on how to engage all students to be successful in those courses.

Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University