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Perspectives on Assessment in Introductory Computer Science Courses

Exploring and Comparing Experiences of Students, Teaching Assistants, and Course Coordinators

Time: Mon 2022-04-25 14.00

Location: F3, Lindstedtsvägen 26 & 28, Stockholm

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Language: English

Subject area: Computer Science

Doctoral student: Emma Riese , Teoretisk datalogi, TCS

Opponent: Associate Professor Päivi Anneli Kinnunen, University of Helsinki

Supervisor: Professor Viggo Kann, Teoretisk datalogi, TCS, Lärande i Stem; Associate Professor Olle Bälter, Medieteknik och interaktionsdesign, MID; Associate Professor Stefan Stenbom, Digitalt lärande, Lärande i Stem; PhD Johan Thorbiörnson, Digitalt lärande

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QC 20220330


Assessments of students' performances, including providing the students with feedback, are central parts of course design in higher education. These assessments can be carried out in different ways and with different purposes. The introductory programming courses (CS1) are often given to a large group of students, many of whom are non-computer science majors. To conduct the assessments and provide the students with individual feedback, teaching assistants (TAs, students with prior experience of the subject) are often employed to assist the course coordinators (main instructors) in these courses.

The practice-based research aim of this thesis is to give recommendations to course coordinators and TAs on how to integrate assessment situations in CS1 courses, aiming to be experienced as fair and valid examinations and opportunities to provide the students with useful feedback. To do so, the experiences and use of assessments within CS1 courses given to non-computer science majors, are explored from the perspective of students, TAs, and course coordinators. The three stakeholders' experiences are also compared, and to further understand the experiences, the TAs' and course coordinators' perceptions of their roles in relation to the assessments are explored. The studied assessment types include lab assignments, midterm exams, and individual final projects. 

By using a mixed-method approach with a qualitative starting point, each of the stakeholders' perspectives has been studied in detail, mostly within a Swedish context. The research uncovers the complex role of the TAs and the other stakeholders' strong dependency on them. The results suggest that each of the three studied assessment types has weaknesses and strengths that often are experienced differently by the stakeholders. This includes pitfalls with how assessment situations, designed by course coordinators to be both learning activities and graded, are challenging for the TAs to conduct. The assessments then risk being experienced by the students as unfair or dependent on the TA. Further, the results suggest that TAs face challenges related to the student-TA relationship, specifically how to handle being friends with the students they teach. The large group of students limits the course coordinators' role in the assessments, and they have a monitoring role not always visible to the students.

Recommendations for TAs and course coordinators, grounded in the research results, are presented in the thesis. Further implications from the research, in the form of TA training initiatives, are also described and evaluated as part of this thesis work.