How Far Do I Allow You To Go, When You’re Heading the Wrong Way?

Part of the assignment work that I’m overseeing on this teaching weekend is a set of programming assignments designed to let students show their understanding of the work by producing a small version of a big system. The first of these tasks, Assignment 0, is a dry run at using the big system and looks deceptively simple.

Assignment 0 is sufficiently complex that the students should write a design, should think about some key elements and should write an array of test code to see what happens. Assignment 0 is run with a 2-hour lab session, where I can watch the students work, talk to them and give them some guidance. More importantly, every 20 minutes or so I address the class and ask about a particular design feature – how will you deal with this, have you thought about it – and watch a lot of ‘oh’ faces appear as people start to realise that design is important, even for these simple assignments.

My students seem to learn a lot when they have an ‘aha’ moment. Most of these ‘aha’ moments occur when they have punched through some layers of ignorance to reach some real knowledge, and often when they have realised that they were wrong. It is worth me letting them wander slightly into the valley of the shadow of less-than-deft because of the benefits they get from seeing the mistake, avoiding or fixing it and moving on.

The question is ‘how far do I let them go’? This is a tricky call, especially over a large class. Thats why I like group discussion, peer consultation and guided pracs. If use a peer instead of me, then the ‘authority of wrongness’ is limited and I can step in and correct easily. If I use a group, then I tend to get good answers coming out from broad band Delphi effects – plus I can sit in on a smaller scale set of groups pretty easily.

In this ‘managed’ practical sessions, I can survey the class by staring at screens, expressions and electronic submissions. I can quickly see if people are heading down the wrong path and step in, individually or at the group level, when the ‘aha’ moment is ripe.

What I believe I should rarely do is to deliberately misinform the class, even if I correct myself shortly afterwards. There’s a big difference between accidentally getting something wrong and setting out to deceive the class. There’s a big difference between a ‘trick question’ and half an hour of rubbish.

Some of you may disagree and I welcome examples or discussions of experiences where you found that deceiving the class or letting them go a long way wrong was ultimately of positive benefit. Let me hear it!

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