Understanding understanding

Instructor Sian Robinson Davies explains why we encourage active learning at CodeClan.

Learning from Erik Mazur

Eric Mazur is a Physics Professor at Harvard University and for a long time prided himself on his students’ high grades and teacher satisfaction scoring. He’s passionate about teaching and considered himself good at it.

That was until he came across an article claiming that students learned ‘next to nothing’ on the type of course that Mazur was teaching.

It showed that many students who successfully passed the exams could not apply their knowledge to ‘real-world’ problems. To disprove this theory Mazur began to give his students tests with the alternatively worded questions, requiring them to transfer their knowledge to new contexts. His students scored low.

Despite being top of his field at one of the world’s leading universities, in the video below Mazur describes having a career crisis that lead him to completely reevaluate how he taught. He stopped using the traditional lecture format and instead began to develop a number of educational approaches focussing on student-lead learning.

Mazur could have continued to teach in the way he had always taught and to be recognised as a highly successful teacher, but what is inspiring about his story is that instead, he began a body of research that sought to uncover how we can deliver education in a more effective way. He stopped lecturing and he turned his classes into discursive environments where students were given the time to problem solve and explore ideas together.

He says that it wasn’t always easy though.

As learners who have gone through traditional education systems, students are more accustomed to being told what to do; to listen passively as wisdom is imparted on them by experts. And what Erik Mazur promotes, along with many of his peers, is active learning, which involves the students taking control and being responsible for their own learning. And this means work on their part.

At CodeClan we try to encourage active learning in a number of ways that we believe not only help with better knowledge organisation and increase knowledge retention, but help create a discursive, collaborative classroom culture.

Paired Programming

We try to dedicate as much class time as possible to hands-on learning. This will often take the form of paired programming tasks where students work through a lab together. With the guidance of instructors, we often hear from students that this is the time when they begin to feel like they really understand. It’s the point at which they apply and consolidate their new knowledge.

Self Learning & Problem Solving

At CodeClan we teach the foundations and best practices of programming that will enable students to go on to teach themselves new languages and technologies in the future. Because of this, we focus on approaches to problem-solving and debugging methods, encouraging students to solve the problems themselves.

Peer Learning & Feedback

We encourage students to share their knowledge by way of peer code reviews, group debugging sessions and group projects. This activity plays a crucial part in the process of learning to articulate and explain concepts, learning that mistakes are valuable and that there a number of ways to solve every problem. And more fundamentally, the only way to improve is through giving and receiving feedback. Development is impossible without feedback.

And as instructors we also apply these processes to our own learning, supporting each other in our teaching by way of feedback and discussion. We share ideas, try them out and review them in a cycle of continual improvement, which is part of what makes teaching at CodeClan a pretty special experience.

Check out our software development, UX and Agile courses to find out more about our curriculum 

About Sian Robinson Davies

Sian is an instructor on our 16-week software development course.

“I have a mixed background in art, design and linguistics, but have pretty much always been involved in education in some form or another. I’ve helped elderly people get more comfortable with their smartphones, I’ve taught Edinburgh University students how to use software and I’ve shown my mum how to get onto Facebook. I completed the 16-week course in 2016 and can’t think of a learning environment more exciting to work in than this one. I also love building stuff.”


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