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The legendary CSC 151 picture quiz

I have a large array of learning goals for CSC 151, our introductory course. Here are a few. I want to help students to develop some ways of thinking like a computer scientist. I want to help them understand and be able to use various techniques, including recursion and assorted higher-order approaches. I want to help them learn a large subset of Scheme [1]. I want to help students learn how to think on their feet and get comfortable asking questions.

Some learning goals are experiential. In particular, I want students to get used to working with a variety of other people with different skill sets, approaches, and levels of commitment. I also want students to meet a wider variety of other students. Hence, I regularly switch partners for daily labs [2].

Because I want students to get to know each other, at some point in the semester, I give a picture quiz in which I list all of the students’ names, present all of the students’ pictures in some unknown order [3], and ask students to identify all of their classmates [4,8]. Sometimes I give it as early as week four to really encourage students to learn each others’ names [9]. Sometimes I give it right before break as a slightly less stressful [10] quiz.

Some students love the quiz. Some hate it [11]. It values a different kind of skill and knowledge than the other quizzes I give, which tend to focus more on concepts from computer science, programming, or Scheme. Since knowing other students is one of my learning goals for the course, I consider it reasonable to test students in this way. I know some find it hard; I’ve had at least a few who didn’t even identify themselves. But, as I said, giving the quiz makes an important rhetorical statement. It also leads to some amusing review sessions [12].

I’ve been giving this quiz for about a decade now [14]. Maybe it’s time for a new quiz that reinforces the same issues. Perhaps in the future I will hand students pictures of twelve of their classmates and ask them to say something special about ten of them. We’ll see.

Wish my students luck! Some will need it.

[1] R5RS. Knowing a large subset of R7RS and beyond is difficult.

[2] We tend to switch partners twice per week.

[3] Student pictures used to have an associated number. I would usually organize by that number. Student pictures no longer have that associated number, so I find other approaches.

[4] CSC 151 is one of the largest classes at Grinnell, with 36 to 40 students in the course most of the time that I teach it [5].

[5] Yes, 36 to 40 is very large for Grinnell. It’s small compared to other introductory courses, even at some small colleges. I have heard that Harvey Mudd has a few hundred in theirs [6].

[6] Rumor has it that by teaching such large sections of CS, Zachary Dodds is personally responsible for dropping the Harvey Mudd US News rankings by a few points [7].

[7] Yes, that’s absurd. But much about the US News rankings are absurd.

[8] They can still get a full ten points (out of ten) if they miss 10% of their classmates. Additional credit is available if they get everyone right and if they do other related tasks.

[9] And to encourage myself to learn everyone’s name.

[10] Or at least differently stressful.

[11] Eldest son hated that I asked for first names, given that he’d memorized last names.

[12] We usually don’t do review sessions for the picture quiz. But one semester, one of the class mentors made flash cards.

[14] Yes, I use different pictures each semester.

Version 1.0 of 2017-03-15.