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Updating course schedules for a new semester, continued

This past week, I’ve been updating my syllabi for a new semester. In a previous musing, I discussed the complications that happen in a situation as seemingly simple as the same course in the same time slots. While it is nice when we can teach the same course with few changes, I find that changes are common and frequent. Sometimes they are extreme.

This semester, I’m also teaching CSC 321 and CSC 322, the two halves of our software design curriculum. CSC 321 is a half-semester course; CSC 322 is a full-semester course whose meeting times increase for the second half of the semester [1]. What broad changes have I made in those two courses? Let’s start with CSC 321.

  • In the fall, CSC 321 had two 110-minute sessions per week. This semester, it has three fifty-minutes per week [2]. That’s a net loss of in-class time. However, since half-semester two-credit Grinnell classes are required to have at least a dozen hours of work per week, it does give students another hour per week to work out of class.
  • Once again, I changed the primary source of problems for the class. I had been using Fox & Patterson’s Engineering Software as a Service. But students never seem to have good enough experiences with those problems. I’ve used Michael Hartl’s The Rails Tutorial before, but students have complained that it provides them with too much infrastructure [3]. My solution is to return to the Hartl text, but give students additional reflective questions to submit, such as explaining the purpose of a step or the meaning of a code snippet. That also means that I have to write those reflective questions. I had hoped to do so before the semester started, but I only managed to complete two of the seven or so sections I’m having students do.
  • I made some of the normal topical switches. For example, I’ve now seen enough evidence that Cucumber seems to interfere with student understanding more than it helps. I wasn’t able to make as many as I would have liked; for example, I really want to get more unit testing in the course.

What about CSC 322?

  • In the fall, CSC 322 had two fifty-minute sessions per week for the first half of the semester and two 150-minute sessions per week for the second half of the semester. 150 minutes for the second half of the semester. This semester, it has three fifty-minute sessions per week for the first half of the semester and three 110-minute sessions per week for the second half of the semester. That gives us more in-class time for CSC 322, but less out-of-class time.
  • Because of the increased time in CSC 322, I added a course rhythm in which students present on Mondays, work on their projects on Wednesdays, and learn new topics on Fridays.
  • I formalized the use of readings from Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby. I’d started using the chapters last semester, but I found that unless the students had an assignment associated with each reading, they didn’t get the readings done [4]. So I’ll be writing reading journal problems for that book.
  • I added some other regular assignments, particularly a weekly time log.

At times, I asked myself why I was making so many changes to two courses that are soon to change again [5]. But I reminded myself that the students deserve the best course I can come up with. And I am hopeful [7] that anything I write this semester can be used in the successor to these courses.

But this musing was supposed to be about schedules, not assignments. Where were we? Oh, yeah. In both classes, I’m keeping the topics mostly the same. But the daily class lengths and number of offerings changed. I replaced most of the assignments in one class. I added a new set of readings and a rhythm to the other course. It’s not quite as bad as creating a new course, but it requires a lot of balancing and rethinking.

I think the new versions of the courses will be better. But I know what will make the most difference: This semester, I should have time for prompt feedback to students. In past semesters, but particularly last semester, there wasn’t enough time for the level of feedback that I like to give [8]. I hope that my teaching load this semester allows that, in spite of a few too many administrative commitments.

If you care to see the changes, the old CSC 321 is at and the new CSC 321 is at; the old CSC 322 is at and the new CSC 322 is at You should note that the readings computations on the old CSC 322 somehow broke, which is one of the reasons students didn’t always get the readings done [9,10].

Anything else? Oh, yeah. Schedules would be much easier to create if I didn’t spend so much time on the related web site support and I didn’t get unexpected requests from the administration. Expect more on both topics in future musings.

In any case, putting together schedules and syllabi is part of teaching. And it’s actually an interesting part of teaching to think about how the pieces fit together to help students learn.

[1] I wrote about the CSC 321 and CSC 322 model, including the reason CSC 322 meets more frequently in the spring, in an earlier musing.

[2] In terminology I’ve used previously, CSC 321 has transitioned from 2x110 to 3x50.

[3] I had tried to encourage them to try to think more actively while doing the Hartl exercises; I expect that the normal semester pressures got in the way of such reflection.

[4] Admittedly, there were some significant problems with the course web last semester, so students weren’t always sure what to read. I’ve fixed that issue.

[5] We are combining CSC 321 and CSC 322, which are both two-credit courses, into a single four-credit course. We’re also adding a come back for more work on the project course. More details forthcoming once the proposal has gone through Curriculum Committee [6].

[6] Or perhaps when it’s been kicked back to us by Curriculum Committee.

[7] Why do I feel that I am hopeful flows better than the more concise and more active I hope?

[8] Admittedly, there’s never time for the level of feedback that I prefer to give. But there also wasn’t even time for the amount of feedback that the students wanted.

[9] I thought about fixing that problem before releasing a more public link to that page. But it’s only fair to show the schedule as it was, warts and all.

[10] Amazingly, the schedule broke, in part, because I made significant changes to the course for the fall, too. Those changes seem to have broken the Web site software, and I didn’t have time to track down the bugs.

Version 1.0 of 2018-01-22.