Teaching Lower-Division CS/CE: Our Improvement Experiences and Research Results

Frank Vahid

Event Details
Wednesday, March 4, 2020
3:30 p.m., Avery 115

4:30 p.m., Avery 115

Frank Vahid, Ph.D.

Professor, University of California, Riverside


Many universities seek to improve intro CS courses, and to offer online courses. This talk tells the story of UCR's improvement attempts in intro CS courses for the past decade. The courses previously had the common U-shaped grade distribution and high fail/withdraw rate. The improvements include creation of web-native interactive content having hundreds of animations and interactive questions, to replace textbooks. An early OER attempt was abandoned, and replaced in 2012 by a company (zyBooks) to provide scalable growth and continual professional improvement of content and platform. That direction has grown to serve over 500,000 students at 600 universities. 

Additional modifications include using the interactive content to finally get students to prepare before class, converting class time into extensive live coding of examples (with lots of mistakes made) and peer instruction, changing from one-large-program each week to many-small-programs enabled by auto-grading, and recently teaching the Coral language before C++. We summarize research on such items.  

The net result is a grade distribution that now looks like a rising staircase (with DFWs on the left and As on the right), good performance in subsequent courses, and highly-positive course evaluations, from majors and non-majors, at a school with high enrollments of low-income, first-generation, and minority students. 

UCR also started teaching online versions of CS1 and CS2 courses in 2013. While many online courses have poor outcomes, especially intro courses, we describe refinements made over the years, such as synchronous online scheduled lecture and lab times and extensive use of online chat, that have led to students in online sections doing as well as students in physical sections, with equally high course evaluations (and many stating a preference for online). The model has been reproduced at other schools. 

Speaker Bio

Frank Vahid is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, Riverside, since 1994. He is also the co-founder and chief learning office of zyBooks (acquired by Wiley in 2019). His research focus is on improving college-level CS/CE/STEM education, and previously (and still) on embedded systems. He is author of textbooks from Wiley, Pearson, and zyBooks on topics including C++, C, Java, data structures, digital design, computer organization, embedded systems, computing technology, introductory math and algebra, and more. He's received several teaching awards, including UCR Engineering's Outstanding Teacher award and UCR's Innovative Teaching award in 2017. In recent years, he has spoken on CS/CE education at over 50 universities across the country. His work has been supported by the NSF (university and SBIR grants), SRC, the U.S. Dept. of Education (university and SBIR grants), and companies such as Google and Intel. He received his B.S. in Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, and his M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine.