Boosting learning in Year 9 Computer Science with independent research homework tasks

Context:

I have chosen to carry out an action research project on independent learning my year 9 Computer Science class. I have chosen this class because this is going to be the only year 9 group with no previous knowledge of Computer Science; future GCSE groups would have learnt Computer Science for at least a year in KS3. And I have chosen to investigate independent learning homework tasks, because I believe this may help bridge the gap, providing stepping stones and improve my students’ retention of knowledge.

Introduction:

As discussed above, the subject for my action research is a unique class with no previous experience with computing or programming. It is very important for them to make outstanding progress and acquire good grades. In order to do this, they must spend more time outside the lesson to further develop their knowledge and skills in Computer science. I want to encourage my students to think, talk and develop their understanding of some new and complex topics in Computer Science. I want them to become inquisitive, active learners at home, exploring further the concepts taught in class. I want them to be imaginative so they can easily make connections and use existing knowledge to develop their understanding further. I want them to take initiative and learn new things for themselves. And I want them to work in preparation for new topics and come to class with some idea of what they will be learning.

Research question(s):

If I approach new topics with an independent research homework, will it make my students more inquisitive? Will they ask more questions in class and explore /investigate further? Will this lead to them retaining knowledge better?

Intervention:

I have tried a new approach with my year 9 Computer science students by setting a ‘research homework’ task once a week. Each week, the research topic was something totally new that we hadn’t learnt in class, but which is relevant to the topic that we have been studying during that week. I used the ‘Show My Homework’ website to provide students with resources, presentations and website links to inquire and explore answers to the given research questions.

Each week, I nominate two students per week to take the lead next lesson by sharing their knowledge and answers with others in the class in a form of five-minute presentation, followed by a Q and A session. This usually takes place at the start of lesson while students are settling, and it has provided opportunities for students to question each other as some students are more comfortable asking questions to their fellow students than to a teacher. This approach also enables me to access their understanding, and to clear up any misconceptions as they arise.

Research method:

I used three different methods to measure the impact of my independent homework tasks.

  1. Questionnaires. Before the intervention began, I asked my class to complete a short questionnaire (Q1). After six weeks of setting weekly independent research homework tasks, I gave them another questionnaire (Q2). THis enabled me to measure the impact of the intervention on student learning, engagement, inquisitiveness and hunger for knowledge, in addition to the development of the school’s ‘Habits of Mind’.
  2. Weekly classroom observations – noticing the number of students asking questions, the number of students sharing their knowledge and number of hours students are spending on completing their homework etc.
  3. Student progress. I conducted a class test, and analysed the data to see whether there is any correlation between marks obtained and research homework tasks completed. The data about their test results will also provide me some evidence whether students have been able to retain knowledge better after completing their independent learning homework tasks.

Results:

Questionnaires

Below are comparisons of questionnaire responses from the pre-intervention (Q1) and after 6 weeks of the intervention (Q2)

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The bar charts above show a clear shift throughout this study period, with more students scoring higher for their confidence in relation to the school’s ‘Habits of Mind’. The most improved sub-habit amongst this was exploring and investigating. Wondering and questioning also shows a clear shift from left to right; this is something that is backed up by my own observations during lessons. (Please note, Q1 was accidentally completed twice by students, which is why some bars are taller compared to Q2. Impact is indicated by a rightward shift, rather than the height of the bars which is only dependent on the number of responses given by students).

Time spent on homework

Another measure to support my research was the number of hours students have been spending on completing their computing homework. As I have been setting roughly the same amount of homework per week therefore an interesting measure for me is to figure out  if there has been any increase in the amount of time spent by students in completing their homework per week. If they have started spending more hours per week then it means they are becoming more inquisitive about their learning. Below are two pie-charts for data collected from student questionnaire to compare the results.

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Before my action research there were only 14% students who have indicated that they spent more than three hours per week on their computer science homework. This number has increased from 14% to 25% after six weeks. Also the percentage of students spending 2-3 hours per week has increased from 51% to 62.5 % which again is an indication that students are taking ownership and spending time at home to develop this understanding, knowledge and skills in computing.

Classroom observations

Through classroom observations, I have witnessed students have been asking questions to their fellow students who were presenting their homework to the class. Before my research I haven’t seen many students asking questions to inquire further about the topic under discussion. With independent research homework I have seen more hands up in the first 5 minutes of the lesson. Some hands were up to correct what was presented by fellow students and other hands up were to add further details on the topic covered by the presenter. For instance, in KB’s presentation on lists and tuples, there were 7 hands up within the first 5 minutes of the lesson. When I asked a technical question about negative indices in a list, another student contributed that it will start from the end of list (something that KB wasn’t aware of). This is an example of how students were more collaborative, giving and receiving feedback in class.

Conclusions:

I researched a new approach to promoting independent learning, setting weekly research tasks as homework, and combining this with providing time in lessons to explore and investigate aspects of the research tasks. This new approach has given my students an opportunity to become more inquisitive and independent learners, and has enabled them to develop self confidence as they need to present the concept to their fellow students. It has allowed me to provide necessary scaffolding and explanation where needed.

I have noticed that this approach has raised more questions and have enabled many students to give and receive feedback to develop deeper understanding of the new concepts and skills. I only have to chip in to provide necessary correction or explanation where needed, playing the role of a “lazy teacher” as suggested by Jim Smith. This also has enabled my students to develop more interest in the subject and learn ahead on the topic of the week. The data collected shows improvement in their confidence relating to the school’s ‘Habits of Mind’ – especially the categories of inquisitive and imaginative.

I have witnessed some deeper understanding of complex and abstract concepts of Computer Science. They were inquisitive listeners during the presentations of their fellow students and collaborative learners during the question and answer sessions following the presentations. They have proved to be more imaginative by making connection between what they have learnt and what they will be learning next. My conclusion is in line with the ‘hole in the wall’ project that has been completed in India, and I am now more confident in enabling my students to achieve the far-reaching benefits of independent learning.

Evaluation:

I have only collected data from one class. It would be interesting to do a similar study with different classes. I am not sure whether this approach would be as successful with less motivated students and homework defaulters, as this was a year 9 Computer science class who had chosen to take computer science as a subject for their GCSE.

Next steps:

I would like to research independent learning approaches more within lesson than only as part of their homework. I am planning to have more lesson where I am only playing the role of ‘Lazy teacher’, where I am not leading the learning but the learning is leading. I would also like my students to be daring enough to stick with the difficulty and use their imagination more to reach solutions to given problems.

References:

  1. The Lazy Teacher’s handbook: How your students learn more when you teach less’ Jim Smith Edited by Ian Gilbert http://www.lazyteacher.co.uk/.
  2. Didau, D. http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/teaching-sequence-for-developing-independence-stage-4-practise/.
  3. Mitra, S. http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves.html.
  4. Mitra, S. http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html.
  5. Dziewulski, A. (2012) A study of the use of independent learning activities with Year 10. Supervised by Dr Ann Childs. http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Dziewulski-Anna.pdf.

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