Problems Everywhere

Computer generated problems specific to each student

Students learn by solving interesting problems and so an ideal educational environment would be to provide well defined interesting problems to students together with the appropriate support and guidance. However, even when we provide this ideal educational environment we encounter a problem. Many students see their goal as getting the solution to the problem rather than learning from the process of solving the problem and such students will often turn to other students to get the solution and thus bypass the learning process.

We have developed an approach that provides these interesting problems in such a way that students have to solve them individually. There are two limitations: these problems are short and typically are solved in 3-30 minutes and the problems best suited for STEM subjects. We wrote computer programs which would develop problems that would be individual to each student.

Generally, when we create a problem specific to each student, we also create the solution and so the system that generates the problem can also mark the problem and students receive instant feedback.

We implemented this approach on a module "Algorithms and Data Structures" which is a 2nd year module on the Computer Applications degree program at DCU. In the academic year 2017-2018 this module had 128 students.

We scoured the literature and the internet for interesting and challenging problems and we selected problems that could be programatically adapted to each student. We use the student id as a key to generating each problem which ensures that each student gets a different version of the chosen problem.

We create a supporting environment by having a compulsory supervised laboratory session where students are encouraged and allowed to collaborate. However, students can't just get the solution since each solution is different, instead the student must find out how they can produce the solution. When a student knows that they have their own individual problem, their motivation changes. The student no longer wants the solution, instead, they want to be able to work out the solution. They want understanding. This means that students are more likely to ask questions. In addition, once a student understands the problem, they frequently want to aid their fellow students to understand. This means that we need little lab support as the students are helping each other.

We also reward two students who share one computer. This makes collaboration an integral part of the lab work while simultaneously reducing resource requirements.

The end of the year marks show that student performance hugely increased when compared to the previous year. The average mark in the final exam increased from 54% to 80%.

In this presentation we describe the problems that we use and how to generate them. We explain how to use the problems as the basis for a successful learning environment. We talk about some limitations of these problems. Finally we examine the results and discuss how this approach can be generalised to other subject areas.

Topics: Assessment and Feedback in a Digital Age , Topics: Gamification