Monday, September 20, 2010

Teaching Service, Learning Fun

Michelle Petrovsky, Guest Blogger

Our recent discussions of assessment seemed to give short shrift to an important teaching tactic: service learning. Relating classroom activities to conditions, events, and trends in the larger world enhances students’ interest in those activities. That in turn reinforces competencies and skills gained.

In my Web Programming class (CSC 201) in Spring 2009, service learning was at first absent. Students were lectured on, led through lab work in, and mentored regarding topics including:
HTML (the “native language” of web pages, that uses components like the ‘tag’ BODY and the ‘attribute’ BGCOLOR)

MySQL (a full-function database management system quite comparable to high-end packages like Oracle; widely used on servers that offer Web-based functions that require dynamic data, such as purchases)

PHP (one of two programming languages – the other is Perl – almost universally used to provide interactivity between Web browsers and servers; such interactivity can’t be provided by HTML)

Despite their all being upperclass computer science majors, and therefore having significantly more than a nodding acquaintance with programming concepts and practices, my students slogged. Writing lines like

<BODY TEXT="#435D36" BGCOLOR="#F5F5F5">

to define the background and text colors of a web page, rather than pointing and clicking in a program like DreamWeaver, is both challenge and effort, even for the computer-very-literate.

Noting the slog and seeking some way to ameliorate it, I talked to the class about reworking their semester project, by including in it a service learning experience. At first skeptical, they quickly warmed to the idea. The group's first design decision? That the web site they would create, and the MySQL database and PHP programming that might be needed to support it, should address topics my folks felt would be of interest to the entire LU student body.

Direct, indirect, and even outright subjective assessment tools indicated that connecting classroom activities to a larger context improved student performance. Grades on subsequent quizzes and exams were higher than those on the midterm. Projects began to be completed with fewer requests for assistance. Group work proceeded more smoothly, with less and less instructor monitoring needed. And I saw clearly that my students’ enjoyment of and enthusiasm for CSC 201 had increased. They were not only learning, but having fun doing so. The website they created is still available, at

1 comment:

  1. I am afraid our recent discussions of assessment have been very limited and not very productive. Service learning, if it is related to application, lends itself to assessment.