This winter semester marks the start of the self-paced, mastery-based version of CSC108: Introduction to Computer Programming. Funded by the Provost’s Learning and Education Advancement Fund, this pilot will be testing whether mastery learning is an effective way to teach computer programming.

Paul Gries, an Associate Professor in U of T’s Department of Computer Science, has known “forever” that he wanted a self-paced version of CSC108, but he did not know how to implement it effectively. Mastery-based learning appears to be a viable answer.

Mastery learning requires students to demonstrate that they have mastered one concept before moving on to another. This differs from traditional styles of teaching, where students’ knowledge may be tested only once or twice over the course of the semester.

The course is broken down into seven units, called ‘quests.’ Students work through these quests by watching lectures online at home, and then go to class to work through exercises related to the content of the quests.

Before moving on to the next quest, students must demonstrate their mastery of the material by taking a quiz. If they achieve the threshold grade on the quiz, which ranges from 70 to 80 per cent, they are permitted to move on to the next set.

If they do not pass the mastery quiz, all hope is not lost. Students have the chance to practice more exercises or get one-on-one attention from Gries or the teaching assistants during class time.

To facilitate peer-learning, students who are struggling with the same material are placed together.

Students can move through the quests as quickly or as slowly as they want — something that is unheard of in university courses. By this account, Gries said that it is possible to be finished with the course material by halfway through the semester.

CSC108 has had a history of students dropping out or failing, only to retake the course again later. Gries thinks that this happens because students do not realize they are struggling with the material until the midterm, at which point it is usually too late. “There’s no mechanism or structure for them to effectively catch up,” said Gries.

It is especially hard to identify students that are struggling in a class with such large enrolment numbers. Offered in the fall, winter, and summer semesters, CSC108 is one of the largest classes on the St. George campus, with over 2,000 students enrolled per term.

When courses are both mastery-based and self-paced, students can figure out if they are struggling much more quickly — and they’re given an opportunity to catch up.

Michael Spyker, a student currently in the mastery section, believes that this new teaching style eliminates the “downwards spiral” some of us may be familiar with in traditional classrooms. “The mastery based section… provides a much more organic teaching environment,” said Spyker.

While mastery learning at U of T is a relatively new endeavour, CSC108 is no stranger to innovative learning — there are already two other non-traditional sections offered: one solely online, and the other, an inverted version.

The main difference between the inverted version and the mastery version is that the latter is self-paced.

“There’s all sorts of other research supporting that the inverted classroom is better than the traditional classroom, because students are doing active learning — they’re engaged in the material,” said Gries, adding that he believes this constant, short-term engagement of the material leads to better learning.

Second-year student Spencer Ki, who took CSC108 last fall, agrees that the inverted course is effective. “I feel that the inclusive and ‘hands-on’ approach taken in lectures really helped me absorb what was being taught, as opposed to simply memorising it.”

However, if he had the chance, Ki said he would have taken the mastery version. “I definitely see the mastery-based course as the next step in the evolution of university classes.”

Still, the mastery version might not be for everyone. “We expect that for some people the inverted classroom might be better” said Gries.

Ki had similar thoughts about the mastery version: “the temptation to procrastinate will probably be much higher.”

Gries’ enthusiasm for re-inventing education goes beyond just CSC108. He hopes that if this pilot proves to be successful, mastery-based learning could be implemented in introductory courses across U of T.

Gries does not see it stopping at universities: “There’s a lot of high schools that don’t offer [computer programming]. We’d like to find a way to offer that. So, maybe a couple of years from now we’ll have [a] mastery-based high school curriculum.”

Gries suggested that computer science students could travel to high schools to facilitate teachers in both learning and teaching the material.