Teaching Scientific Computing: Peer Review


computingThis post is going out on a bit of a limb because I am not familiar with the pedagogical literature relating to teaching scientific computing. As such, I can only speak from my very limited experience. I’ve taken a couple short courses on scientific computing, but the only formal full-semester course I’ve taken was Introduction to C Programming for Engineers 15 years ago. In that course, the instructor spent 50 minutes 3 days a week writing code on the chalk board in front of us and we were expected to learn. Homework was to write increasingly large programs throughout the semester. If they didn’t work we got a 0%, if they produced the wrong output we got a 50%, and if they worked properly we got a 100%. Obviously it was a terrible course (although a number of my statistic courses that involved programming were not very different so this might be more common than I’d like to believe). Besides some of the conspicuous instructional problems, I was just thinking that scientific programming courses could learn from pedagogy in the humanities. The University of New Hampshire requires undergraduates to take a number of writing intensive courses. To qualify as writing intensive a course my meet 3 criteria:

  1. Students in the course should do substantial writing that enhances learning and demonstrates knowledge of the subject or the discipline. Writing should be an integral part of the course and should account for a significant part (approximately 50% or more) of the final grade.
  2. Writing should be assigned in such a manner as to require students to write regularly throughout the course. Major assignments should integrate the process of writing (prewriting, drafting, revision, editing). Students should be able to receive constructive feedback of some kind (peer response, workshop, professor, TA, etc.) during the drafting/revising process to help improve their writing.
  3. The course should include both formal (graded) and informal (heuristic) writing.  There should be papers written outside of class which are handed in for formal evaluation as well as informal assignments designed to promote learning, such as invention activities, in-class essays, reaction papers, journals, reading summaries, or other appropriate exercises.

I think these criteria could be applied or at least adapted for scientific computing courses. The 1st one is easy. The 2nd and 2rd are what I think computing courses could really take advantage of. From what I’ve seen, there is often not a lot of time spent of informal feedback from instructors and peers to help with revision. In programming, especially with flexible languages like R, there are often many solutions to the same problems. Useful assignments could be to critic the programs of peers, find ways to improve code efficiency, and provide alternative solutions to sections of code. This could include critics of the commenting and README files.

In introductory courses there is often an emphasis on cover content. Some people will balk at the idea of spending time of learning alternatives to simple options when there is clearly 1 best solution and so much material to cover to get students writing even simple scripts. However, it’s better in my opinion to learn a few things well than many things superficially. By evaluating, revising, and developing alternatives to code written by peers, students will learn how to program better. There is a reason that informal assessment, peer review, and revision is a required part of writing intensive courses. Those same reasons apply to scientific computing courses. Just as review and revision make us better writers, it will make us better programmers.

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