George Mack


Introduction: Exploring New Worlds of Teaching – Active Learning and Writing in the Discipline.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier set sail from Saint-Malo, France, intending to explore the “new world” of North America for a western passage to China. At the time of his departure he knew nothing of the Gulf of St. Lawrence or the St. Lawrence River, yet he created the first known maps of both. On that trip he also discovered the native settlements of Stadacona and Hochelaga, which today have become Quebec City and Montreal. He conferred the name Canada on these territories, made two subsequent voyages of further exploration to Canada, and helped to found the first French colony in what is today the territory of Quebec. None of this was part of his plan, but all of it was important.

In a similar mode of exploration, I began this Writing in the Discipline (WID) project not knowing what might result, but searching for ways to improve my teaching techniques and my students’ engagement. I am happy to write that I found them in quantity. Moreover, just like Cartier, I made other unexpected discoveries. Overall, taking up this research has been one of the most stimulating things I’ve done in my 14 years at Dawson College. The new teaching techniques that I have implemented this past year are among the most innovative and useful I have encountered in my 37 year career in information technology. It seems so simple now that I wonder why I never encountered any of this in my own university studies. Moreover, the exchanges with my colleagues in the Writing in the Discipline study group have been a breath a fresh air and I found myself looking forward with enthusiasm to group meetings which proved to be a highlight of the academic year.

My Experience with Writing in the Discipline and Active Learning.

I embarked on this Writing Fellowship for personal and program reasons. Personally, I was increasingly disillusioned with traditional teaching methods in computer science and increasingly concerned about lack of student engagement in my classroom. While lab activities remained engaging and successful, student classroom attendance and engagement was becoming increasingly problematic. I was looking for new perspectives and teaching tools to alleviate these problems, and I found them.

Dawson College and my department, the Computer Science department, offer a three year program in Computer Science Technology (Programming) which is described on the Dawson website (Dawson College, 2011). An evaluation of the program, conducted in 2009-2010, indicated that the program was not teaching to certain program competencies which required writing in the discipline and critical thinking. I perceived that integration of activities to develop in our students both skills in writing in the discipline and in critical thinking would contribute to better meeting program objectives (see my Application for the Writing Fellowship (Mack, 2010) for more detail.)

My readings, writings and discussions undertaken as part of the Writing Fellowship, as well as a course I took this winter, helped me to discover reasons why traditional classroom lecture methods are increasingly unsatisfactory and why student engagement has declined. Fellowship activities also served to provide me with an excellent new set of tools and techniques to improve the classroom experience and to teach critical thinking and writing in the discipline using principles and processes of active learning.

I invite you to dip into this portfolio and discover my journey. Below you will find a short description of some of the exercises I developed and used with good results. For those who wish to learn more about the theoretical basis, I recommend to you the reading lists found at the end of this report and on the Dawson College Writing in the Discipline website (Dawson College, 2011).

I hope that my work will encourage my colleagues, teachers of Computer Science, to join me on this journey toward new, better and more rewarding means of teaching and learning Computer Science.

Here is a summary of the balance of this portfolio report:

  • A: A short description of Writing in the Discipline of Computer Science;
  • B: A narrative reflection on the Use of Digital Media in Education (some pros and cons);
  • C: A discussion on three Goals of My Project;
  • D: A description of an Experimental Axis: Teaching with the Tools of the Always-On Generation;
  • E: A Correlation between Program Competencies and Possible Learning Activities;
  • F: Examples of Assignments given during the semester.
  • G:Conclusion: Self-Evaluation and Discussion of Next Steps.
  • H: Bibliography


A. Writing in the Discipline of Computer Science

Writing in Computer Science can be divided into

-Scholarly writing – not what we teach at the CEGEP level, and not related to any competency in the exit profile of our program;
-Project management/administrative writing; and
-Software documentation related to the process of software development:
-Needs analysis (problem identification) reports
-System and component (solution) specifications
-System design documents (about which more below)
-Integration, test and acceptance documents
-Problem reports and other maintenance documentations
-User documentation, which includes:
-Marketing and pre-sale information
-Installation guides,
-User guides,
-Tutorials, and
-Reference manuals

It must be noted that there is not one design/development methodology for computer software, but rather there are many methodologies, some formally specified and others not so; some older and some newer; some simple and some complex. Many or all of the document classes above, and user documents in particular, will usually include much written material, and may also include various types of diagrams and charts (class diagrams, state transition diagrams, and other data and process modeling tools) specific to a particular task or methodology.

The medium of document production and transmission also varies. Most documentation is now electronically sourced and displayed. Web documents, Acrobat files and various word processor formats are ubiquitous. Large corporations use document database systems such as Docushare, and software development tool suites often include built-in document repositories.

We should be giving our students experience in writing these documents and in design methodologies in general, but it is not clear that we are doing this at present. To the best of my knowledge, no committee of our department or our program has studied this issue in depth in the 14 years I have been at Dawson. No program-level approach exists to teaching design and document production.

Methodologies in industry practice have changed radically in the last 15 years and I don’t believe my colleagues and I are (in general) current on industry practice today. Remaining current in a field which evolves so quickly is a difficult task, in and of itself.

Moreover, in teaching programming, we are limited in the size of projects we can assign by the relatively small number of course hours. Real-world projects are often of much larger scale and the design methods are consequently more important. Small programming projects may be done successfully in an ad-hoc manner but large-scale development requires a systematic design process and production of supporting documentation. We should be equipping our students with the tools they need for this work. Along with various diagrammatic process tools, we should be giving our students experience with writing in the discipline of computer science and specifically with respect to software development. We can write descriptions as part of developing systems and software, and we can also write to promote critical thinking and to better understand the process and practice of software development.

B. Journeys in Technology and Education: A Narrative Reflection

I went to the grocery store the other night and came home with something I had no intention of buying. The food marketers got me again. They’ve discovered that most people will take anything that’s free – even if they don’t like or want it. So now they set up these booths in the aisles, and hire greeters to dish out treats for free, confident that everyone will grab, and that some portion of those will buy their product. I go into the store. I see the food. I try it. I buy it. They’ve changed my life as a shopper.

Digital media have changed our daily lives too, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Just as the airplane (transportation) and the telephone (communications) changed the ways of the world, so too has the Internet shrunk the world and brought it into our homes in ways never seen before.

So how has this technology shift changed the lives of young people today? Can new technology improve teaching and learning? Are there negative side effects? How should teachers proceed?

I was fortunate to choose to study Computer Science in the time before computers became a universal tool. I learned to design and build systems along with the pioneers. I watched with interest and understanding as they brought to market ideas, algorithms and tools that would change the world. Few of us understood in those early days how far and fast the change would bring us.

Today’s young people live in a different world from their parents and grandparents. As always, these advances have both good and bad effects. I believe I see anxieties in these young people that I did not have to deal with in my youth. I believe that they generally have greater distraction to deal with and are less able to concentrate on a single task or thought than I was in my youth. But they have at their fingertips a whole world of knowledge and, assuming they learn to discriminate between truth and fiction, assuming they can think critically, they will do greater things than we have done before.

It has been suggested that today’s youth need active learning methods much more than we did. They have grown up with digital media and, rather than seeing its presence as something new and wonderful, they see its absence as abnormal.

14 years ago, when I returned from years in industry to take up again the teacher’s task, I went back to my “chalk talks” with little change from the past. Yes, I had learned to use word processors and photocopiers to create overhead transparencies (OHTs), but the extra time taken to carry out these tasks meant that I had to choose between increased prep time and sticking to my traditional methods. As a result, I used a certain amount of OHT’s, but not more. It was still faster to create a complex diagram on the blackboard in class, and the students were able to simultaneously copy it into their notebooks (there’s active learning for you!).

As the tools got better and time went by, I accumulated more and more material. I began to build an image library to support my OHT production. I photographed, digitized, drew and filed endless folders of pictures, each worth a thousand words. When the Macintosh and Windows 3.1 made data integration seamless, all of a sudden I could build entire courses in document files. I thought “Wow! Now I can build a digital library of course material, and then my prep time will go rapidly downwards, as the quality of my courses rises in equal measure.” Little did I know how wrong I would be.

When teachers put complex diagrams into PowerPoint slides, they discuss them and then pass on to the next slide, and the students never get to interact with that visual content. The teachers often think that they’re being more efficient, that they will be able to cover more in a single class. Experience has shown me, though, that this is not a good thing. As I have learned though studies in education and my own experience as a student, listeners rarely comprehend 100% of what is being said, and in the worst case may retain as little as 15%. Increasing the density of information and the speed of presentation does not make for more learning. By making the students passive listeners, it causes them to learn less. When presentation software gave us the ability to generate handouts from our lecture notes, I thought my students would rejoice. I watched with increasing frustration as the years went by and students became more and more disconnected, as absences rose rapidly, as student success dropped (measured by the computer-generated and scan-corrected multiple choice tests, fully justified as an evaluation tool by carefully conducted studies).

In my frustration, I returned to school, looking for answers. Aha! Active learning! The digital world! New tools, new techniques, a better understanding of the learning process. And then came the realization: it’s the advent of all these information tools that took learning in the wrong direction. Whereas before I was only as good as the knowledge in my head and the books on my shelf, now I can open a browser and find new knowledge, answer questions, and speak from factual authority rather than from fuzzy memory. The Internet has given us that virtual library at our fingertips, and the amount and quality of information available on the information highway continues to grow. This is good.

The problem was, I had been so focused on using the technology that I had ignored what it was doing to my life and to the quality of learning in my classroom. I spent outrageous hours combing the Internet in search of material, building endless folders of lecture slides, notes, assignments, handouts, samples and tests. I learned to use so many tools that nothing was impossible with computers – but my courses and my life suffered. Today I teach by new principles. The students must be active – that’s my first priority. What we used to do, the Socratic method, long lectures entirely driven by the teacher, with students scribbling notes as fast as they can while only partially understanding – that was far from perfect, and today’s always-on student has increasing trouble with the intense concentration required. And while the students were active in the sense that they were constantly writing and drawing, they were not free to engage their minds in considering and digesting the material as best they could.

Yes, using technology to search for and prepare materials can be a good thing. I spend less time sitting in front of my computer, and more time dreaming up activities that will engage my students. Equipped with new tools acquired by studying education, not computer science, I have renewed the atmosphere of enthusiasm and commitment that I want to see in my classroom and lab. A revolution has taken place in learning – in my classroom, with me in the lead.

The emphasis in my classroom today is on cooperative learning (Welch, 2002). The students and I form a team, and they have to expect to do the bulk of the work – they must use all their senses and their motor skills – reading, writing, listening, talking, getting up and moving around – and they must stay engaged. I provide them with opportunities by making use of in-class writing and reflection, small group and class discussions, student presentations, peer teaching sessions, team programming and design activities, and class projects wherein the students act as members of a developer group, each contributing pieces to a single whole, immediate in-class application of lecture material using required in-class laptops and writing-to-learn activities in the discipline.

One lesson I have learned, after burning out, hitting bottom and having to take a year off to recover, is that those who want to do good for others must first do no harm to themselves. So I will henceforth limit the amount of time I give to preparing my classes. My new modus operandi will be – make the students do more, and do less myself. Certain grocery chains hope that you’ll go there more often because they give away a lot more free samples. And human nature is that, given something for free, we’ll go back and demand more of the same. As teachers, we continue all the time to push ourselves to do more and better with the same prep time and resources we’ve had for decades. The more we give, the more we will be expected to produce – with no additional resources or compensation – as if it came for free.

Now, are there new ways to integrate digital media in my courses? Yes. Will it cost me more time, will I remain sleep deprived as I have been in recent years, overwhelmed by the myriad of computer tasks required to maintain Moodle pages, WordPress blogs, Facebook status and tweet streams? Yes, yes!

And colleagues who grew up before the advent of all this technology, and who (unlike me) did not learn the skills to use it through their own careers, will be faced with even more time required to learn these new tools. But we each can choose how much to do, and how much to leave out. The sum total of all this: gradual adoption of new technology over the coming years. As older teachers retire and younger ones arrive, the percentage of teachers with digital literacy will continue to rise. Freed from fear and lack of skills, this new wave will more quickly embrace digital media and find ever more innovative ways to use it in education.

Should they wish to do so, educational institutions can speed the adoption of these new technologies by providing teachers with release time to undertake learning projects using new technologies. They have chosen to seed the teacher population with new digital skills by hiring resource people and providing limited professional development opportunities, but rarely by reducing teachers’ course loads so that they have more time during working hours to devote to these new career tasks.

Experience has shown that the public and governments expect teachers to continue to be miracle workers and make huge strides forward by working past midnight many nights each week – for free.

So will new money and more release time be forthcoming to help teachers acquire and integrate digital media? Don’t hold your breath! But DO try to do what you can, slowly, at your own speed, doing no harm to yourself above all, but cognizant that the emphasis must always be to engage the students and make them active learners with the best means available to us at the time and possible within the limits of our own time and resources – something that is as individual as teachers themselves.


C. Discussion: Some Goals of My Project

Here are three axes of orientation which governed my choice of methods and assignments.

1. Promote Active, Collaborative and Cooperative Learning, including Writing in the Discipline

Active learning is well explained by Dr. Mel Silberman (1942-2010) in chapter 1 of his book, Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject (Silberman, 1996). His point of view is summed up at the beginning of chapter 1 as follows:

“What I hear, I forget.
What I hear and see, I remember a little.
What I hear, see, and ask questions about or discuss with someone else, I begin to understand.
What I hear, see, discuss and do, I acquire knowledge and skill (about).
What I teach to another, I master.”

These statements are an expansion of principles declared by Confucius over 2,400 years ago. By these theories, requiring students to sit mutely in class listening to a teacher’s lecture is anathema to effective learning (see also (Emig, 1977), (described further below) and (Frederick, 1986)). (Modern research studies have confirmed up to 86% loss of material heard within 7 days – Confucius was ahead of his time!)

Collaborative learning is a form of active learning, based on concepts expressed by Abraham Maslow and Jerome Bruner and referenced by Silberman (Silberman, 1996). It places students in small work groups and gives them tasks in which they interact, thus making use of their social needs (cf. Maslow) to foster peer discussion and increase their engagement.

Cooperative learning is a subset of collaborative learning, as described in (Welch, Gradin, & Sandell, 2002):

“The formal application of cooperation in the classroom, referred to as cooperative learning (CL), is founded in the social psychological theories of Morton Deutsch and Karl Lewin. Similar in theory to collaborative learning, CL can be considered a subset that is more highly structured and focused on a specific outcome, such as learning to master a procedure. The social theory supporting CL identifies several positive outcomes associated with working closely in a supportive group of individuals. Learning something new often poses a certain amount of risk and the social support of fellow team members provides the environment in which risk can be managed productively. Involvement and motivation are both critical to the learning process and both occur with highly functioning cooperative teams. Learning remains a social activity and CL groups emerge as communities of students where social skills emerge hand-in-hand with specific course learning goals.”

The authors go on to mention work by Chickering and Gamson (Chickering & Gamson, 1987) which identified that good practice in undergraduate teaching encourages cooperation among students. Chapter 9 of John C. Bean’s book Engaging Ideas (Bean, 1996) begins with a review of much research into the benefits of collaborative learning. In particular, I draw attention to page 151 where Bean references studies that show activities in small peer groups produce higher levels of thinking. This chapter is an excellent reference for implementing group activities.

Writing in the discipline is another form of active learning, and integrates well with certain collaborative learning activities. Bean chapter 9 provides many useful suggestions for implementing all these activities in the classroom. Moreover, in the opening paragraphs of his preface, Bean underlines the importance of “creating a course atmosphere that encourages inquiry, exploration, discussion, and debate while valuing the dignity and worth of each student”. In my second-year programming class this winter, it was interesting to note how one or two bright students in particular were dismissive, even derogatory, towards some remarks by other students. It became necessary on more than one occasion for me to intervene in order to maintain an atmosphere wherein all students were being equally valued. I found this difficult and initially felt lacking in techniques to manage these difficult group dynamics created by my planned classroom activities. I was encouraged somewhat by “Dealing with Student Problems and Problem Students”, chapter 14 of (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2011).

2. Use All Four Language Processes (Listening, Talking, Reading and Writing) in Learning

Writing is a unique mode of learning, and by writing I do not mean note-taking.

As Janet Emig (Emig, 1977) expressed it in her opening paragraph,

“Writing serves learning uniquely because writing as process-and-product possesses a cluster of attributes that correspond uniquely to certain powerful learning strategies.”

The four language processes are traditionally paired as verbal (listening and talking) and written (reading and writing). However, they can also be viewed as passive (listening and reading) and active (talking and writing). Emig goes on to explain how, of these four processes, the active process of writing embodies unique characteristics of (1) creating simultaneous representations of knowledge in the brain in three different dimensions, these being actions, images and words; and (2) engaging both left and right hemispheres, thus engaging the whole brain in processing information, with positive effect.

Emig also refers to the process of revision of written material as part of the learning process. Group discussion activities, or verbal revision in small groups, can add a social dimension and increase engagement with writing to learn, while simultaneously providing important multi-mode reinforcement of learning as described by Silberman (Silberman, 1996).

3. Foster Better Writing While Eliminating Marking

Well, I’m exaggerating… but I’m sure I have your attention!

We cannot completely eliminate the marking of written work, but we can significantly reduce the marking to make it an achievable if not easy task, if we as teachers plan our lessons with this goal in mind. In chapter 13 of his book (Bean, 1996), John Bean discusses at length ways to reduce the marking load. He expresses ten time-saving strategies for acting as a coach rather than a reviewer, and having students do a large part of the reviewing and commenting that teachers traditionally did themselves. In addition to reducing the teacher workload, these methods have the additional advantages of promoting active and collaborative learning as well as the use of all four language modes in the classroom.

If you are seeking to follow in my footsteps, I highly recommend Bean’s commentary on revision versus marking (Bean, 1996).


D: Another Experimental Axis: Using the Tools of the Always-On Generation

At the same time as undertaking this Writing Fellowship, I was also enrolled in a graduate course entitled Psychology of the Emerging Adult. Early in that course, we students were asked to view and discuss a PBS FrontLine documentary entitled called “Digital Nation – Life on the Virtual Frontier” a 90 minute program first aired on February 2, 2010 (Dretzin & Rushkoff, 2010). (From the program’s web home page, there are links to Introduction, Extended Interviews, Related Material, and a link to Watch the Full Program Online.) This program gave me new insight into a problem I had already been wrestling with, viz. what to do about our “always-on” students?

By “always-on”, I refer to those who are our current students and who will come after: the young people whose first line of communication is SMS (text) messaging, who are in the majority constantly connected to social media and who eschew traditional forms of communication like email and the telephone call unless forced to use them.

My study of this aspect of today’s emerging adult convinced me to try something different in my classroom this winter: I made laptops mandatory in class. It is routine to divide our course contact hours into classroom and laboratory periods. Labs are routinely equipped with individual personal computers, but classrooms usually have only a “podium” machine and projector for the teacher’s use. Increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of student activity inherent in traditional lectures, I had been contemplating ways to make the students become more active in class, so requiring a laptop was a natural step forward.

Colleagues immediately raised issues: won’t this engender a lot of covert Facebook, Twitter and other activity? Won’t it distract the students? Won’t it cause discipline problems? What about students who don’t have a laptop?

Some of my colleagues had previously tried to pass a resolution outlawing student computers in class, and as a result our department had already passed a motion requiring this statement in all course outlines: “The use of portable computers in all Computer Science lectures for purposes other than note-taking is prohibited.”

I reversed this policy by requiring students to carry out a number of research and writing activities on their laptops. I further drew on research in education that indicates substantial benefit to students working in peer groups ( (Bean, 1996); (Silberman, 1996); (Welch, Gradin, & Sandell, 2002)) and required them to work in pairs when using a laptop.

Since there were three students who did not have access to a laptop, working in pairs also solved their resource problem as well. Moreover, I suspect that having two students in front of a single computer may reduce the tendency to engage in covert distracting activities, or at least if one student does get distracted, the other will often draw them back to focus on class activities in short order.

Use of computers in the classroom thus became an experimental axis for my fellowship research. I determined not only to engage the students in writing, but to do it using computer-based tools to the greatest extent possible. This places the students in their preferred context (connected to their social networks and always online), keeps students active (with all the documented educational benefits) (Bean 1996), and I observed significantly greater student engagement which was my desired result.

I dealt with distractions and lack of focus by first teaching the students about the need for concentration (single point of focus) to achieve maximum understanding of complex issues and to capture as much as possible of the incoming information. To teach this point, I played them the first 15 minutes of the Digital Nation program mentioned above. I then engaged them in a discussion about their own goals and conduct in the classroom. After a small-group activity to ensure they understood what the pitfalls of the always-on world are, I then established with them a set of acceptable rules whereby they would close their computers, telephones etc. when I requested it, or restrict themselves to learning activities for a block of time, knowing that I would permit them regular messaging breaks (every ~20 minutes). Over the next few weeks, a limited number of reminders about appropriate use of technology in the classroom and one or two group “Calls to order” were sufficient to make the students self-managing in this respect, and the distractions of technology were negligible thereafter.

There were some other pitfalls and drawbacks to overcome, as I expected, but I believe that the only way to identify solutions to these issues is by experience. One serious issue was Wi-Fi bandwidth in the classroom. Our first activity highlighted an immediate problem: 11 laptops trying to simultaneously download a 150 KB acrobat file took over 20 minutes! I learned right away that many students were already aware of this problem, and discussion with college support personnel indicated they also had some idea although they did not realize the extent of the difficulty. We solved the problem by bringing a small home-type wireless router to the classroom, plugging it into a 100baseT connection and creating our own local WPA net. The college is now studying replacement of existing wireless facilities with new generation, more powerful systems.

Pedagogical software platforms are also a problem. Dawson College is living a kind of “Tower of Babel” experience with at least three major platforms in use and additional minor ones. I initially tried to have my students blog in-class but quickly found that existing platforms were less-than-ready-for-prime-time. I am now running a test implementation of WordPress Network with the BuddyPress plugin and plan to use it in the classroom with students in fall 2011.

Another unforeseen problem was that a few students became quite upset with being forced into research and writing activities in the classroom. I did not explore this phenomenon in detail because it was not immediately apparent. Late in the term I heard from a single student that this was an issue (the student complained that his class partner was refusing to carry out assigned activities). In the next class I presented a 20 minute explanation of the educational theory behind their activities. After the end of term, colleagues informed me that certain students had come to them around week 10 complaining about “meaningless” design and documentation (writing) activities that I was forcing on them. The same colleagues indicated that by the end of the term (week 15) this problem had subsided and the same students were more satisfied with the course.

In retrospect, it became clear at the start of semester that students neither expected nor had experience with writing to learn in computer science courses. However, by the end of semester they seemed generally enthusiastic and accepting of writing and other active learning activities. They seemed to me universally engaged, so I conclude they must have discovered some value in these methods.

(Welch, Gradin, & Sandell, 2002) make reference to similar issues occurring in a Software Engineering course (Welch L. R., 2011) and suggests ways to alleviate them. (Gibbs, Habeshaw, & Habeshaw, 1987) also discusses the possibility of student discontent and means of mitigation.

I now wish that I had foreseen doing some evaluation surveys with the students in order to determine their attitudes on this matter, and this will be an action item for the coming year. Various authors have noted similar problems, and I conclude that it is necessary to give attention early in the term to explaining the rationale behind new or unusual activities.

Regardless of these issues, I feel that the markedly greater student engagement and enthusiastic participation which was evident in class greatly outweighs the issues, and that practical solutions to related problems do exist. In example assignments below, I will mention how we used laptops in the class for specific assignments.


E. Correlation between Computer Science Program Competencies and Learning Activities

One of my goals in undertaking the WID fellowship this winter was to identify learning techniques that could be applied to writing competencies already identified as part of our Computer Science diploma program. This goal was discussed in my application for the Writing Fellowship (Mack, Letter of Application – Faculty Writing Fellowship, 2010).

The Dawson Computer Science Program Exit Profile (2001, revised 2006) states that our graduates should be able, among other things, to

Work effectively, individually or as a member of a team;
Read, write and interpret technical material; and
Analyze, evaluate, develop and integrate solutions.

These skills were also highlighted in an Industrial Liaison Symposium which we organized at Dawson College this winter. The 30+ IT employers who attended expressed satisfaction with the technical competence of our graduates, but many claimed that new graduates in general are lacking in “soft” skills, including communications and teamwork, and the critical thinking and analysis skills required to be useful at a higher “analyst” level.

The competencies making up our Computer Science Technology diploma program were established by a committee and process led by the Quebec Ministry of Education and are common to all Quebec CEGEPs. These definitions are given in the ministry document entitled “Computer Science Technology – Program of Study 420.A0” (Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport du Québec, 2001). In contrast, courses in CEGEP programs are defined by local teaching departments and approved by the program committee to teach to these competencies.

There are two types of competency: Specific Education and General Education. Specific Education competencies are those specific to our program, many of which are related to information technology but some also to business and mathematics skills. General Education competencies, such as English and French language skills, are applicable to all CEGEP programs including ours. General Education competencies are typically taught by other academic departments; Specific Education competencies are typically taught by our department or occasionally by another department if the competency clearly falls within their discipline (e.g. Mathematics).

The Dawson Computer Science Program includes a number of competencies which relate to Writing in the Discipline as well as to critical thinking as a component of analysis and problem solving activities. The Specific Education Competencies which may involve writing include:

016N – Analyze workplace functions†;
016U – Carry out information research;
016V – Interact and communicate in various work situations†;
016Z – Produce and manage documentation;
0172 – Analyze the features of the information systems of various companies…†;
0173 – Develop conceptual models using a structured approach; and
017A – Implement an application†;
017D – Analyze, design, program and implement web-based applications.

The General Education Competencies that involve writing and/or critical thinking include:

0004 – To analyze and produce various forms of discourse;
000F – To apply a logical analytical process to how knowledge is organized and used;
000L – To communicate in the forms of discourse appropriate to (the) field of study; and
000U – To apply a critical thought process to ethical issues relevant to the fields of study.

In the ministerial document, each competency listed above is divided into a number of Elements of the Competency, and Performance Criteria are provided for each Element.

We must recall here that one tenet of Writing in the Discipline is that discourse in the field of study follows principles specific to the discipline, and therefore can only be taught by those familiar with writing in that field (Bean, 1996). It follows that some part of the General Education competencies listed above should properly be taught by members of the Computer Science department through activities integrated into CS courses.

Our program has recently completed its decennial program evaluation, and the corresponding Program Evaluation Report (PER) is, at the time of writing, making its way through the approvals process. Program revision has begun, and the PER has identified a number of issues with certain competencies that may not be entirely addressed at present in the program. Among these “competencies of concern” are 016N, 016V, 0172 and 017A, listed above†. Specific elements of these competencies may require new learning activities (particularly 016N element 4, and 017A element 5), and the introduction of writing activities could be done in the context of achieving some elements of these competencies, which the PER identifies as in need of revision. My application for the Writing Fellowship therefore made the case that (a) this is a good time to explore ways to integrate WID into our program, and (b) a context has been clearly identified.

At the course development level, each Computer Science course outline since 2001 has included a list of Course Objectives which attempt to correlate the course Competencies with learning activities as a series of cross-competency objectives. Each of these Course Objectives is then expanded into a sequence of classroom, lab and homework learning activities which take place during the course.

Having completed the semester of research and experimentation, I have identified a number of new learning activities that could be successfully applied to each of these competencies or objectives. Refer to (Bean, 1996) for more information on implementation methods.

Generally, informal exploratory writing activities help students to discover, develop and clarify their own ideas. As physicist James Allen wrote, “I am never so clear about a matter as when I have just finished writing about it”. Goal-directed use of small group activities promotes active learning including talking, leads to thoughtful writing and revision, and helps develop critical thinking. Short research assignments, whether stand-alone or part of a larger project, can be the basis for exploratory write-to-learn activities, which in turn can feed into small group activities. Scaffolding assignments, wherein successive assignments build on prior ones, force a revision of ideas which is itself a powerful means of active learning in the discipline when properly implemented (see Bean 1996, pp. 29-34). Developing and expressing designs in writing and by diagramming, particularly in small groups, is an excellent way to engage students in analytical activities using all the tools of WID and active learning.

With regard to specific competencies, I will focus in particular on the four competencies identified in our Program Evaluation Report as problematic. 016N – Analyze workplace functions, and 0172 – Analyze the features of the information systems of various companies – could clearly be taught in a course using research, writing and discussion/revision group activities focused on a business “case”. In addition, any one of several current OO design methodologies could be taught and used in parallel. 016V – interact and communicate in various work situations – can be taught (as I did this past semester in my second year programming course) by breaking the class into groups and engaging them in jigsaw-type cooperative learning activities as described in (Silberman, 1996) and (Welch, Gradin, & Sandell, 2002). All these competencies are exercised in the design phase of an IT project which can then provide jigsaw parts to competency 017A – Implement an application.

In short, all these competencies can be taught using active cooperative learning and writing in the discipline techniques in the context of an advanced design and programming course, or sequence of courses. I demonstrated this approach in my course 420-315 – Advanced Programming with C#.NET – during the winter 2011 semester. See my examples (section F) for more detail.


F. Sample Assignments Produced and Carried Out Under the Writing Fellowship

The attached assignments were developed in the context of the following course and its competencies:

 420-315-DW, Programming IV – Advanced C# and .NET Programming

Program Competencies† Assigned to This Course:

016T – Use an object-oriented development environment
0170 – Organize and use data
0171 – Debug programs
0173 – Develop conceptual models using a structured approach
017C – Develop and design applications in a graphics environment
017D – Analyze, design, program and implement web-based applications

Additional Competencies† Addressed:

0004 – To analyze and produce various forms of discourse;
000F – To apply a logical analytical process to how knowledge is organized and used;
000L – To communicate in the forms of discourse appropriate to (the) field of study; and
000U – To apply a critical thought process to ethical issues relevant to the fields of study.
016N – Analyze workplace functions (of a programmer-analyst)*;
016U – Carry out information research;
016V – Interact and communicate in various work situations*;
016Z – Produce and manage documentation;
0172 – Analyze the features of the information systems of various companies, with a view to developing computer-aided solutions*;
017A – Implement an application*;

† For a breakdown of these competencies into achievement contexts, competency elements and performance criteria, refer to (Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport du Québec, 2001). For a detailed list of course objectives and learning activities, refer to the Course Outline document for course 420-315-DW (Computer Science Department, Dawson College, 2010).

* Competencies identified in our 2010 Program Evaluation as being “of concern”.


Sample Assignments

F-2. Sample assignment: In-Class Writing and Reflection

F-3. Sample assignment: Write About, and Discuss, Good Coding Style

F-4. Sample assignment: Peer Teaching Activity

F-5. Sample assignment: Project-Based Cooperative Learning Through Jigsaw Assignments

F-6. Sample assignment: Exam Essay Question


G. Conclusion: Self-Evaluation and Discussion of Next Steps

If I had been given double or triple the actual release time, I could easily have filled that time with Fellowship-related activities. Additional things I could have done include: (a) researching and developing effective methods of assessing writing in my discipline, for each of the different types of activity; (Due to lack of time, objective assessments of student activities created in this project were quite limited. Work remains to be done to identify resources for assessment and create appropriate rubrics.) (b) better documenting my learning journey with more and better journaling as I studied; (c) additional development of writing and other learning activities geared to the program competencies; (d) writing a paper and a talk summarizing the learning for presentation to my department, to the school and at external conferences; and (e) surveying the students at the beginning and end of term as to their attitudes towards writing and active learning, and more.

I feel I have only just begun to understand and implement WID and active learning, and that this work could extend forward many more years. The experience of interacting with the other members of the WID Fellowship group was one of the most intellectually stimulating and rewarding things I have done in my 14 years at Dawson College and a refreshing change from the ordinary.

Next steps: for myself, continue researching and implementing new techniques, particularly in assessment, and solicit feedback from students as to how they perceive their learning experience.

For my department and program: first, convince other teachers in the department to take on a WID Fellowship and continue the work. The more people we have involved in this, the better our chances of applying the knowledge gained to our program, enhancing student success and producing a better graduate more suited to industry needs.

Next, ensure that all courses include appropriate writing and literacy objectives, tailored to our discipline. We need to recognize that learning to write must occur (partially) within the discipline, because practices and context are discipline-specific, and we cannot expect others from outside our field to know how and what to write. General language courses are not enough to produce graduates ready to write in our field.

Lastly, for the college in general, work to ensure the application of new media technologies according to best practices in all college courses. Create a faculty learning community, similar to our WID group, to identify and promote the use of new media in education. Continue to provide resources and expand on them as possible to further promote active learning, writing in the discipline and effective use of new technologies in teaching.

Please refer to the next section for a Bibliography. In particular, (Bean, 1996) includes an extensive list of references and the Dawson College Writing in the Discipline website ( provides a growing list of references on its Resources page.


H. Bibliography

Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging Ideas – The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin, 3(7).

Dawson College. (2011, July 12). Dawson College — Program Home Page – Computer Science. Retrieved from Dawson College:

Dawson College. (2011, July 12). Writing in the Disciplines Main/Home Page. Retrieved from Dawson College:

Dretzin, R. (Producer), Dretzin, R., & Rushkoff, D. (Writers). (2010). Digital Nation – Life on the Virtual Frontier [Motion Picture]. USA. Retrieved July 12, 2011, from

Emig, J. (1977, May). Writing as a Mode of Learning. College Composition and Communication, 28(2), 122-128.

Frederick, P. J. (1986). The Lively Lecture – 8 Variations. College Teaching, 34(2), 43-50.

Gibbs, G., Habeshaw, S., & Habeshaw, T. (1987). Improving Student Learning During Lectures. Medical Teacher, 9(1).

Jacobson, I., Booch, G., & Rumbaugh, J. (1998). The Unified Software Development Process. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Mack, G. (2010, October 26). Letter of Application – Faculty Writing Fellowship. Retrieved from Dawson College:

Mack, G. (2011, April 15). Journeys in Technology and Education: A Narrative Reflection. Retrieved from Dawson College:

McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2011). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers, 13th Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Microsoft Corporation. (2010). Retrieved July 14, 2011, from MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) Library:

Silberman, M. L. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Welch, L. R. (2011). CS456/556 Software Engineering. Retrieved July 14, 2011, from Ohio University – The Vital Lab:

Welch, L. R., Gradin, S., & Sandell, K. (2002). Enhancing Engineering Education with Writing-to-learn and Cooperative Learning: Experiences from a Software Engineering Course. Proceedings of the 2002 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition.

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Last Modified: November 1, 2011