October 17, 2008

Measuring a Courses’ Success: xkcd

Category: academic,Hackers,Teaching — Biella @ 9:56 am

So we are about 1/2 way done with my hacker class and I have to say it has been a pretty fun ride, especially since many students thought hacking was all about pimply kids engaging in malicious acts of computer violence and many had no knowledge of basic technological concepts like UNIX or source code. We had to first sweep away the cobwebs of misrepresentation and replace with a more solid foundation of facts (however messy the world of hacking still is!)

But after building a foundation, you still wonder whether students are learning. Traditionally we gauge progress with exams or essays, which can be effective but let’s face it, at times a little tedious. But today a student sent me the following very short email, which made me realize I had another barometer at my disposal to gauge their progress xkcd:


I wouldn’t have gotten the joke if it wasn’t for you. Thanks.

The email not only made me smile (for it is always nice to know your students are leaning something) but it gave me the idea that in the future I might include a comic based exams composed of 5-10 comic strips (many from xkcd) and ask for an exegesis of them. Why not? Seems like fun to me. And it would be great to include the following as one of my course objectives: “By the end of this class you will be able to read xkcd and actually understand (most) of it.” If they could do that, well, they must have learned at least something :-)


One of my readers, Florian, sent this nice bit, which I have not read before:

“I read your blog via Planet Debian and immediately felt reminded of Jane
Goodall’s Foreword to Gary Larson’s The Far Side Gallery 5 which I’d
like to share with you:”

| Recently I was talking with one of the best researcher know, Tim
| O’Halloran. He has been able to inspire generations of middle and high
| school students to care for the natural world. Tim told me that Gary
| Larson has had a major impact on his teaching. Tim uses Far Side
| cartoons to introduce topics, to illustrate points, and to “reinforce
| the notion that the more we investigate the universe, the richer is our
| experience.” When designing exam papers Tim finds the cartoons “ease the
| tension and spark the memory.” It all began when, in the fall of 1985,
| he was given the task of teaching science to 162 Tulsa ninth-graders who
| were convinced that it was absolutely irrelevant to their futures. Tim
| put one hundred Far Side cartoons on a large bulleting board, and told
| the students to study them. The consensus was that they didn’t
| understand the humor – The Far Side was “too weird”. However, Tim wrote
| me, “Each time we completed a unit and the students approached the
| bulletin board with newly acquired wisdom, I smiled quietly and thanked
| the cosmos for Gary’s perspectives as the kids roared with the confident
| laughter of the enlightened.”

Having taught myself for a while, I can fully and happily relate.

Later in the semester, and for my hacker course, we will be reading Understanding Comics, which will give us a bit of a meta perspective on why comics are so good at conveying a certain type of message. I can’t wait to read it as I have heard it is fantastic.


  1. Neat idea!

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — October 17, 2008 @ 10:12 am

  2. yes.

    Comment by chuk — October 20, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

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