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Communications of the ACM


Contingency Plans for CS Students in Large Classes

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Professor Mark Guzdial

Credit: University of Michigan

Alfred Thompson is a leader in high school computer science education in the United States. He has a popular blog where he recently requested, "Please blog about your emergency remote teaching" (see post here) (He’s using a phrase that many prefer to "online learning" for what’s happening during the Covid-19 crisis, see explanation here). Alfred is right. We ought to be talking about what we’re doing and sharing our practices. It’s way too early to call anything best practice, but by talking about it, we get better at it. Reflecting and sharing our teaching practices is a terrific way to improve CS teaching, which Josh Tenenberg and Sally Fincher told us about in their Disciplinary Commons.

I’m taking Alfred’s advice to tell you about our contingency plans in the large (260+ students) user interface software class that I’m teaching with Sai R. Gouravajhala. A lot of CS departments in the United States have enormous enrollments this semester. With so many students, it is inevitable that some of our students are going to get sick before the end of the current term. Even though our traditional students are young, some may be at-risk. Some may be taking care of ill relatives.

Sai and I decided to create a contingency plan. We wanted students to have options so that they could bail out of the class with a reasonable grade if they became ill. The University of Michigan has moved to a "P" (Pass) or "NRC" (No Record Covid) grading model. Students can request to reveal their letter grades later, if they choose. But our students are intense and competitive. Many of them will push themselves to get an excellent grade, even if it’s at a high cost to themselves or their relatives. We wanted to give them a way out.

We worked with our graduate student instructor, Rebecca Krosnick, to come up with a plan that (a) if exercised would not lead to a failing grade but (b) would result in a better grade if students stuck with the class. Here’s our policy, somewhat modified to make sense outside of our class context:

We are dealing with a unique time in the world. There is a real chance that any of us could become ill. Likely many of us will, and several of us likely will before the end of the semester.

If you become ill during the last three weeks of the semester, please let us know via the staff email. We will not require documentation of illness, since seeing a doctor can be difficult at this time. We can’t give extensions on the Final Project or Final Exam. They already come up to the end of the semester. Those two components are 45% of the course grade.

You have four options:

  • You can take an Incomplete. Since you can’t finish the team Final Project on your own, we will likely invent a homework for you to complete as your Final Project grade in the Spring/Summer, and we would give you an alternative Final Exam. We will take your illness into account when grading your teammates on their Final Project.
  • You can finish the class as best as you can. We will take your illness into account when grading you and your teammates on the Final Project.
  • You can finish the Final Project, but waive the Final Exam. If you take this option, we will assign your Final Exam grade to be your overall Quiz Grade.
  • You may stop the class. If you take this option, we will assign your Final Exam grade to be your Quiz Grade, and your Final Project grade will be the average of your homework grades.

A few students have exercised these options since we announced them last week, three of whom are housemates and now have symptoms. One student sent us a picture of his thermometer for evidence of his symptoms. We have heard from almost 20 students who thanked us for the policy, and told us what they’re dealing with. There are students who have moved in with family members who have no high-speed Internet service. We have students in New York, Detroit, and New Orleans who have had simple problems, like blown chargers or network outages, who can’t easily get replacements or find alternatives (e.g., can’t visit a coffee house with Wi-Fi). We have one student whose family restaurant no longer has any employees, so they help each night filling carry-out orders.

Some students have complained that we are creating perverse incentives to report getting sick and taking one of these options. We are okay with that possibility. If we do not provide these options, we place an unreasonable burden on some of our students. That is a high cost. If we provide these options and some students betray our trust, the cost is an unearned high grade. The cost of not providing options is far greater than the cost of cheating. We choose to trust. We need trust in a time of crisis.

I encourage you to develop an explicit contingency plan. Give your students a way out, in case they become ill. Do it now, to reduce one source of stress in your students’ lives.

To our students, our message ends with:

For those who are healthy and want to complete the course, we are here for you and will complete the course with you. For those who can't, we are offering options to help you deal. For all of you, we hope for your safety and health.

Mark Guzdial is professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering, and professor of information in the School of Information, of the University of Michigan.


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