Computer Science 101

One example of course design for active learning can be seen in Colorado School of Mines’ Computer Science 101 course.  This course places a strong emphasis on students’ responsibility to actively engage in their own learning via Formal Learning Groups. The course also explicitly targets practices or skills such as those identified by ABET Outcomes. These learning outcomes include “(d) – An ability to function on multidisciplinary teams,” and “(g) – An ability to communicate effectively” (ABET Board of Directors, 2014).  The CS 101 instructors have found a way to utilize Formal Learning Groups to actively engage students in their learning, and to support students as they achieve these nationally recognized outcomes for engineering graduates.

The Syllabus

Beginning with the syllabus, the course is designed and clearly communicated to students in a way that sets the stage for active learning. The CS101 faculty has intentionally constructed multiple opportunities for students to work collaboratively on solving problems and completing computer science assignments, as well as communicate with one another about their growing learning and understanding. In the section of the syllabus titled “Learning Methods (Hellman, 2015)” expectations for how students will work in Formal Learning Groups to learn course material are explained.

Learning Methods

This will not be a traditional lecture course.  Instead, it will be taught using an active learning technique known as formal learning groups.  Here is how they will work.

A semester will have four rounds of learning groups (LGs), each about four weeks long.  Students will be randomly assigned to learning groups at the beginning of each round.

1. “Lectures” will begin immediately with learning group time.  LGs should review the previous assignment’s learning goals and discuss the new content.  LGs are expected to rearrange the room furnishings to accommodate their group work.  Instructor(s) will circulate through the learning groups to record participation points, observe discussions, and answer questions.

2. After the initial group time, there will be a brief discussion of the current assignment’s topics, perhaps working through a few example problems.  This will be led by the instructor but guided by student input.

3. Important topics in the next reading assignment will be introduced to the students.

4. The duration of the lecture period will be short problem solving time (still in learning groups) or a more formal (but short-lived) lecture period.

5. Before the end of most lecture periods, learning groups will have an opportunity to see the next group assignment and discuss how the workload will be divided among the members.

Establishing Expectations for Active Learning

It is important to note how the professors establish the expectation from the beginning. They clearly mark that class-meeting time begins with students working in their groups.  Listen as a student reflects on how he remembers the instructor introducing why the course was designed around learning groups:

The chart that this student references shows a cumulative distribution of course grades for Computer Science 101 for only the students who have entered the course without any substantial computer training or experience.  It shows that through their upcoming work in Formal Learning Groups, the vast majority of these students (80%) will earn a B or better in the course, making this a highly accessible learning experience for the majority of learners.

Working inside learning groups is a routine that occurs at the beginning and end of every single class meeting.  Class does not begin when the instructor starts talking, which means that the learners have the opportunity to best maximize their time. It also places the responsibility to start class on the students. After visiting CS101 classes, I noticed that many students arrive well before class is scheduled to begin. The students all began working immediately, talking with their group about the assignment at hand. In this model, students take ownership of the class time and are able to direct their questions and confusions about the previous assignment to their peers in the Learning Group. This is an example of what Larry D. Spence describes as the solution for fixing higher education – professors becoming “designers of learning experiences and not teachers (Spence, 2001, p. 12).”  Spence argues that in the traditional practice of professor as lecturer, students too often don’t learn anything that they are able to apply in their future job, or even a future class. He argues that the solution to this problem will be found in designing learning experiences for students instead of “teaching” them.  Mines sophomore Megan Kallis agrees –

Jointly Rewarding the Learning Group

To further emphasize the importance of interdependence in the group and giving one’s effort to the work of the formal learning group, CS101 assesses and collectively scores the learning of the entire group.  The median score of each group member’s quiz score is weighted evenly, and accounts for 14% of each student’s entire course grade.  This means that each student is incentivized to make sure that each participant in the group understands the content they are expected to learn.  The students who struggle are incentivized to ask group members for help, as they don’t want to bring down the weighted average.  And the students who are having success more easily are incentivized to help others who might be struggling.

The design of CS 101 was influenced, in large part, by the book Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research by David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson.  This book aims to provide a comprehensive review of the research about social interdependence theory, and upon doing so, reports that the overall result of 378 studies conducted between 1898 and 1989 show that “cooperation will produce higher productivity and achievement than will competitive or individualistic efforts (Johnson, 1989, p. 41). The authors also found that “individuals in cooperative groups perform better in later individual testing situations (p. 51),” and that offering joint rewards for cooperative group performance, like the professors do in CS 101, is “perceived as more fair than differential rewards,” and in fact, “such perceptions may influence achievement (p.52).”

In order to reward students for their engagement in and contribution toward the learning of everyone in their group, the CS 101 syllabus also states, “At the end of each learning group round, there will be a quiz over the materials covered during the learning group.  These are Learning Group Quizzes.  These quizzes will be taken independently by each LG member, but each member’s course grade will be based (in part) on their individual performance as well as their learning group’s performance (Hellman, 2015).”

What do students think about Formal Learning Groups?

Listen to what three CS101 students had to say…

So why do Formal Learning Groups and Active Learning matter?

Impactful learning experiences change the course of our lives, or at least that is the goal toward which educators are aiming.  The CS 101 use of Formal Learning Groups helped students become active participants in their own learning.  The structure in this course leads to the right mix of independence, supported by team collaboration to ensure success.  This type of learning leads to deeper understanding of content, and impacts students in rich, life-long ways.   Listen to Niall Miner explain.


ABET Board of Directors. (2014, November 1). Criteria for accrediting engineering programs. Retrieved from

Hellman, K.  (2015).  Computer Science 101. [Syllabus].  College of Engineering and Computational Sciences, Colorado School of Mines.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1989). Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co.

Spence, L. D. (2001). The case against teaching. Change: The Magazine of HigherLearning, 33(6), 10-19. doi:10.1080/00091380109601822