# Engaging students in computer lab

I am currently teaching the workshop for a class on chaos and fractals in a computer lab. The class is predominantly first year, first semester university students.

Worksheets have been developed for the students to use to encourage them to engage with the material in a way that isn't feasible on paper (e.g. bifurcation diagram). This requires them using provided Matlab scripts and modifying them for the different questions on the worksheet. In a class survey, all students said that they were familiar with the usage of Matlab.

The approach I am taking for teaching this class is to remind the students where the material can be downloaded from on the class website, before individually engaging with each student to ensure that they are understanding the topic at hand. This approach is significantly better for this class, as I have been allocated 2 hours with a 22 student class.

In the first two classes, some students have really engaged and are using the worksheet questions to understand what is actually going on with the underlying theory, what the mathematical terms used in class actually look like on a graph, etc. Meanwhile, other students simply work through the worksheet as quickly as possible and don't seem to really be understanding, despite the instructions on the worksheet stating that the worksheet should be worked through slowly to help the understanding of the topics.

What is the best technique for making the students who are working through the worksheet quickly change their approach to help their understanding?

Example:

The worksheet for this week focused on identifing the relationship between the time-series plot $(n,x_n)$ and cobweb plot for the Logistic map. The students who engaged with the worksheet were able to identify the progression of the sequence between the two graphs and the relationship between them. The students who did not engage completed through the worksheet very quickly be generating the necessary graphs for the relevant questions. When I asked them to explain the relationship, they were unable.

• How is it that in a group of first-year, first-semester students, most are familiar with Matlab? Is Matlab common in Australian secondary schools? That premise seems so counterfactual from an American perspective that it's hard to answer the question.
– user173
Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 16:45
• @MattF A pre-requisite for this class (which can be taken in the same semester) is a computational mathematics course which focuses solely on the use of Matlab. The two courses were developed so that this course did not use any Matlab skills that were not yet taught in the computational mathematics course. The students are familiar with Matlab in the sense that they have seen the program and should have the necessary to complete the assigned tasks. Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 21:12

## 2 Answers

My mother tells an excellent story from when I was learning to read. She finds that I am reading very quickly considering my age. After asking me some questions, she discovers that I thought "reading" meant "looking at and understanding each word on the page." I was able to do that very quickly!

Your students sound like they are doing the same thing -- completing each question, but not thinking about what is going on around those questions.

So, maybe we can learn from the English teachers here and use their solution -- comprehension questions. At the end of the worksheet, instead of asking practice questions that are retooled versions of the questions they just did, ask them questions that are more about the "sentences" and "paragraphs" of the worksheet.

Actually, you should explicitly label them Comprehension Questions -- after a couple runs through the worksheets where the students found they could not answer the Comprehension Questions, they might notice what that implies about their work!

I think that the first thing to do is to give only a fraction of the maximum grade (let's say 60-70%) for students who are just completing the worksheet without being able to explain what that mean from the theoretical point of view. Of course I am assuming that a large part of the final grade will come from evaluating their lab work.