Incremental wins and the power of praise

By Sam Green. Posted

A typical topic slide on Turinglab, with immediate visual feedback

Originally published in Hello World Issue 18: Cybersecurity, March 2022. All information true at the time of original publishing.

Sam Green discusses the power of celebrating the small increases in students’ understanding to support engagement and attainment

Over the past six years, we at Turinglab (turinglab.co.uk) have created many tools and resources for teaching programming. Almost 100,000 students have used these, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. One area in which we consistently struggled was progression and motivation. We often found that our materials required cognitive leaps that were too large. While a few students could take these in their stride, most were unable to follow along. They would eventually drop off, lose interest, or lose confidence in themselves, thinking that it was their inability rather than our poor curriculum design that was the problem.

I doubt these scenarios sound entirely unfamiliar. Teaching programming can be hard. In response to observing these patterns, we resolved to make the cognitive leaps as small as possible. We also decided to celebrate students for the minutest of victories. Internally, we talk about this approach as the power of incremental wins. In this article, I will discuss how Turinglab scaffolds progression, the power of praise, and how you can create an environment of celebration in your programming classes.

Scaffolding progression

When creating materials, we try to identify a student’s likely existing knowledge and skills. This can be relatively straightforward if courses build from the ground up and use regular exercises to provide ongoing formative assessment. Having identified a student’s incoming position, an incremental knowledge step can be derived. This could be introducing a new concept, such as teaching an ‘else’ statement once a student has already demonstrated ability in using ‘if’ statements; or it could be applying an existing concept in a context with more concept combinations. Crucially, the increments are kept small. While more capable students can fly through a course of small increments, a student with less natural ability will meet with disaster if the gaps are too large.

Let’s explore how we might scaffold the introduction of the function print(), having checked that learners have the correct prior knowledge. We might state that "print() is a function that outputs the arguments provided to the console,” and immediately follow with a task in which students apply this simple concept by completing a multiple-choice exercise:

Select the correct statement which outputs the string "Hello World" to the console:

print("Hello World")
print("Hello World"
print(Hello World)

The student is then given a series of incremental steps, such as the tasks in the box below. Each helps the student develop a more comprehensive and practical understanding of the concept of print() , and can be designed using either multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank exercises.

The power of praise

While teaching with a carefully considered progression is a common idea, it’s the winning that is so often forgotten in our classrooms. In computer science, students mostly have access to a computer, and we should leverage that. Computers can enable students to learn about a concept, then immediately apply their knowledge and have their application marked automatically.

Research shows that praise from a computer has similar positive effects to praise from people (helloworld.cc/praise). At Turinglab, we decided to throw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at celebrating our students’ successes. We introduced characters who would celebrate when learners’ code runs correctly, buttons that change colour, pop-ups praising students, and experience points that learners earn when they successfully complete an exercise and can later be used by educators to highlight achievement and progression. In our latest Python course, they receive these incremental wins every 2.93 minutes on average.

We have seen time and time again that students who receive immediate praise like this for the progress they have made are more confident, more likely to be engaged, more likely to have better learning outcomes, and more likely to develop greater resilience when faced with harder challenges. Claire, head of computer science at Longsands Academy in the UK, said, “It was particularly beneficial for SEND students who could see their progress,” and that the approach “provides students with revived enthusiasm with every small win”. Claire also said, of her early-secondary students: “It was amazing to watch students who would usually struggle with programming concepts leading others.” When we empower students with immediate feedback, students know when they are capable of supporting their peers, and those who can, do.

Try it for yourself

Of course, using tools with built-in widgets like ours is a great way to harness the power of incremental wins. However, everyone can recreate these techniques by breaking down course progressions into small chunks and rewarding students with sufficient frequency. For example, consider constructing a series of questions in an online form. Try to ensure that most of your students will be able to complete it in under three minutes. Ideally, your tool will be capable of delivering praise upon correct responses; if not, you will want to figure out how to praise all students more manually! This might mean providing a help sheet for those who need additional assistance to ensure they score highly, rewarding students for improvement, rewarding for high performance, or even rewarding for consistent effort.

You might also like to set coding exercises in which the output can only be achieved by writing the correct code, or in which the code is easily automarked. String at least five of these simple challenges together by linking to the scaffold in a tool such as Google Classroom. Ultimately, simply try praising your students a little more each day. At first, it can feel strange doing this for really small achievements. Rest assured, though, that receiving genuine praise more often really does improve confidence and engagement, and sets your classroom up for success.


Scaffolding progression


https://turinglab.co.uk

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