Search less and find more (knowledge)

No, it’s not my usual ramblings on me sucking more less. I don’t think I ever will suck more less than I do. Tried it – have given up. This time I will talk about search engines, old way teachers and lazy students. Guess this addresses most programming education but I will use my experience from teaching university students. So in short, this post will be about exercises for university students. Hopefully you can provide some clever thoughts and/or experiences. Please do so (see below)

Ok, let me start with an example Java exercise:

Write a method that takes a date as an argument and converts it to a string representing a date in the format 1996-04-22.

It’s not a Nobel prize exercise and I am not claiming it’s a perfect one but let’s focus on the purpose and solution of the exercise.


The students should read about the Date and some DateFormat class. This way the students get to know the Date class and get familiar with a DateFormat class. It’s not unlikely that the students also will learn about the String class.

Old way solution:

This is how I (as a member of the Old Farts Club) would have solved it back in the good old days – apart from the fact that Java wasn’t invented in the good old days. I would have read about the Date class and a DateFormat class. The latter class I would stumble on while reading about Date. I would have gained some knowledge about Date and gotten familiar with a DateFormat class. I would also have learned about exceptions. I would have fulfilled the purpose of the exercise. Man, I am so terrific.

BTW: Old ways is a great album by Neil Young. Go listen to it. Now!!!

New way solution or perhaps No way solution:

The students of today – man I sound as if come from the 1700 hundreds – will most likely solve by entering a search string into a big search engine: “convert string to date in java yyyy mm dd”.  Ok, let’s try it with some search engines:

All three links give me a direct answer to the exercise. And we can safely assume the students will find the solution too. But the students will not read about either of the classes (Date and some DateFormat). Purpose of the exercise will not be fulfilled.

So this leaves us with the topic of today: The larch… sorry, the Problem with exercises:

The exercises we (teachers) write are not solved by the students the way we want them to be solved.

This is because, either:

The students are lazy.
The teachers are lazy.

I would say that both are true. But fixing one will not solve anything. We need to tackle both problem. As I ramble on right now I see two groups of solutions:

Lazy teachers – exercises and tests

Teachers have to put a bit more effort in writing exercises. Here are some of the things I have in mind about exercises.

  • Better and more exercises that in a more fine grained way increase the knowledge curve. With better here I mean to state smaller problems that makes it useless to use search engines.
  • Tests for the students to make it possible for them to self check if they’re doing alright and can proceed to the next chapter.
  • Better sync with theory. When I learn stuff I prefer theory first and exercises after. It seems to students of today don’t think like me.

Lazy students – learn students how to study

We (apparently) need to teach the students how to study. Yes, I do mean how to read a book. In some cases I’ve gotten really loud and what I believe them to think rightful sighs over having to read one simple page. So in some rare cases, one page is considered much to read. Perhaps even too much to read. I know that sometimes I am not very eager to read one page and most likely will sigh – but still, I think the way a student look at the amount of work that needs to be done in order to gain knowledge have decreased the last years. And it is decreasing.

  • Read – yes, I really do think we need to learn the students how to take time to read literature. And to do this with no social apps, no email, no music (not even Bach or Black Sabbath), no chat, no browser, … no nothing. Only the book – be it pdf or a paper book. Oh yes, what about Flipped classroom. Students still need to read the literature when using Flipped classroom.
  • Take notes. This is good if the student later on wants to ask the teacher. The student should read the notes to get reminded about the important stuff.
  • Read again. Are you kidding me? No, I am not. Read the chapter again (at least).
  • Do the exercises. Also teach the students how to make small variations of the exercises – that is exercise even more than there are exercises.

Before we proceed, I feel I need to give an example of a discussion I’ve had quite a few times:

– Why haven’t you showed us concept A, and why doesn’t the book teach us about A?

– I have showed it to you two times during lectures and the book talks about it on two pages and those pages are in the list of pages to study.

– Well, I don’t think that the book is clear.

– What in the book is not clear?

Usually the discussion ends here. I ask them if they’ve read the book and they admit they haven’t. Ok, time to put the blame on the student? No, too easy. Again, teachers and students need to relearn. What was it Clint Eastwood said in that movie, “Improvise, adapt and overcome”?

Here’s what I think work best:

  • Try to sneak in some coming topics in the last exercises. This way I hope to get more attention during coming lecture (be it normal lecture or flipped classroom).
  • Write lots of exercises – even variations on a theme (I am thinking about Haydn here).
  • Provide well documented solutions – perhaps even step-by-step videos.
  • Interesting problems – sorting bank accounts in alphabetical order is <beep> boring.

Wanted: Your input

I am quite sure, fact is I am 100% sure, you have opinions (you better, you better, you bet) and most likely have better solutions than I do, so comment away. I will compile all input on all education related blog posts later on. So

  • What is a good exercise?
  • How do you get a good progression in your exercises?
  • How do you mix theory and practice?


Future ramblings will (most likely) be about:

  • So when do we learn the univ students to study? Is it the really the universities that should teach the students how to study?
  • Ignoring, letting go of or helping “weaker students”?
  • What’s the purpose of a school system anyway? – who’s “the customer”? Academia, industry, public service, humans, …..?


8 responses to “Search less and find more (knowledge)

  1. Sure there are lazy teachers and lazy students but a big part of the problem is that it is difficult to teach basics without being repetitive. This is not new to the internet but it has been made much easier with it.
    Isn’t it then the problem: that even if we vary the problems we set eventually we will run out of variations on teaching a basic problem and everything will be googlable?
    Theory is even tougher in practical exercises as we are usually much too solution oriented. Students reach the answer and don’t think about a theoretical framework. The question is: Should we teach theory before or after we practice?
    No solution only more annoying questions.

    • Should we teach theory before or after we practice?

      Exactly. I think a nice mix with smaller (than before) increments will solve that problem. But that only solves one problem. The big problem is how to make the students actually study the amount it takes. I am one of the last persons who should say this given my efforts in school – but I always knew what the reasons was behind a poor result.

      In my not so very humble opinion I think that we (high school,univs) must teach the students to do the work (man, I feel like I am from an old movie when I say that).

      Work hard – play hard

  2. You as a teacher inspired me! But it was not the exercises but the communication and that you made it interesting and fun that had the biggest impact.
    But I do disagree with you that theory first and then exercises. In my opinion learning is a intertwined series of both learning and practice. Learning by doing ‘as they say’…

    • Just to clarify!
      A solid theoretical foundation is necessary, but in my opinion (as a student) it is even more important to understand and become inspired by the ‘real-world issues’. They are not conveyed very well in the teaching today…
      I was lucky to have some teachers that did see me ‘as an equal, not just a lazy guy (even though I am) that wanted to pass my courses. That did inspire me search for solutions, not just to the tasks but also to the underlying problem. There are students that just wants to pass, but there are also students that have as their ambition to solve the ‘unsolvable problems’

      • Great. Noted.

        Consider yourself among the people who will be attacked if we get money to study this more.

    • You’re very nice. Thanks!

      But you would agree on small increments?

      I felt the need to really dive into this so I have started writing an application to get money to study, improve and adapt (almost like Clint Eastwood did)…

    • I am in a pretty awkward position here. If I mention one student (you) I feel I need to mention many. If I don’t mention you I feel a bit bad… 😉

      I remember when you handed over some self written exercises in network programming. That was really inspiring for me. …. ah, emacs damn it I will for a moment don’t care about the other students I’ve had. It was a real pleasure having you as a student and you inspired me.

  3. Pingback: Free Software in Education News – April « Being Fellow #952 of FSFE

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