Near the end of the fall 2015 semester, I asked students in this course to provide some feedback on the course through an anonymous online survey. I thought I would share a few highlights from that survey here on the blog for past and future students.

Course Activities. On the survey, I asked students to rate various course activities as useful (or not) to their learning. The activities rated most useful to student learning were:

  • reading the textbook (The Code Book by Simon Singh),
  • blogging about the readings prior to class,
  • reading peers' blog posts,
  • discussing the readings during class,
  • working through the problem sets,
  • studying for the math exam, and
  • writing papers.

Activities that were rated less useful included reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, exploring peer contributions to the class bookmark group on Diigo, and making use of the class timeline on the history of cryptography. Each of these activities were seen as useful by some students, but were not rated as universally useful as the activities listed above.

My takeaway? See if I can integrate the bookmarking and timeline activities more into major course assignments, so that those elements of the course are more useful to future students.

Classroom Activities. I also asked student to rate the usefulness of select in-class activities to their learning. Top of this list were:

  • working through math and crypto problems during class,
  • spending class time workshopping paper drafts,
  • analyzing papers written by students during previous offerings of the course,
  • discussing a single student's draft paper using clickers and a rubric,
  • hearing from guest speaker and cryptographer Elonka Dunin,
  • building a "security vs. privacy" debate map collaboratively using Post-it notes, and
  • learning how to send encrypted emails.

Less useful activities (again, useful to some, but not useful across the board) included using clicker questions to explore academic integrity issues, reading and commenting on peers' blog posts during class, and debating "security vs. privacy" by role-playing various expert perspectives.

My takeaways? Since most of the "most useful" activities are ones I've used multiple times, continue to refine my lesson plans each time I teach the course to improve individual activities. And continue to approach my lesson plans with as much creativity as I can muster!

Advice to Future Students. What advice would my fall 2015 students offer to a student who plans to enroll in and hopes to do well in this course? Here's a selection:

  • "Do ALL of the reading, and PARTICIPATE. This class is amazing, informative, and very interesting, but only if you actually take part."
  • "I would advise them to put in the effort necessary to do well in the course. It is a very rewarding course, but it does require a lot of work."
  • "Keep on top of the math, and even when working through problem sets with friends, make sure you can do it on your own. Always, always ask questions."
  • "I would advise the student to keep an open mind when approaching the security vs. privacy issue, as their mind may change throughout the course as they continue to learn more about cryptography."
  • "I would tell the student to keep up on the Singh reading, and give themselves enough time not only to read what is written but also to go over it a few times to understand the math behind it."
  • "I would tell them to work the problem sets both by themselves and with a group as both are helpful in different ways."
  • "Make sure to read the required readings, and don't procrastinate on the papers."
  • "I would tell them to continuously watch for cryptography examples both in the news and in their everyday lives, as it plays a much bigger role than I could have ever imagined before taking the course."

My takeaway? I'll definitely share this advice with my next group of students!

Suggestions. Students provided a number of suggestions for future offerings of the course. Below are a few of them, with my thoughts in parentheses.

  • "I think that it's important to spend a little more time on Little Brother. It seemed less like a part of the course and more like a short break from the course." (This comment came up more than once in the feedback. I'll see what I can do next time to integrate the novel more in the course.)
  • "Because our question of security vs. privacy was evident throughout the semester, I think a debate would be an effective addition to the course." (We had a very fun "security vs. privacy" debate in the 2014 offering of the course. I'll probably bring that back in future offerings.)
  • "Using different forms of media to express our own views was helpful, but maybe looking more into the opinions of others in the field on social media would be just as helpful." (Since this course is a first-year writing seminar, I'm required to ask students to write a lot. That's not to say, however, that I couldn't work maybe one multimedia assignment into the syllabus! And it's been a goal for a few years now to build in a few Twitter assignments to the course. Next time!)
  • "Our class very early on began collaborating naturally, but I would suggest in the coming years to recommend this to your students as I personally found it very helpful ." (I was frankly amazed at how naturally the fall 2015 students started working together outside of class on problem sets. I think a few of them probably should have also visited my office hours from time time, but, in general, the out-of-class collaboration was a success. I'll continue to encourage this in the future, perhaps even suggesting GroupMe as a way to get organized.)
  • "More blogs but with less emphasis on each one (e.g. not having other students critique them) so students can feel more comfortable/less pressure writing them." (I saw the blog assignments as fairly low-stakes, informal writing, but it would seem that this student, at least, felt differently. I might try to handle the peer review piece of the class differently in the future, emphasizing its role in preparing students for later, higher-stakes writing assignments. Or bring in Twitter for shorter, more frequently, very informal writing assignments.)
  • "Perhaps you could give an assignment where each student chooses a cipher that hasn't been discussed yet and writes about it in detail." (This was a paper assignment in each of the previous iterations of the course! It's a great assignment, but I felt that it needed a break, mainly because many of the good cipher choices have been covered by students in their Wonders & Marvels essays.)
  • "I think there could be a harder push towards writing on very unique subjects; this way we can explore what might be very interesting to us individually." (Good point. Without the paper assignment described above, the course had a little less freedom for students to explore topics of personal interest. I'll see if I can rebalance this aspect of paper assignments next time.)
  • "I personally wasn't a fan of the first paper... not sure why but I think it was kind of hard to be confined to the opinions of the 3 articles we had to choose from." (Another vote for a little more freedom to explore topics! I'll definitely build in more of this next time.)

Thanks to my students for providing such useful feedback. I'll be sure to review all the feedback when I return to this course in the future.