Keith Whittington, B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences
Eisenhart Award for Outstanding Teaching honoree
A. Sue Weisler
In a literature course, it’s expected that class time will be devoted to free-flowing discussion of the concepts, motivations, style, structure and nuance of assigned reading material. In computer programming courses, those types of discussions are not the norm. Keith Whittington, associate professor of information technology, is changing that, using “active learning” techniques with great success.
“The typical classroom is a highly competitive environment,” Whittington points out. “There are a few students who compete to be the first to answer any question, and the rest of the class sits back in silence. I try to create a more cooperative environment by finding non-threatening ways to get everybody participating.”
To get students talking, he uses a variety of low-tech methods. For instance, he uses playing cards to randomly call on students and gives each group a red card and a green card, then poses a problem. “Hold up the green card if you think this will compile,” he instructs the students. At first, a consistent field of the same color flies up, but as the problems become more complex, mixed pockets of red and green appear. Whittington can readily see which students understand the concepts—and he helps them build confidence by encouraging them to explain their conclusions.
He uses this and other methods to get all students involved, but the core of his innovation is the use of cooperative learning activities. He splits the students into small groups and they are given specific, well-planned and highly orchestrated activities. These activities attempt to deepen the understanding of the students by making them solve problems that they may not be able to solve as individuals. It also gets students talking, writing, sharing ideas and teaching each other.
Students appreciate his efforts. “Keith doesn’t just want students to pass his classes, he wants them to fully grasp underlying concepts, to learn how to learn, to excel,” says Dean Ganskop, information technology graduate student. “After researching teaching methods, he employs the best ones in his classes. Keith wants his students to learn, and he gives his all to ensure that they do.”
It was as an adjunct faculty member at Indian River Community College in Ft. Pierce, Fla. that he developed a passion for teaching. At the time, he was also working for Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in West Palm Beach, Fla. and he earned an M.S. in computer science from Nova Southeastern University. Armed with that credential, 23 years of industry experience, and 10 years of teaching, Whittington decided to look for a full-time faculty position.
“RIT popped up,” he says, a job materialized, and Whittington and his family left Florida for Rochester. The transition wasn’t too difficult for the Binghamton, N.Y., native. “It was like coming home.”
At RIT, one of his first assignments was to develop an alternative Java programming sequence. All information technology majors are required to take a three-sequence course in Java, but the middle sequence had posed challenges for many students. Whittington broke the second sequence into two segments, so students had the option of taking the traditional three-sequence course of a four-sequence option.
After teaching the new sequence for several years, Whittington received a $60,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. “They gave me funding based on my promising results and the fact that I had developed active learning materials specific for intro programming, which was lacking in that discipline.”
The results of the alternative Java programming sequence have been positive: Retention increased by 9 percent, with a 14 percent increase in the number of students receiving A, B or C grades. However, in addition to these impressive results, Whittington’s active sections consistently get 20 percent less D, W and F grades and 15 percent more A, B and Cs than the sections taught in the “traditional” way. Results for the 2005-2007 academic years are being evaluated, and Whittington will be producing a report in the coming months.
The payoff for Whittington is the ultimate benefit for students. “My calling is to get more students into happier learning environments,” he says. “Compared to helping students, everything else seems so shallow. Here, I’m touching lives. Sometimes I can’t believe the path my life has taken. I love what I’m doing now,” Whittington adds. “Sometimes I come out of class just thrilled.”