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Case study 15: Wide-ranging critital knowledge and understanding of a discipline, Computing, University of Glasgow

Overview

As a means of enabling Masters students to gain critical knowledge and understanding of a range of computing science topics, the students are required to read four key research papers a week, and summarise and critique two of them, before the weekly discussion session. Each week covers papers in a different computing science research area. Students write in-depth reviews of one or two of these papers during the term, present them to their fellow students, and lead the discussion of these papers.

Keywords

Computing Science, critical analysis, research literature

Describe, briefly, the activity/initiative/practice

The Research Readings in Computing Science course is a compulsory course for all Master in Science students; it runs throughout the first semester, and is worth 20 credits (200 hours). Each week covers a different area of computing science, and is led by an academic member of staff with research expertise in that area. The academic member of staff choses four key research papers which all students must read before the discussion session. Students submit one-page summaries of the papers at the start of the session, and students who have been assigned the task of doing in-depth reviews of the paper lead the whole-group discussion of them. Marks are allocated for the summaries, the in-depth reviews, class participation, and for an examination for which all papers (approximately 40 in total) are examinable.

What is the background/context to the activity/initiative/practice?

Amongst the many ways theScottish Qualifications framework distinguishes between level 10 (Honours) and level 11 (Masters) is by specifying the extent to which Masters students are required to know and be able to critique the literature in their area. The following criteria are included in the descriptors for level 11:

A critical understanding of a range of specialised theories, concepts and principles.

  • A critical awareness of current issues in a subject/discipline/sector and one or more specialisms.

The compulsory Research Readings course ensures that all students have this critical understanding and awareness over a wide range of computing science topics, not simply the areas in which they will specialise in their Masters programme.

What makes it Masters level?

Honours students are not required to have this critical understanding and awareness over a range of topics. While they may consult the computing science literature as part of their final year project, or may be introduced to a few key publications within the courses that they study, they do not have a wide-ranging understanding or knowledge of the extent and depth of computing science research.

What challenges were encountered/overcome - in terms of mastersness - and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others?

The main challenges in this course are dealing with the students’ initial perception that four papers is too many for them to be expected to read in a week, and the complaints that arise from this. However, the students quickly become used to this reading load. Giving advice on ‘how to read a paper’ at the start of the course is useful to the students, and reassuring them that they will get more expert at reading as the semester progresses can help to mitigate these concerns. By the end of the course, most students report that, although a heavy workload, it is one of the most worthwhile courses they have taken.

The second challenge was one of examination assessment. There are ten questions, one from each of the ten topic areas. Students choose four to answer. Initially, the exam was conducted in script booklets; we found that students found it hard to hand-write essay-type answers, and so we moved to computer-based examinations, using word-processors and held in a lab.

The third challenge was in co-ordinating up to thirteen different academic members of staff, and ensuring that the examination questions provided by each of them were of comparable difficulty (so as to ensure fair choice for the students). Unfortunately, this process of devising a fair set of examination questions resulted in many of the questions becoming recall questions rather than analysis or critique.

Where to next - in terms of mastersness if anywhere?

The course has been running in a stable state for several years now. We have decided to remove the examination element of the course (for the reasons explained above) and will rather place more assessment weight on the students’ in-depth reviews.

References

Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, Level Descriptors, http://www.scqf.org.uk/

Links

Research Readings In Computing Science

Author's name, contact details and institution

Dr Helen Purchase, Convenor of Postgraduate Taught (PGT) programmes, School of Computing Science, University of Glasgow.
Dr David White, Research Readings co-ordinator, School of Computing Science, University of Glasgow.