Sunday, January 29, 2012

CS Stress

I've been mostly underwater for the last couple of weeks.

End of term issues combined with the Academy of Software Engineering announcement has pretty much eaten up all of my out of class time.

It's going to be a week or so before I can finish writing the posts I was planning on, but it looks like a storm is brewing around Stuyvesant and Computer Science so I thought I'd put up this short semi-related post.

Stuyvesant has a reputation of being something of a pressure cooker. The day can be as long as ten periods and it's not uncommon for a student to take three or more AP classes, even before the senior year. The question of student workload and stress has been a hot topic for a number of years.

There's frequently tension over how many courses and which courses a student should be allowed to take.  Usually, this revolves around the school placing a limit on the number of classes, or more specifically, the number of A.P. classes a student can take. Most recently, the conversation looks to be turning to the number of classes a student can take overall.

Given that most A.P. classes fall within a Stuyvesant student's required sequence of classes - that is, Calculus is just "the next math class" and A.P. U.S. History is slotted in place of a students regular U.S. History course, limiting the number of classes a student can take, A.P. or otherwise could have a major impact on Computer Science at Stuyvesant.

What's most disturbing is that limiting student options in terms of courses may not do anything to decrease stress and workload. No one has looked at what is actually going on in student's required classes.

I decided to collect some information from our students. I sent out a survey to five of our seven A.P. C.S. classes (three of mine, two of JonAlf's -- the other two classes don't have a mailing list). I asked them to rate the work load and stress factor for A.P. CS, their typical Stuy course and their typical Stuy A.P.course. So far, I've gotten 80 responses (out of about 150 students emailed). Here's what we got (ratings were on a 1-10 scale):

A.P. C.S.Reg. ClassA.P. Class
Workload avgs 4.97 6.65 7.13
Workload dev 1.94 1.41 1.52
Stress avgs 4.67 6.39 6.94
Stress dev 2.24 1.63 1.64

I know this isn't really hard data, but it seems that our A.P. C.S. classes are considered to be both easier and less stressful than other classes at Stuyvesant. Given that our kids do very well at C.S., we're probably doing something right and it will be a shame if student opportunities become limited. I'll certainly write more on this as the situation develops.

For you educators out there, is stress an issue at your schools and how do you deal with making room for students to take CS at your schools? 


  1. It's been awhile since I was in AP CS at Stuy, but I recall doing my CS work as a means of procrastinating for my other classes. Having graduated several years ago I don't know what the issue at hand is, but my instinct would be that limiting the # of AP classes people can take might be a good idea, as many students overload themselves because that's the expected thing to do and because it seems like that's what you need to do to succeed (read: get into a good college). But, I really know nothing about whatever measure they're discussing in this case.

  2. It would seem so on the surface, but there are a few problems:

    First, there are classes like Calculus -- once you finish precalc, that's the class you take  - there goes one A.P. slot. 

    Another problem is that the rigor, workload, and stress related to a course can be more a result of the teacher than an A.P. designation.

    The problem is that reducing classes is a knee-jerk reaction by the administration without actually examining the problem and considering the impact of potential solutions.

  3. It would be interesting to see how AP CS compares to other elective AP courses. There might be some self selection among those who take AP CS and CS courses in general.

    1. I can't say for sure, but it seems like students who take A.P. CS at Stuy are either

      1. interested in CS
      2. they enjoyed a class with whoever's teaching it this year and they want to take it with that teacher, or
      3. all their friends are taking it.

      Most other A.P. classes seem to have a larger "it will look good on a transcript" component. Not saying that other classes don't have students taking it for the above listed three reasons, just my observations.

  4. I took AP classes because I found that the kids taking those classes were generally the ones I wanted to be around--they worked harder.  I don't think that they're necessarily smarter or better, but my AP classes tended to be more interesting than my nonAP ones.

  5. Stress is determined by many things. Students who like a course either because of personal interest or teacher quality or other reasons my feel less stress. They may also feel that work == fun more so than in a class that is a required course or a course that is being taken to make the transcript better. All AP courses are not a like. It turns out that not all students are alike either. I think administrators forget those things from time to time.

  6. Good thoughts.  One of the reasons I really like AP CS A is that it's relatively narrow and deep.  I find that reduces stress levels because there's a lot more predictability.  Many of the other courses are so broad that students are constantly juggling a bunch of disconnected ideas and are trying to read the instructor's mind to know what they'll be assessed on.

    Thanks for including standard deviation -- interesting.

  7. One hypothesis about the data: AP CS is purely an elective, and therefore its students are highly self-selected, which might tend to reduce the stress levels (and possibly the workload) relative to other courses. On the other hand, if I recall correctly, every other AP class I took was essentially required (e.g. Calculus) or a replacement of a class I would have taken anyway (e.g. social studies AP classes). Stuy students will make this substitution most of the time.

    An interesting experiment would be to relax course requirements overall to allow more elective advanced classes. In other words, replace some of the strict class requirements with a generic "you must take one advanced class, but you get to pick which one".

  8. We are in the situation now where we have to limit the number of science and math classes students can take to 1 per year, simply because we don't have enough teachers and sections to fulfill all the requests. As a result, AP CS (which doesn't count as either science or math) became a popular way to get an additional AP class for students who previously would have doubled up in stats and calc or physics and chem.

  9. Ben, 

    That seems odd. Is the limit due to budget, students overloading with work, or other reasons?

  10. Yeah, budget. We literally don't have enough teachers. I have one section with 39 students. A large number of seniors forced into taking "TA" or "unscheduled" periods. If they have enough credits to graduate, they have lower priority than others for getting into classes.