GitHub Issues and user testing as authentic assessment

Alexey Zagalsky quote on learning process

A course organized around users, not exams

In his Startup Programming course at the University of Victoria, Alexey Zagalsky asks students to design products based on user needs.

Working together in teams of four to six, students deliver pieces of the project at key milestones:

He ties the course to the software industry by inviting experienced mentors from local startups to evaluate student work. Alexey says:

While the end-products are terrific, the larger goal is understanding the process of collaborative software development. Students learn how to listen to users and incorporate their feedback in a thoughtful way.

User testing as assessment

After students ship a working prototype, the next milestone requires user testing with their target audience. And of all the challenges over the semester, students wrestle the most with addressing user feedback:

The most frequent point of failure is not understanding their users. And they wouldn’t see where they’ve failed until they try to get people to use their product.

But being able to listen to feedback, and implement it as part of the design process, is quite important. First, to learn, but also to get a job, because it’s not about writing code but actually understanding what needs to be built and how. One student now works at Amazon. Two or three work at Microsoft. One has gone on to become a UX designer. So many students really benefitted from this approach.”

Feedback through GitHub issues

Alexey admits:

You’d be surprised how often students get stuck and never ask for help

So occasionally he pops into student repositories to see what’s going on, test the code himself, and spot mistakes before it’s too late.

If he spots a bug, he’ll open an issue, outline what’s amiss and upload screenshots of the behavior.

Alexey finds a bug in a student project From the fall 2016 student project DayTomato.

Next, he works with the team to think about potential solutions:

One team wasn’t sure which metrics they should track using Mixpanel. I suggested they track certain metrics at the prototyping, release, and iteration phases of their project. I gave them some perspective on how to prioritize and implement.

Alexey comments on a student project From another student group, who made a borrowing and lending application called Bümerang.

Iteration for intrinsic motivation

In an Agile classroom, the goal is not the right answer to the problem, but knowing which problem to take on first, and how to solve it in the right increments.

This course isn’t about assessing a final product and saying, ‘You did that wrong.’ Our in-progress ‘checks’ show the students we care about their work; it’s not just some assignment they need to submit for a grade. The way we care makes them more motivated in turn.”

screenshot of presentation on process

Another student project, SmirkSpace, reflecting on its user feedback for Milestone 3.

A collaborative classroom practice

Alexey’s research focuses on how to use industry tools to build software together, to help his students develop the social ties, trust and curiosity to sustain a successful software career.

So he uses GitHub to enable discovery, design, and collaboration:

It’s about changing the way people work: students and educators, students among themselves, and education’s relationship to industry.

I am working from the hypothesis that software built collaboratively, with many voices and opinions, will improve the collective good of future software, period.

How to implement this classroom practice

Alexey documents all of his course designs and publishes the results of his research on student experiences with GitHub, Slack, Stack Overflow and other real-world tools.

Here’s a recent talk on his course design that discusses the benefits (and drawbacks) of using social tools in the classroom:

Student reflections on tools ecosystem


This is a post in our “Teacher Spotlight” series, where we share the different ways teachers use GitHub in their classrooms. Check out the other posts:

Join this week’s discussion in the community forum: How do you use issues in your class?

Have feedback on this post? Let @github know on Twitter.
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