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How investing in teaching with GitHub pays off

How Harvard, San Francisco State, and The College of New Jersey use GitHub in their courses

As a teacher, you juggle the endless stream of student emails, faculty responsibilities, and an ever-evolving field of scholarship. Is it worth to switch to version control for your courses? What do students get out of it?

Three teachers candidly reflected on the benefits GitHub offers their classroom practice at the recent Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education conference (SIGCSE) in Seattle.

Skip to a specific section:

  • 2m24s Omar Shaikh (SFSU): GitHub + Travis CI for automated grading
  • 11m50s S. Monisha Pulimood (TCNJ): Collaborating on real-world projects
  • 23m28s David J. Malan (Harvard): Custom tools for CS50
  • 37m25s Questions and answers

Monisha Pulimood, Professor of Computer Science and Chair at The College of New Jersey, shifted her class on databases to a project-based model, where students collaborate in teams with a service learning component.

My concern was that, because of all the collaborative activities, I was losing class time for the students to actually master the content. But in fact, they are. It turns out they are really doing well with that; there’s a good increase in understanding the content. Students can answer deeper questions than they could before.

David J. Malan from Harvard University walked through the nuts and bolts of implementing Git and GitHub for CS50 in this deck.

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Why version control is required for Comp 20 at Tufts University

Ming Chow of Tufts gives advice on teaching Git and GitHub

Students don’t leave Ming Chow’s course until they are prepared to hold their own on an engineering team. Full stop.

What’s required for those rigorous engineering roles? “Experience making tangible things, mastery of how the web works, and communication,” Ming affirms.

In 2016 he received both the School of Engineering Teacher of the Year and Excellence in Technology Education awards at Tufts, success he reached using GitHub:

I’ve used Git and GitHub for well over five years now. When you take a course with me, it is simply expected that you’re going to learn Git and GitHub.

Ming was inspired to put version control front-and-center in his curriculum from a colleague, Norman Ramsey, who posted the idea to Stack Overflow. “Norman is a man of many great ideas, and this was one of them. I took his idea and executed it.”

To collaborate, you must communicate

It’s rare that developers build something entirely on their own: whether it’s taking over legacy code, reading documentation or submitting bug reports, we’re always in dialogue with others.

The benefit of version control is that it takes snapshots of progress over time, and small commits with clear progress markers give context to your work. Training students to make commit messages that are clear and frequent pays off in the future when other developers are able chip in to help.

Just to make sure that students master collaboration, Ming designs assignments and group projects so students must rely on one another to distribute the workload. He also asks students to give context to their work with GitHub’s documentation features:

In every assignment and every lab, students have to write a README. And a lot of them ask, “Why the heck do we have to write that?” Well, the difference between a good engineer and a great engineer boils down to writing skill and communication. So that’s the whole point of having a README for every project.

chow-readme-example Priming collaboration: GitHub users are invited to create a README for every repository.

Collaboration matters because the web is relationships

To demonstrate how web technologies are interrelated, Ming has students evaluate and use third-party tools like APIs, Heroku, and GitHub to build their projects.

As part of that process, students become wise about which APIs to rely on:

One of the nice things about this course is it reveals the ugliness of web development, especially if you’re using other people’s platforms and services. For instance, Instagram recently changed its policy on rate limits, which students had to adjust for in their projects. When you’re dealing with APIs, you’re at the mercy of that third party. In any job, you’ll need to learn how to deal with that kind of risk.

All that said, Ming recommends the third-party tool Heroku for student projects because students can use Git to push changes to a live product.


Screenshot from a COMP 20 project hosted on Heroku. With these end-of-semester projects, students demonstrate their ability to work in teams, apply everything they’ve learned in the class, and have fun.


Screenshot of another COMP 20 project.

Last, Ming points to GitHub itself to show the moving parts of the web in action:

Git and the web are tightly integrated. One of the main points of using GitHub is to show it’s all based on HTTP and HTTPS. That also reinforces the learning of how the web works, as well.

Why is mastery of the fundamental pieces of the web important? Once students master the web conceptually, they will be able to integrate new technologies into this framework, building upon their understanding in the future.

Careers are the sum of our contributions

At the end of the semester, Ming celebrates the end of the course with perhaps one of the best subject lines of all time:

gift image

Ming frames student work as something that’s valuable and in moving a repo to their stewardship, he’s giving students the gift of a portfolio. In the future, students can point to this project as proof of how they communicate with other developers.

As their last assignment, he asks students to frame their repository with one last README: a self-assessments about what they’ve learned in the course. From a student:

The most important thing I learned has been the importance of communication in teamwork. For example, dealing with merge conflicts on GitHub was a big problem in my group, and helped us learn how to discuss our changes with each other, even as we were working on separate parts of the project. Another time we were struggling with making our database queries, and even those group members not working on the server side had to learn about it and help.

A duty to train future leaders

Git and GitHub reinforce the ability to communicate with others around real-life projects, which is why they are required for COMP 20.

Ming believes that teaching computer science is not simply about ones and zeroes but about leadership. The technology of the future relies on the habits he’s building in the classroom.


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 introduce Git in your course?

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?

Invest in tools students can grow with: GitHub and RStudio for data science at Duke University

quote from mine cetinkaya-rundel

Data science is a melting pot of disciplines: students from Anthropology to Political Science to Education all sign up for the same course. It’s a challenge to keep the material engaging for everyone.

At the same time, teachers want the next generation of data scientists to be able to analyze any dataset they come across in the future with the same level of rigor used in the classroom. That outcome requires a consistent level of training, across diverse datasets.

Mine Çetinkaya-Rundel, Director of Undergraduate Studies and an Associate Professor at Duke University, tackles these problems head-on. She quite literally wrote the book on the subject, and her open, online course Master Statistics with R certifies thousands of students a year. She edits the Citizen Statistician blog and offers the annual Duke DataFest, a hackathon for working with data.

Her data science course emphasizes “reproducible computation”, a documented process of how data is treated in order to replicate the results in the future. She meets that learning goal using R Markdown and R Studio, as well as by requiring students to incrementally commit their changes using Git and GitHub.

Students learn the concept and the real-world tool, at the same time

Some instructional products have a high learning curve in-and-of themselves. Çetinkaya-Rundel would rather students learn a language in the discipline that they can later build upon:

They learn a limited bit of R syntax that allows them to analyze and visualize data in R. While the goal of the course is not to make each student a proficient R programmer, they learn enough R to be able to build on in their second or third classes. Teaching software designed to be used only in an introductory class would not have this benefit.


Editing an R Markdown file in RStudio by Chester Ismay, MIT License

She wants her students to ship their first visualization project quickly and get started “like a knife through butter” without errors. To bootstrap their efforts quickly, she has them access RStudio Pro using her department’s server.

Best practices for scaffolding collaboration

Sta112FS introduces Git on day one to help students learn about version control gradually and in increments. Her GitHub structure is one organization for the course, one repository per team, and one per assignment. She recommends starting out with an individual assignment first, so students can get used to Git’s mental model before adding the complexity of collaboration.

gitgithubhow gitgithubwhy

Mine has students access their projects through RStudio, which she integrates with Git. These slides are from her talk, A first-year undergraduate data science course.

On group projects, Mine creates one repository per team, and everyone on the team can push. Knowing that students will encounter merge conflicts when they’re working asynchronously, she provokes the error messages early on in the semester.

In the first exercise, students clone a demo repository and are asked to edit the README in two tools, first on GitHub and then again in the RStudio editor. The conflicting changes throw an error, which she teaches students to resolve calmly, and by reading the messages.

I show them how I would resolve [the conflict], and then they do the same thing… I tried to create a situation in the classroom that could be frustrating for them later, and say, “This is about to happen. It’s important to read the message that it sends you, and this is how you would resolve it.”

The setup pays off in engagement and curiosity

For Mine’s course, using a computation tool prompts students to engage with data directly—an important pedagogical choice to make their analysis both personal and real. There’s a freedom in exploring and tinkering with the real-world tool that professionals use.

Using a computational tool means that you can give the dataset to the students, and they can play around with it. They might be playing around with it in a way that you have designed the assignment or the assessment, but still it gives them the flexibility to look at another variable, make a different plot, than what was assigned for them to do.

Git and GitHub expertise after students leave the classroom

While she keeps student repositories private, merely using GitHub gives her students an edge later in their careers. They can also choose to make their repositories public after they are done with the course.

A lot of students have said to me later, even first-year undergraduates, that using GitHub has helped them a lot when they went for an internship or a research position interview.

They are able to say, “Oh, I already have worked with GitHub. I’m familiar with it. I know how it works.” So I think they are at least able to put that on their CVs and go into a situation where there’s a research or data analysis team and say, “Yeah, sure. I am actually familiar with the same tools that you use.”

Creating RStudio projects from GitHub repositories

To see an example of Git and RStudio in action, check out this tutorial from Dr. Nicholas Reich at UMASS-Amherst:

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: What are your favorite Statistics/R/ GitHub Resources?

Real-time feedback for students using continuous integration tools

For teachers it can be a challenge to get students the help they need exactly when they get stuck, especially in large courses. But when teachers use an automated testing suite like Travis CI with their assignments, students can hone in on their mistakes and iterate to improve.

Students see the value of a test-driven workflow as they are learning, and teachers save time grading assignments: a win for everyone.

Omar Shaikh quote

Omar Shaikh, Lecturer at San Francisco State University, saw an opportunity to improve the assignment workflow for the C++ course he took over:

“The problem with the manual submission process was that, if a student is missing a small semicolon, or they were almost correct, the TA has no way of knowing because it doesn’t compile. Yes, the TA can go into the code and try to grade it, but it’s very inefficient.”

Build confidence through passing tests

Exercism, a tool that helps code newbies and experienced programmers learn new languages, uses a testing framework to guide students in increments.

“It helps people who are new to programming break down problems into smaller pieces” said Exercism creator Katrina Owen, “a lot of students spent a lot of time being stuck before I introduced test suites. Seeing the green check marks when their tests pass can reassure students that they’ve mastered the skill and the problem is solved for now.”

Experienced Ruby teacher (and TravisCI engineer) Renée Hendricksen agrees: “When you have assignments that are ‘write code to get these tests to pass’ the student gets instant feedback if they are on the right track.”

“When you use a ‘test-first’ teaching method,” she explained, “students get used to reading and understanding errors early. When they start with a failing test, they can look into whether it’s an error because of setup or their application. Let the red-green-refactor guide you.”

Efficient grading for problem sets

Instead of grinding through a lot of time looking for a missing period or semicolon, teachers have insight into exactly which piece of the code didn’t pass and go from there.

For Hendrickson, a testing suite makes grading more efficient because she can see where a student needs help:

“If I see a failing test I can look there immediately and address where they struggled. If all the tests are green, I can focus on working code and give them guidance for style and composition improvement, without getting bogged down explaining syntax issues.”

A step-by-step guide to using tests for immediate feedback

Omar connects his course organization to GitHub Classroom, and then to Travis CI. While there are many ways to implement automated testing, here are the steps to implement his particular workflow:

Step 1: Create the tests

  • Make an organization for each class, and apply for the organization discount at the GitHub Education website.
  • Prepare homework assignments, their solutions, and test cases. For C++ assignments, Omar used Google’s Gtest library for test cases. Create a private repository in the organization, and move homework files there.
  • Connect the assignment repository to Travis CI.

01 Create new assignment Setting up a new individual assignment in GitHub Classroom

Step 2: Make the assignment and connect it to GitHub Classroom

  • Omar removes code segments so that students complete them as their homework. He includes a few lines of contextual information as comments embedded in code (such as “Complete this Section”), and creates a public repository with the name of the homework assignment: hwx-template (where x is the homework number).
  • Omar navigates over to GitHub Classroom, creates a new individual assignment, and points the assignment to the template repository.
  • Omar posts the assignment link from GitHub Classroom to his class forums. As students click on the link, Classroom creates a new private repository for each of them.
  • In Travis CI, Omar enables the tests on each of the student repositories. Travis will then build the repository after every push, based on the directions Omar put in the starter code template repository.

03 student repos in Travis Example of a few student repositories on Travis CI for “hw3”

  • Omar uses the CLion C++ IDE from JetBrains, which offers free licenses for educators, and manages Google Tests efficiently.
  • Students clone their particular assignment repository with detailed instructions in the
  • Students open the project in the IDE to start coding and running unit tests. As students complete their assignments, they push their changes to GitHub.
  • Instructors can see if the build is passing via Travis CI and in the “commit” view on the GitHub web interface.

04 Passes student example Graders can look at which tests failed for insight into where students struggle with the material

Use this workflow in your own course

If you’re ready to implement Travis CI and GitHub Classroom, here are some tools to get you started:

  • a sample repository you can use as an example with all the moving parts
  • a Travis build of that sample
  • Omar’s problem sets, which have been tested by his team of teaching assistants and also contain detailed instructions.

To help you put all of the pieces together, Omar made a video walkthrough:

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 to automatically gather or collect assignments?


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