More lively Theory of Computation lectures with peer instruction

Although I don’t teach theory of computation these days, I did encounter something that I’m pretty sure of that would have made the lectures more lively compared to my attempts (blogged about earlier here), and deserves some ‘air time’: peer instruction [1].

My database systems, computer literacy, and networks students already encountered it during some of my lectures, but to briefly recap the general idea (pioneered by Eric Mazur): you insert ‘quiz questions’ (i.e., concept tests) into the lectures, students vote on the multiple choice question, then there is a discussion among the students about the answers, and a re-vote. This sounds perhaps too playful for higher education, but it has been shown to improve course grades by 34-45% [1, 2], thanks to, among others, active engagement, focusing on understanding principles, and student discussion involving ‘teaching each other’.

Even if one thinks it can be suitable for some courses but not others (like tough computer science courses), there’s even peer instruction course material for something so abstract as theory of computation, pioneered by Cynthia Lee and available through peerinstruction4cs. And it works [2].

The peer instruction slides for theory of computation and several other courses can be downloaded after registration. This I did, both out of curiosity and for getting ideas how I might improve the quizzes for the networks course I’m teaching, for which no materials are available yet. Here, I’ll give two examples of such questions for theory of computation to give an indication that it is feasible.

The first one is about tracing through an NFA, and grasping the notion that if any trace through the NFA computation ends in a final state with all input read, it accepts the string. The question is shown in the figure below, which I rendered with the AutoSim automata simulator.

Peer instruction quiz question about NFAs.

Peer instruction quiz question about NFAs.

A and D can be excluded ‘easily’: A has the second trace as [accept] but it rejects, and D has the first trace [reject] but it accepts (which can be checked nicely with the AutoSim file loaded into the tool). The real meat is with options B and C: if one trace accepts and the other rejects, then does the NFA as a whole accept the string or not? Yes, it does; thus, the answer is B.

The other question is further into the course material, on understanding reductions. Let us have ATM and it reduces to MYSTERY_LANGUAGE. Which of the following is true (given the above statement is true):

  1. a) You can reduce to MYSTERY_LANG from ATM.
  2. b) MYSTERY_LANG is undecidable.
  3. c) A decider for MYSTERY_LANG (if it exists) could be used to decide ATM.
  4. d) All of the above

Answering this during the lecture requires more than consulting a ‘cheat sheet’ on reductions. A is a rephrasing of the statement, so that holds (though this option may not be very fair with students whose first language is not English). You will have to remember that ATM is undecidable, and, if visually oriented, the following figure:

Graphical depiction of reduction

Graphical depiction of reduction


So, if ATM is undecidable (the “P1” on the left), then so is MYSTERY_LANGUAGE (the “P2” on the right); for the aficionados: there’s a theorem for that in Chapter 9 of [3], being ‘if there is a reduction from P1 to P2, then if P1 is undecidable, then so is P2’. So B holds. Thus, the answer is probably D, but let’s look at C just to be sure of D. Because ATM is ‘in’ MYSTERY_LANGUAGE, then if we can decide MYSTERY_LANGUAGE, then so can we decide ATM—it just happens to be the case we can’t (but if we could, it would have been possible). Thus, indeed, D is the answer.

Sure, there is more to theory of computation than quizzes alone, but feasible it is, and on top of that, student perception of peer instruction is apparently positive [4]. But before making the post too long on seemingly playful matters in education, I’m going to have a look at how that other game—the second semi-final—will unfold to see how interesting the world cup final is going be.


[1] Crouch, C.H., Mazur, E. (2001). Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69, 970-977.

[2] Bailey Lee, C., Garcia, S., Porter, L. (2013). Can Peer Instruction Be Effective in Upper-Division Computer Science Courses?. ACM Transactions on Computing Education, 13(3): 12-22.

[3] Hopcroft, J.E., Motwani, R. & Ullman, J.D. (2007). Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages, and Computation, 3rd ed., Pearson Education.

[4] Simon, B., Esper, S., Porter, L., Cutts, Q. (2013). Student experience in a student-centered peer instruction classroom. Proceedings of the International Computing Education Research Conference (ICER’13), ACM Conference Proceedings. pp129-136.


One response to “More lively Theory of Computation lectures with peer instruction

  1. Pingback: Peer instruction with a computer networks course | Keet blog

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