ICER 2012 Research Paper Session 1

It would not be over-stating the situation to say that every paper presented at ICER led to some interesting discussion and, in some cases, some more… directed discussion than others. This session started off with a paper entitled “Threshold Concepts and Threshold Skills in Computing” (Kate Sanders, Jonas Boustedt, Anna Eckerdal, Robert McCartney, Jan Erik Moström Lynda Thomas and Carol Zander), on whether threshold skills, as distinct from threshold concepts, existed and, if they did, what their characteristics would be. Threshold skills were described as transformative, integrative, troublesome knowledge, semi-irreversible (in that they’re never really lost), and requiring practice to keep current. The discussion that followed raised a lot of questions, including whether you could learn a skill by talking about it or asking someone – skill transfer questions versus environment. The consensus, as I judged it from the discussion, was that threshold skills didn’t follow from threshold concepts but there was a very rapid and high-level discussion that I didn’t quite follow, so any of the participants should feel free to leap in here!

The next talk was “On the reliability of Classifying Programming Tasks Using a Neo-Piagetian Theory of Cognitive Development” (Richard Gluga, Raymond Lister, Judy Kay, Sabina Kleitman and Donna Teague), where Ray raised and extended a number of the points that he had originally shared with us in the workshop on Sunday. Ray described the talk as being a bit “Neo-Piagetian theory for dummies” (for which I am eternally grateful)  and was seeking to address the question as to where students are actually operating when we ask them to undertake tasks that require a reasonable to high level of intellectual development.

Ray raised the three bad programming habits he’d discussed earlier:

  1. Permutation programming (where students just try small things randomly and iteratively in the hope that they will finally get the right solution – this is incredibly troublesome if the many small changes take you further away from the solution )
  2. Shotgun debugging (where a bug causes the student to put things in with no systematic approach and potentially fixing things by accident)
  3. Voodoo coding/Cargo cult coding (where code is added by ritual rather than by understanding)

These approaches show one very important thing: the student doesn’t understand what they’re doing. Why is this? Using a Neo-Piagetian framework we consider the student as moving through the same cognitive development stages that they did as a child (Piagetian) but that this transitional approach applies to new and significant knowledge frameworks, such as learning to program. Until they reach the concrete operational stage of their development, they will be applying poor or inconsistent models – logically inadequate models to use the terminology of the area (assuming that they’ve reached the pre-operational stage). Once a student has made the next step in their development, they will reach the concrete operational stage, characterised (among other things, but these were the ones that Ray mentioned) by:

  1. Transitivity: being able to recognise how things are organised if you can impose an order upon them.
  2. Reversibility: that we can reverse changes that we can impose.
  3. Conservation: realising that the numbers of things stay the same no matter how we organise them.

In coding terms, these can be interpreted in several ways but the conservation idea is crucial to programming because understanding this frees the student from having to write the same code for the same algorithm every time. Grasping that conversation exists, and understanding it, means that you can alter the code without changing the algorithm that it implements – while achieving some other desirable result such as speeding the code up or moving to a different paradigm.

Ray’s paper discussed the fact that a vast number of our students are still pre-operational for most of first and second year, which changes the way that we actually try to teach coding. If a student can’t understand what we’re talking about or has to resort to magical thinking to solve problem, then we’ve not really achieved our goals. If we do start classifying the programming tasks that we ask students to achieve by the developmental stages that we’re expecting, we may be able to match task to ability, making everyone happy(er).

The final paper in the session was “Social Sensitivity Correlations with the Effectiveness of team Process Performance: An Empirical Study”, (Luisa Bender (presenting), Gursimra Walia, Krishna Kambhampaty, Travis Nygard and Kendall Nygard), which discussed the impact of socially sensitive team members in programming teams. (Social sensitivity is the ability to correctly understand the feelings and the viewpoints of other people.)

The “soft skills” are essential to teamwork process and a successful team enhances learning outcomes. Bad teams hinder team formation and progress, and things go downhill from there. From Wooley et al’s study of nearly 700 participants, the collective intelligence of the team stems from how well the team works rather than the individual intelligence of the participants. The group whose members were more socially sensitive had a higher group intelligence.

Just to emphasise that point: a team of smart people may not be as effective as a team as a team of people who can understand the feelings and perspectives of each other. (This may explain a lot!)

Social sensitivity is a good predictor of team performance and the effectiveness of team-oriented processes, as well as the satisfaction of the team members. However, it is also apparent that we in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) have lower social sensitivity readings (supporting Baron-Cohen’s assertion – no, not that one) than some other areas. Future work in this area is looking at the impact of a single high or low socially sensitive person in a group, a study that will be of great interest to anyone who is running teams made up on randomly assigned students. How can we construct these groups for the best results for the students?

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