ICER 2012 Day Research Paper Session 4

This session kicked off with “Ability to ‘Explain in Plain English’ Linked to Proficiency in Computer-based Programming”,  (Laurie Murphy, Sue Fitzgerald, Raymond Lister and Renee McCauley (presenting)). I had seen a presentation along these lines at SIGCSE and this is an excellent example of international collaboration, if you look at the authors list. Does the ability to explain code in plain English correlate with ability to solve programming problems? The correlation appears to be there, whether or not we train students in Explaining in Plain English or not, but is this causation?

This raises a core question, addressed in the talk: Do we need to learn to read (trace) code before we learn to write code or vice versa? The early reaction of the Leeds group was that reading code didn’t amount to testing whether students could actually write code. Is there some unknown factor that must be achieved before either or both of these? This is a vexing question as it raises the spectre of whether we need to factor in some measure of general intelligence, which has not been used as a moderating factor.

Worse, we now return to that dreadful hypothesis of “programming as an innate characteristics”, where you were either born to program or not. Ray (unsurprisingly) believes that all of the skills in this area (EIPE/programming) are not innate and can be taught. This then raises the question of what the most pedagogically efficient way is to do this!

How Do Students Solve Parsons Programming Problems? — An Analysis of Interaction Traces
Juha Helminen (presenting), Petri Ihantola, Ville Karavirta and Lauri Malmi

This presentation was of particular interest to me because I am currently tearing apart my 1,900 student data corpus to try and determine the point at which students will give up on an activity, in terms of mark benefit, time expended and some other factors. This talk, which looked at how students solved problems, also recorded the steps and efforts that they took in order to try and solve them, which gave me some very interesting insights.

A Parsons problem is one where, given code fragments a student selects, arranges and composes a program in response to a question. Not all code fragments present will be required in the final solution. Adding to the difficulty, the fragments require different indentation to assert their execution order as part of block structure. For those whose eyes just glazed over, this means that it’s more than selecting a line to go somewhere, you have to associate it explicitly with other lines as a group. Juha presented a graph-based representation of the students’ traversals of the possible solutions for their Parsons problem. Students could ask for feedback immediately to find out how their programs were working and, unsurprisingly, some opted for a lot of “Am I there yet” querying. Some students queried feedback as much as 62 times for only 7 features, indicative of permutation programming, with very short inter-query intervals. (Are we there yet? No. Are we there yet? No. Are we there yet? No. Are we there yet? No.)

The primary code pattern of development was linear, with block structures forming the first development stages, but there were a lot of variations. Cycles (returning to the same point) also occurred in the development cycle but it was hard to tell if this was a deliberate reset pattern or a one where permutation programming had accidentally returned the programmer to the same state. (Asking the students “WHY” this had occurred would be an interesting survey question.)

There were some good comments from the audience, including the suggestion of correlating good and bad states with good and bad outcomes, using Markov chain analysis to look for patterns. Another improvement suggested was recording the time taken for the first move, to record the impact (possible impact) of cognition on the process. Were students starting from a ‘trial and error’ approach or only after things went wrong?

Tracking Program State: A Key Challenge in Learning to Program
Colleen Lewis (presenting, although you probably could have guessed that)

This paper won the Chairs’ Award for the best paper at the Conference and it was easy to see why. Colleen presented a beautifully explored case study of an 11 year old boy working on a problem in the Scratch programming language and trying to work out why he couldn’t draw a wall of bricks. By capturing Kevin’s actions, in code, his thoughts, from his spoken comments, we are exposed to the thought processes of a high achieving young man who cannot fathom why something isn’t working.

I cannot do justice to this talk by writing about something that was primarily visual, but Colleen’s hypothesis was that Kevin’s attention to the state (variables and environmental settings over which the program acts) within the problem is the determining factor in the debugging process. Once Kevin’s attention was focused on the correct problem, he solved it very quickly because the problem was easy to solve. Locating the correct problem required him to work through and determine which part of the state was at fault.

Kevin has a pile of ideas in his head but, as put by duSessa and Sherin (98), learning is about reliably using the right ideas in the correct context. Which of Kevin’s ideas are being used correctly at any one time? The discussion that followed talked about a lot of the problems that students have with computers, in that many students do not see computers as actually being deterministic. Many students, on encountering a problem, will try exactly the same thing again to see if the error occurs again – this requires a mental model that we expect a different set of outcomes with the same inputs and process, which is a loose definition of either insanity or nondeterminism. (Possibly both.)

I greatly enjoyed this session but the final exemplar, taking apart a short but incredibly semantically rich sequence and presenting it with a very good eye for detail, made it unsurprising that this paper won the award. Congratulations again, Colleen!



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