Students and Programming: A stroll through the archives in the contemplation of self-regulation.

I’ve been digging back into the foundations of Computer Science Education to develop some more breadth in the area and trying to fill in some of the reading holes that have developed as I’ve chased certain ideas forward. I’ve been looking at Maye’s “Psychology of How Novices Learn Computer Programming” from 1981, following it forward to a number of papers including McCracken (Chair) et al’s “A multi-national, multi-institutional study of assessment of programming skills of first-year CS students”. Among the many interesting items presented in this paper was a measure of Degree of Closeness (DoC): a quantification of how close the student had come to providing a correct solution, assessed on their source code. The DoC is rated on a five-point scale, with 1 being the furthest from a correct solution. These “DoC 1” students are of a great deal of interest to me because they include those students who submitted nothing – possible evidence of disengagement or just the student being overwhelmed. In fact the DoC 1 students were classified into three types:

  • Type 1: The student handed up an empty file.
  • Type 2: The student’s work showed no evidence of a plan.
  • Type 3: The student appeared to have a plan but didn’t carry it out.

Why did the students do something without a plan? The authors hypothesise that the student may have been following a heuristic approach, doing what they could, until they could go no further. Type 3 was further subdivided into 3a (the student had a good plan or structure) and 3b (the student had a poor plan or structure). All of these, however, have one thing in common and that is that they can indicate a lack of resource organisation, which may be identified as a shortfall in metacognition. On reflection, however, many of these students blamed external factors for their problems. The Type 1 students blamed the time that they had to undertake the task, the lab machines, their lack of familiarity with the language. The DoC 5 students (from the same school) described their difficulties in terms of the process of creating a solution. Other comments from DoC 1 and 2 students included information such as insufficient time, students “not being good” at whatever this question was asking and, in one case, “Too cold environment, problem was too hard.” The most frequent complaint among the low performing students was that they had not had enough time, the presumption being that, had enough time been available, a solution was possible. Combine this with the students who handed up nothing or had no plan and we must start to question this assertion. (It is worth noting that some low-performing students had taken this test as their first ever solo lab-based examination so we cannot just dismiss all of these comments!)

The paper discusses a lot more and is rather critical of its own procedure (perhaps the time pressure was too high, the specifications a little cluttered, highly procedural rather than OO) and I would not argue with the authors on any of this but, from my perspective, I am zooming in on the issue of time because, if you’ve read any of my stuff before, you’ll know that I am working in self-regulation and time management. I look at the Types of DoC 1 students and I can see exactly what I saw in my own student timeliness data and reflection reports: a lack of ability to organise resources. This is now, apparently, combined with a persistent belief that fixing this was beyond the student’s control. It’s unsurprising that handing up nothing suddenly became a valid option.

The null submission could be a clear indicator of organisational ability, where the student can’t muster any kind of solution to the problem at all. Not one line of code or approximate solution. What is puzzling about this is that the activity was, in fact, heavily scheduled. Students sat in a lab and undertook it. There was no other task for them to perform except to do this code in either 1 or 1.5 hours. To not do anything at all may be a reaction to time pressure (as the authors raised) or it could be complete ignorance of how to solve the problem. There’s too much uncertainty here for me to say much more about this.

The “no plan” solution can likely be explained by the heuristic focus and I’ve certainly seen evidence of it. One of the most unforgiving aspects of the heuristic solution is that, without a design, it is easy to end up in a place where you are running out of time and have no idea of where to go to solve unforeseen problems that have arisen. These students are the ones who I would expect to start the last day that something is due and throw together a solution, working later and panicking more as they realised that their code wasn’t working. Having done a bit here and a piece there, they may cobble something together and hand it up but it is unlikely to work and is never robust.

The “I planned it but I couldn’t do it” group fall heavily into the problem space of self-regulation, because they had managed to organise their resources – so why didn’t anything come out? Did they procrastinate? Was their meta-planning process deficient, in that they spent most of their time perfecting a plan and not leaving enough time to make it happen? I have a number of students who have a tendency to go down the rabbit hole when chasing design issues and I sometimes have to reach down, grab them by the ears and haul them out. The reality of time constraints is that you have to work out what you can do and then do as much as you can with that time.

This is fascinating because I’m really trying to work out at which point students will give up and DoC 1 basically amounts to an “I didn’t manage it” mark in my local system. I have data that shows the marks students get from automated marking (immediate assessment) so I can look to see how long people will try to get above what (effectively) would be above DoC 1, and probably up around DoC 3. (The paper defines DoC 3 as “In reading the source code, the outline of a viable solution was apparent, including meaningful comments, stub code, or a good start on the code.” This would be enough to meet our assessment requirements although the mark wouldn’t be great.) DoC 1 would, I suspect, amount to “no submission” in many cases so my DoC 1 students are those who stayed enrolled (and sat the exam) but never created a repository or submission. (There are so many degrees of disengagement!)

I, of course, now have to move further forward along this paper line and I will hopefully intersect with my ‘contemporary’ reading into student programming activity. I will be reading pretty solidly on all of this for the upcoming months as we try to refine the time management and self-regulation strategies that we’ll be employing next year.

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