A cognitive study of learning to program in introductory programming courses.

Dehnadi, Saeed (2009) A cognitive study of learning to program in introductory programming courses. PhD thesis, Middlesex University.

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Abstract

Programming is notoriously hard for novices to learn and a substantial number of learners fail in introduction to programming courses. It is not just a UK problem: a number of multi-institutional and multi-national studies reveal that the problem is well-known and is widespread. There is no general agreement about the causes or the remedies. The major factors which can be hypothesised as a cause of this phenomenon are: learners' psychology; teaching methods; complexity of programming. In this study, learners' common mistakes, bugs, misconceptions, frequencies and type of errors (syntactic and semantic) in the early stages of learning programming were studied. Noticing the patterns of rationales behind novices' mistakes swayed the study toward investigating novices' mental ability which was found to have a great effect on their learning performance. It was observed that novices reported a recognisable set of models of program execution each of which was logically acceptable as a possible answer and it appeared that some students even used these models systematically. It was suspected that the intellectual strategies behind their reasoning could have been built up from their programming background knowledge and it was surprising when it was found that some of those novices had not even seen a program before. A diagnostic questionnaire was designed that apparently examined a student's understanding of assignments and sequence but in fact was capturing the reasoning strategy behind their interpretation of each question, regardless of a correct or wrong answer. The questionnaire was administered in the first week of an introductory programming course, without giving any explanation of what the questions were about. A full response from most participants was received, despite the fact that the questions were unexplained. Confronted with a simple program, about half of novices seem to spontaneously invent and consistently apply a mental model of program execution. They were called the consistent subgroup. The other half are either unable to build a model or to apply one consistently. They were called the inconsistent subgroup. The first group perform very much better in their end-of-course examination than the rest. Meta-analysis of the results of six experiments in UK and Australia confirmed a strong effect of consistency on success which is highly significant (p < 0:001). A strong eect persisted in every group of candidates, sliced by background factors of programming experience (with/ without), relevant programming experience(with/without), and prior programming course (with/without) which might be thought to have had an effect on success. This result confirms that consistency is not simply provided by prior programming background. Despite the tendency in institutions to rely on students' prior programming background as a positive predictor for success, this study revealed that prior programming education did not have a noticeable eect on novices' success. A weak positive eect of prior programming experience was observed overall which appeared to be driven by one experiment with a programming-skilful population. This study shows that students in the consistent subgroup have the ability to build a mental model, something that follows rules like a mechanical construct. It also seems that when programming skill is measured by a weak assessment mechanism, the eect of consistency on success is reduced.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information:

A thesis submitted to Middlesex University in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

Research Areas:Theses
Science & Technology > Human Computer Interaction
ID Code:6274
Deposited On:12 Jul 2010 09:03
Last Modified:06 Feb 2013 11:37

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