Study Results: What Errors Do Beginners Make Learning HTML and CSS?

July 1, 2015 at 7:41 am 3 comments

I had the honor to serve on Tom Park’s dissertation committee and got to see this work unfold.  It’s important to do.  Computer scientists are happy to tell you that “HTML is not really programming,” and that’s true.  But what computing education researchers need to realize is that HTML is a formal, computing-interpreted notation — probably the first one that most computing students ever face.  Understanding what works and doesn’t there is important to understanding what’s hard about formal computing representations at all, versus what’s complicated because it’s programming.  For example, over 50% of the knowledge-based errors that were observed in the study were never resolved.  That’s the definition of a hard problem that’s worth understanding to improve education.  It’s also important to consider — are those also learning difficulties that we see in programming?

In the end, the number of errors under the three aforementioned categories broke down as follows:

70.9% of all errors were skill-based errors.

16.9% were rule-based errors.

12.1% were knowledge-based errors.

As mentioned, most of the errors were resolved during the task completion process, but some were not, and they broke down like this:

4.3% of all skill-based errors were unresolved.

39.6% of rule-based errors were unresolved.

52.1% of knowledge-based errors were unresolved.

via Study: What Errors Do Beginners Make Learning HTML and CSS?.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. tristam29  |  July 1, 2015 at 11:18 am

    Thanks for sharing this study. It’s clearly important, and I’m looking forward to reading it in more detail. I think the argument about HTML not being a programming language is a massive red herring, and I suspect this study will only provide more strength to that argument.

    One of the ways it’s a red herring is that HTML alone is not a programming language, but HTML and CSS together are Turing complete. It’s pretty hard to imagine someone only learning or caring about HTML and ignoring CSS. The title of your post and the title of the study, therefore, soft of conflict with your point about HTML not being a programming language.

    Even still, I have long thought that HTML and other pure markup languages present some of the same basic challenges for beginners as full programming languages. I’m looking forward to seeing if this is explicitly addressed in the study.

  • 2. Guy Haas  |  July 2, 2015 at 10:51 am

    From the post:

    text editors designed for beginners should give clear
    indications of errors along with an optional inline text
    explanation of what is wrong and how to fix it

    Error messages produced my every compiler I have used are
    horrible. I can not agree more with the author. We have a long
    way to go in this area. I’d love to see a similar study of what
    beginners do/think when they get Java/Python/xxx error

  • 3. chaikens  |  July 2, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Understanding formal computing interpreted representations is not simply “understanding what works …”: It is understanding that (1) some attempted instantiations (what a person writes) are correct and the others are not; and (2) every (correct) instantiation has a structure that together with other rules determines exactly what the interpreter does.

    I know “what works …” refers to educational strategy. But too many students get the idea that programming or web site authoring is merely finding out and memorizing often by rote what works and what doesn’t.

    It is interesting that resolution of knowledge-based errors has the worst track record with rules coming in 2nd: These might depend most on a working understanding of the conceptual nature of our representations.

    We need to understand what educational strategies and experiences work to lead beginners from nothing to skills and experiences that enable them to eventually understand the universes of formalisms characteristic of computer science enough to apply them skillfully.

    Has anyone worked on an error-message system that displays a quotation of the rule whose violation was the cause of the error?


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