Archive for August 20, 2018

High school students learning programming do better with block-based languages, and the impact is greatest for female and minority students

I learned about this study months ago, and I was so glad to see it published in ICLS 2018 this last summer.  The paper is “Blocks or Text? How Programming Language Modality Makes a Difference in Assessing Underrepresented Populations” by David Weintrop, Heather Killen, and Baker Franke.  Here’s the abstract:

Broadening participation in computing is a major goal in contemporary computer science education. The emergence of visual, block-based programming environments such as Scratch and Alice have created a new pathway into computing, bringing creativity and playfulness into introductory computing contexts. Building on these successes, national curricular efforts in the United States are starting to incorporate block-based programming into instructional materials alongside, or in place of, conventional text-based programming. To understand if this decision is helping learners from historically underrepresented populations succeed in computing classes, this paper presents an analysis of over 5,000 students answering questions presented in both block-based and text-based modalities. A comparative analysis shows that while all students perform better when questions are presented in the block-based form, female students and students from historically underrepresented minorities saw the largest improvements. This finding suggests the choice of representation can positively affect groups historically marginalized in computing.

Here’s the key idea as I see it. They studied over 5,000 high school students learning programming. They compared students use block-based and text-based programming questions.  Everyone does better with blocks, but the difference is largest for female students and those from under-represented groups.

Here’s the key graph from the paper:


So, why wouldn’t we start teaching programming with blocks?  There is an issue that students might think that it’s a “toy” and not authentic — Betsy DiSalvo saw that with her Glitch students. But a study with 5K students suggests that the advantages of blocks swamp the issues of inauthenticity.

The International Conference on the Learning Sciences (ICLS) 2018 Proceedings are available here.

August 20, 2018 at 7:00 am 15 comments

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