Archive for May 25, 2020

Measuring progress on CS learning trajectories at the earliest stages

I’ve written in this blog (and talked about many times) how I admire and build upon the work of Katie Rich, Diana Franklin, and colleagues in the Learning Trajectories for Everyday Computing project at the University of Chicago (see blog posts here and here). They define the sequence of concepts and goals that K-8 students need to be able to write programs consisting of sequential statements, to write programs that contain iteration, and to debug programs. While they ground their work in K-8 literature and empirical work, I believe that their trajectories apply to all students learning to program.

Here are some of the skills that appear in the early stages of their trajectories:

  • Precision and completeness are important when writing instructions in advance. 
  • Different sets of instructions can produce the same outcome. 
  • Programs are made by assembling instructions from a limited set. 
  • Some tasks involve repeating actions. 
  • Programs use conditions to end loops.  
  • Outcomes can be used to decide whether or not there are errors.
  • Reproducing a bug can help find and fix it.
  • Step-by-step execution of instructions can help find and fix errors.

These feel fundamental and necessary — that you have to learn all of these to progress in programming. But it’s pretty clear that that’s not true. As I describe in my SIGCSE keynote talk (the relevant 4 minute segment is here), there is lots of valuable programming that doesn’t require all of these. For example, most students programming in Scratch don’t use conditions to end loops — still, millions of students find expressive power in Scratch. The Bootstrap: Algebra curriculum doesn’t have students write their own iteration at all — but they learn algebra, which means that there is learning power in even a subset of this list.

What I find most fascinating about this list is the evidence that CS students older than K-8 do not have all these concepts. One of my favorite papers at Koli Calling last year was  It’s like computers speak a different language: Beginning Students’ Conceptions of Computer Science (see ACM DL link here — free downloads through June 30). They interviewed 14 University students about what they thought Computer Science was about. One of the explanations they labeled the “Interpreter.” Here’s an example quote exemplifying this perspective:

It’s like computers speak a different language. That’s how I always imagined it. Because I never understood exactly what was happening. I only saw what was happening. It’s like, for example, two people talking and suddenly one of them makes a somersault and the other doesn’t know why. And then I just learn the language to understand why he did the somersault. And so it was with the computers. 

This student finds the behavior of computers difficult to understand. They just do somersaults, and computer science is about coming to understand why they do somersaults? This doesn’t convey to me the belief that outcomes are completely and deterministically specified by the program.

I’ll write in June about Katie Cunningham’s paper to appear next month at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences. The short form is that she asked Data Science students at University to trace through a program. Two students refused, saying that they never traced code. They did not believe that “Step-by-step execution of instructions can help find and fix errors.” And yet, they were successful data science students.

You may not agree that these two examples (the Koli paper and Katie’s work) demonstrate that some University students do not have all the early concepts listed above, but that possibility brings us to the question that I’m really interested in: How would we know?

How can we assess whether students have these early concepts in the trajectories for learning programming? Just writing programs isn’t enough. 

  • How often do we ask students to write the same thing two ways? Do students realize that this is possible?
  • Students may realize that programming languages are “finicky” but may not realize that programming is about “precision and completeness.” 
  • Students re-run programs all the time (most often with no changes to the code in between!), but that’s not the same as seeing a value in reproducing a bug to help find and fix it. I have heard many students exclaim, “Okay, that bug went away — let’s turn it in.” (Or maybe that’s just a memory from when I said it as a student…)

These concepts really get at fundamental issues of transfer and plugged vs unplugged computing education. I bet that if students learn these concepts, they would transfer. They address what Roy Pea called “language-independent bugs” in programming. If a student understands these ideas about the nature of programs and programming, they will likely recognize that those are true in any programming language. That’s a testable hypothesis. Is it even possible to learn these concepts in unplugged forms? Will students believe you about the nature of programs and programming if they never program?

I find questions like these much more interesting than trying to assess computational thinking. We can’t agree on what computational thinking is. We can’t agree on the value of computational thinking. Programming is an important skill, and these are the concepts that lead to success in programming. Let’s figure out how to assess these.

May 25, 2020 at 7:00 am 15 comments


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