Posts tagged ‘conversational programmers’

Purpose-first programming: A programming learning approach for learners who care most about what code achieves: Katie Cunningham’s Defense

On Wednesday, Katie Cunningham is defending her dissertation, “Purpose-First Programming: A Programming Learning Approach for Learners Who Care Most About What Code Achieves.” I’m proud of the work Katie has done with Barb and me over the years. Let me relate the story here, with links to the blog posts.

I first met Katie through through an on-line essay she wrote explaining the issues of gender and CS to her faculty (see my blog post referencing at link here). After she graduated, she worked on the CSin3 project at California State University at Monterey Bay which helped Latino and Latina students get undergraduate degrees in CS in three years. The paper she and the CSin3 team wrote won a Best Paper award at SIGCSE 2018 (see paper here).

Katie started her PhD research studying how students traced code when trying to understand and predict program behavior. She published her findings at ICER 2017 (see blog post). As you’d expect, students who traced programs line-by-line were more likely to get prediction problems (What is the output? What is this variable’s value?) correct. But not always. Most intriguing: Students who stopped mid-way through a trace were more likely to get the problems wrong than those who never traced at all.

In her next study, she replicated the original experiment and then brought into the lab those students who had stopped mid-way in order to ask them “why?” A common answer was that the students were trying to see the “pattern” of the program, and once they saw the pattern, they were able to predict the answer. The problem is that the students were novices. They didn’t know many patterns. They often guessed wrong. Katie presented this paper at ITiCSE 2019 (see blog post).

Katie did a think-aloud study where she could watch students tracing, and something unexpected and interesting happened — two participants refused to trace. These were data science students who did program successfully, but they were unwilling to trace code at the line-by-line level. She wrote an ICLS 2020 paper about their reasons (see blog post). She decided to study that population.

A 2018 CHI paper by another U-M student, April Wang, had talked about how computing education fails conversational programmers (see paper here). Katie decided to build a new kind of curriculum that addressed her data science students and April’s conversational programmers. How do you teach programming to students who (1) don’t want to become professional programmers and (2) are dissuaded from high cognitive load activities like tracing code? This is a very different problem than most of CS education at the undergraduate level where we have eager CS majors who want to get software development jobs. Katie was dealing with issues both of motivation and of cognitive load.

Katie invented purpose-first programming. I don’t want to say too much about it here — her dissertation and her future papers will go more into it. I’ll give you a sense for her process. She used Github repositories and expert interviews to identify a few programming plans (just like Elliot Soloway and Jim Spohrer studied years ago) that were in common use in a domain that her participants cared about. She then taught those plans. Students modified and combined the plans to create programs that the students found useful. Rather than start with syntax or semantics, she started with the program’s purpose. The results were very positive in terms of learning, performance, and affect. Rather than be turned away, they wanted more. One student asked if she could create a whole set of curricula like this, each for a different purpose. That’s the idea exactly. Katie may be on her way to inventing the Duolingo of programming.

Katie already has a post-doc lined up. She’ll be a CI Fellow with Nell O’Rourke at Northwestern. The defense will be on Zoom — feel free to come and cheer her on!

The School of Information is pleased to announce the oral defense of Kathryn Cunningham:

Title: Purpose-First Programming: A Programming Learning Approach for Learners Who Care Most About What Code Achieves

Date: Wednesday, December 2nd

Time: 10 am – 12 pm EST

Place: This defense will be held virtually for the public to attend. Please use this link.

Barbara Ericson and Mark Guzdial, serving as committee chairs, will preside over the oral defense.

All are welcome to (virtually) attend!

November 30, 2020 at 7:00 am 12 comments


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