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Why is programming so difficult to learn?: Patterns of Difficulties Related to Programming Learning Mid-Stage

Abstract

New software engineers and casual developers are needed in many different areas. However, students face many difficulties while learning the logic of computer programming, frequently failing in university courses. This Ph.D. research aims to identify difficulty patterns related to learning how to program, a crucial part of software engineers training. The research methodology comprises studies that put together results from a systematic literature review and empirical data collected from qualitative and quantitative studies. The difficulties identified will be compiled into a model, which may assist students in sharpening their focus, and teachers in preparing their lessons and teaching material, as well as researchers in employing methods and tools to support learning
Copyright is held by the author.
Why is programming so difficult to learn?
Patterns of Difficulties Related to Programming Learning
Mid-Stage
Yorah Bosse
University of São Paulo - USP
Rua do Matão, 1010
CEP 05508-090 São Paulo SP - Brazil
+55 11 3722 2998
yorah@ime.usp.br
Marco Aurélio Gerosa
University of São Paulo - USP
Rua do Matão, 1010
CEP 05508-090 São Paulo SP - Brazil
+55 11 3091 0753
gerosa@ime.usp.br
ABSTRACT
New software engineers and casual developers are needed in many
different areas. However, students face many difficulties while learning
the logic of computer programming, frequently failing in university
courses. This Ph.D. research aims to identify difficulty patterns related to
learning how to program, a crucial part of software engineers training.
The research methodology comprises studies that put together results
from a systematic literature review and empirical data collected from
qualitative and quantitative studies. The difficulties identified will be
compiled into a model, which may assist students in sharpening their
focus, and teachers in preparing their lessons and teaching material, as
well as researchers in employing methods and tools to support learning.
Categories and Subject Descriptors
[Theory of Computation]: Semantics and reasoning
– Program Constructs – Control primitives.
General Terms
Human Factors.
Keywords
Patterns of problems, novice, casual developer,
programming, software engineering education.
1. INTRODUCTION
Many businesses fail before they are able to fulfil their potential in the
market and one of the causes is a lack of software developers [11]. This
means it is a serious challenge for modern society to prepare new
generations of software developers, since it requires people who are
skilled in algorithms and computer programming. Some governments,
such as Australia1, the USA2, Brazil3 and the United Kingdom4, and
some organizations, Code.Org5 for example, are undertaking initiatives
in this area with the support of several companies. In addition, some
researchers believe that the use of specific software development
methods can bring advantages in learn to program, bringing a different,
more productive and fun way of teaching. As an example, the research,
conducted by Missiroli et al., shows that the precocious exposure of
novices programmers to Agile brings advantages not only as a
development project, but also as a teaching tool [17].
1 http://mashable.com/2015/09/21/coding-schools-australia/?id=mash-com-fb-
aus-link#Yv6gpyKnmGqh
2 http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/01/12/462698966/the-president-wants-
every-student-to-learn-computer-science-how-would-that-work
3 http://idgnow.com.br/ti-pessoal/2015/04/07/projeto-do-parana-quer-levar-
ensino-de-programacao-a-escolas-do-brasil/
Programmers are needed to develop and adapt modern systems.
However, programming trainees have encountered a number of
difficulties. This can be evidenced by the high dropout rates and failures
in programming courses [3, 6].
To support researchers in the creation of new methods and development
of programming learning systems and the training of new software
engineers and developers, this research seeks to identify patterns of
difficulties related to learning how to program. The patterns will be
independent of programming language. Difficulties, for this research, are
all factors that disturb the learning of programming, such as syntax and
semantic errors. We focus on the difficulties faced by learners while they
are developing the computational thinking for the procedural paradigm.
The research questions are as follows:
RQ1 What is the unsuccessful rate in introduction programming
courses?
RQ2 What difficulties have been reported in the literature with regard
to learning how to program?
RQ3 – What are the difficulties of learning how to program from the
students’ perspective?
RQ4 – What are the difficulties of learning how to program from the
instructorsperspective?
RQ5What errors in syntax and semantics are recurrently found in the
code developed by the students?
RQ6How to apply the identified patterns to improve teaching-learning
of programming?
2. RELATED WORK
“Programming is a complicated business” [15]. This can be seen when
evaluating the high percentage of fail presented in Introduction
Programming courses [3, 6]. Beaubourg and Mason studied the reasons
for high rates, checking, among other factors, the limited problem
resolution skills, use of laboratories given for homework, and also the
fact that the students go direct to programming, not going through the
analysis and design steps [2]. Initiatives to bring programming to schools
help to develop skills needed for better performance.
4 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/10410036/Teaching-our-children-
to-code-a-quiet-revolution.html
5 Site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKIu9yen5nc. What Most Schools
Don't Teach.
DOI: 10.1145/3011286.3011301
http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/3011286.3011301
ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes
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November 2016 Volume 41 Number 6
There are several skills needed to learn how to program, being more
obvious the ability to solve problems and fundamental knowledge of
math. Besides these, Jenkins [15] states that it is necessary to know how
to use a computer, to create the program, compile, test, and correct bugs,
and learning style and motivation are factors that influence the process of
learning to how to program.
Understanding the process of learning a first programming language can
help in the task of creating more effective learning environments [13],
thereby reducing the difficulties encountered by beginners. Several
researchers aimed to find information about these difficulties. Denny et
al. [12] show that syntax error is one of the barriers for programming
novices, delaying the feedback provided to students about the logic of the
code developed. Cechinel et al. reported that the most common problems
are the lack of ability to find errors, develop a program to solve a task,
and modularization of code using functions and procedures. The topics
considered the most difficult were functions and procedures, error
handling, and arrays (vectors) [7].
Ribeiro et al. investigated the differences between the use of textual and
visual programming environments in the introduction of computer
programming [20]. After analyzing the data collected from NASA TLX,
activity log, and survey, they concluded that visual programming is a
good model for teaching algorithms and programming. Many others
researches are conducted to determine if specific methodology, as Agile
[17], or code smells by novice programming [14] help to learn how to
program.
Lahtinen et al. conducted a survey at six universities in five countries and
obtained responses from 559 students and 34 instructors. The answers
were given on a scale of 1, easy to learn, to 5, very difficult. As for the
educational content covered in the course, the average student perception
about how difficulty is the course (mean 2.8) is smaller than instructors
(mean 3.5). Students and instructors have the same perceptions of the
three content considered more difficult. They are, in this order: pointers,
error handling, and recursion. Other contents also considered difficult
were: using language library and abstract data types. Both in the view of
students and instructors, the three content deemed easier were: selection,
repetition, and variables. However, learning the concepts is not
considered by students and instructors the biggest problem for
programming apprentices. The biggest problem is to apply them in
practice [16].
This work contributes to the state of the art identifying patterns of
difficulties related to programming learning. As opposed to the
traditional focus on syntax problems, our study focuses mainly on the
semantic level in the procedural programming paradigm. Other studies
cite difficulties, problems, and common errors, however do not provide
an in-depth understanding of the difficulties, their relations, and their
relevance in multiple scenarios. Thus, knowledge about learning
difficulties is spread thin across the literature, and there is little
exploration of the problems faced by learners that are not from the
computer science area. Additionally, we observed that the majority of the
related research predominantly relied on quantitative questionnaire-
based methodology. Those that uncovered difficulties missed research
questions or objectives related to the in-depth understanding of the
phenomena from points of view of students and instructors. In this
research, we systematically review the literature and collect data from
students and instructors. Our study aims to provide this neglected in-
depth understanding of the difficulties and to add to the dominant
quantitative survey-based research on learning how to program.
3. GOALS AND METHODOLOGY
The main goal of this research is to identify patterns of difficulties related
to learning how to program. To achieve this, we will conduct a mixed-
method research.
3.1 Research Question 1
RQ1 What is the unsuccessful rate in introduction programming
courses?
First of all, it is important to explain the meaning of unsuccessful. For
our research, unsuccessful is the result showing that the student has not
completed or did not receive a grade necessary to conclude the course. In
order to gather evidence about the problem we are dealing with, we will
conduct a quantitative study about approvals and failures in introduction
programming courses. Much of our data collection will be conducted at
the University of São Paulo - USP, which offers annual Introduction
Programming courses for thousands of students from several different
subject-areas. Thus, our goal is to discover the following: what courses
are being offered, what is the profile of the students, what is the failure
and drop-out rate, what is the profile of each instructor, and how this
compares to the data obtained from the literature. We are also analyzing
the possibility to create and submit a survey to several universities from
different countries to seek information regarding the unsuccessful rate in
introductory programming courses.
Methodology: The first step was to query Introduction to Programming
(IP) courses in the academic system using three keywords:
"programming," "algorithms," and "computing." Our search returned a
total of 207 courses. After analyzing the content of these programs, we
selected a group of 31 courses for our research. Only 29 of these courses
were considered because two were new, and their classes had not been
completed. We obtained an anonymous database which provided the
individual results of the 29 courses in the previous five years. We also
obtained the school records of each student who attended one of the 29
courses. The preliminary results of the analysis of this database have been
shown in two papers [5, 6]. We are currently analyzing the results over a
longer period of time and cross referencing additional data such as the
results of the students in the university entrance exam and in other
subjects. Our aim is to compare the results in the IP course with other
courses and specific knowledge areas, such as Languages, Math, Physics,
etc.
Validation test plans and publications: Some information has already
been obtained , such as the percentage of failures, which corroborated the
results obtained by Bennedsen and Caspersen [3]. We will also conduct
a quantitative examination of the performance of students at the
University of São Paulo, and these will be compared with the results from
the literature, and an article will be submitted to a reputable journal.
Threats to validity and other challenges: Some factors may lead to errors
in the data disclosed, such as the possibility of errors in the extraction and
compilation of the system data. To avoid this, we selected a sample of
data for manual checking, and compared this with data from other
sources.
Timeline with Milestones from RQ1: Figure 1 below shows the timeline
of RQ1.
Figure 1. Timeline with milestones from RQ1.
Writing papers
Q4 2016
Q3 2016
Q2 2015
Database
analysis
(5 years DB)
First
paper
Second
paper
Database
analysis
(5 years DB +
questionnaire)
Database
analysis
(10 years DB)
Submission
paper of
journal
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November 2016 Volume 41 Number 6
3.2 Research Question 2
RQ2 What difficulties have been reported in the literature with regard
to learning how to program?
Methodology: A systematic literature review will be carried out to
identify difficulties in learning how to program that have been reported
and/or empirically investigated so far. We are currently refining the
protocol, which includes a search string, databases, and criteria for
exclusion/inclusion. On the basis of these factors, the search will be
carried out, and this will involve identifying the primary studies,
determining what difficulties have been reported and evaluated, and
collating the results. A model of difficultieswill be proposed, in a
similar way to a previous study conducted by our research group [21].
Validation test plan and publication: the design of the model will be
grounded on the data obtained from the primary studies. We will also
compare our results with those of other literature reviews or catalogues,
if available. The results will be formatted in an article that will be
submitted to a Software Engineering journal.
Threats to validity and other challenges: a threat to validity that we have
in mind is the improper definition of the search string. To avoid this
threat, we will select articles that are known in the area and the string
must return these items in the search results.
Timeline with Milestones from RQ2: Figure 2 below shows the timeline
of RQ2.
Figure 2. Timeline with milestones from RQ2.
3.3 Research Question 3
RQ3 – What are the difficulties of learning how to program from the
students’ perspective?
Methodology: We have been collection information from students by
means of three different methods. The first involves individual interviews
based on the Think Aloud technique [19]. This technique consists of
observing the way users perform specific tasks in controlled
environments. The task assigned to the students was made up of 4
exercises with different levels of difficulty. They had to solve a problem
using the C programming language, in the Virtual Programming Lab -
VPL6. VPL is a plugin for Moodle developed by the University of Las
Palmas, Canary Islands - ULPGC that offers information about the
compilation of the code. In addition, through test cases set by the
instructor, it gives feedback to the students about their code. During the
interviews, the computer screen and audio was recorded for subsequent
analysis. In the pilot study, six students who had failed in the introductory
programming course took part in the interviews at the end of 2015.
The second method is based on Diaries [18]. This method was chosen
because it enables information about events and experiences to be
obtained from the perspective of the subject in a spontaneous way,
reducing the time between the occurrence of the event and the time when
it is reported to the researchers [4]. In the second half of 2015, students
6 Virtual Programming Lab VPL. URL: http://vpl.dis.ulpgc.es/index.php/about
from six courses were invited to participate in our research project by
filling out diaries during their studies. They were encouraged to report
their experiences, their feelings, the difficulties encountered during their
studies, and how they were resolved. 34 students took part in the activity.
Google Docs was used for the data collection, by means of individual
documents for each student. Open coding and axial coding [8] were used
for the data analysis. Our group has already used diaries and this kind of
analysis in another situation [22]. This method will be applied again in
the second half of 2016 with students from other courses.
The third method will include a survey with specific questions about
possible difficulties encountered in the introductory programming
course. This survey aims to quantitatively confirm observed patterns and
expand the scope of analysis, collect more qualitative and quantitative
data. This survey will be applied to students from several universities on
two occasions, with classes in the first and second half of 2016.
Validation test plan and publication: data were collected in three different
ways and a joint analysis will be carried out to identify the patterns. The
data collected with interviews regarding the Think Aloud method were
described in a submitted paper and the data from the diaries (part of RQ3)
and interviews (part of RQ4) were compiled and a paper is being
prepared.
Threats to validity and other challenges: The greatest challenge is to
persuade the students to participate by filling in the diaries and answering
the questions in the survey. We will go to some classrooms and collect
the responses in person.
3.4 Research Question 4
RQ4 – What are the difficulties of learning how to program from the
instructors’ perspective?
Methodology: Interviews were conducted in late 2015 with 16 instructors
involved in the Introduction to Programming course. Ten instructors were
randomly selected and the other 6 were those that were teaching
Introduction Programming courses that semester. The purpose of the
interviews was to find out what are the difficulties of the students in the
view of the instructor. Inquiries were made about the syllabus of the
subject to determine the difficulties observed by the instructors. The
interviews were conducted individually, the content was recorded on
audio and transcribed. Currently, we are at the stage of analyzing and
formatting data employing the methodology of Grounded Theory.
With also aim to conduct surveys to collect additional data and confirm
some hypothesis raised during the analysis.
Validation test plan and publication: data from the diaries (part of RQ3)
and interviews (part of RQ4) were formatted and will be presented in a
paper. Data collected from students (RQ3), together with the data from
the instructors (RQ4) will be analyzed and formatted in a paper that will
be submitted to an international journal.
Timeline with Milestones from RQ3 and RQ4: Figure 3 below shows the
timeline of RQ3 and RQ4.
Figure 3. Timeline with milestones from RQ3 and RQ4.
Reading of
selected
papers
Q2 2017
Q1 2017
Writing papers and qualification work
Q4 2016
Q3 2016
Preparation -
Systematic
Review
Papers
selected with
search string
Papers selected
with inclusion
criteria
Submission
paper of
journal
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November 2016 Volume 41 Number 6
3.5 Research Question 5
RQ5What errors in syntax and semantics are recurrently found in the
code developed by the students?
Methodology: Code made by students during the semesters has been
collected for analysis of error patterns. We will connect these patterns to
those identified from the previous RQs. We will use mining software
repositories techniques in order to collect, clean, and analyze the data,
searching for the patterns.
Validation test plan and publication: A problem must be detected in at
least three different situations in order to be considered a pattern. We plan
to gather evidence of the reported difficulties and find new patterns
analyzing the source code produced by the learners.
Threats to validity and other challenges: The analysis of syntax errors can
be done by a system that analyzes the code submitted by the students.
The analysis of the logic errors is more complicated to be performed by
the system. We are still testing different way of doing this activity.
Timeline with Milestones from RQ5: Figure 4 below shows the timeline
of RQ5.
Figure 4. Timeline with milestones from RQ5.
3.6 Patterns Definition
Based on the results of the RQ2 to RQ5, we will compile the difficulties
observed into patterns. Each pattern will comprise a name, situation in
which it occurs, how to solve it, and examples. We will also categorize
the patterns according to the Bloom’s taxonomy. Bloom created
categories for educational goals[1] (Figure 5). Each category has a set of
action words that could be used help identify the kind of knowledge
related to the difficulties.
Figure 5. Bloom’s taxonomy7.
3.7 Research Question 6
RQ6How to apply the identified patterns to improve teaching-learning
of programming?
Methodology: Guided by the previously modeled patterns, we will
follow an action research approach. We will specify the teaching strategy
for each pattern of difficulty identified, according to what the instructors
reported. After this, we will define two groups learning the same contents
(two different courses or two group inside the same course). In one of
7 https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/
them, we will apply the strategy. In the other one, we will analyze the
students manifest the difficulty related to the pattern (Figure 6). At each
stage of action research, different elements of the model will be
evaluated. We will perform the triangulation of data to validate the results
and improve accuracy [9, 10].
Figure 6. Pattern and strategy validation process.
Validation test plan and publication: An article describing the research
and its results will be submitted for publication in an international
journal.
Threats to validity and other challenges: One challenge will be to have
classes and instructors enough to work in this action research. Another
challenge will be to have time enough to make all validation.
Timeline with Milestones from RQ6: Figure 7 below shows the timeline
of RQ6.
Figure 7. Timeline with milestones from RQ6.
4. PROGRESS AND NEXT STAGES
In the following, we present some results achieved.
RQ1 What is the unsuccessful rate in introduction programming
courses?
We have analyzed a database comprising results from introductory
programming courses at the University of São Paulo for the years 2010-
2014. Our results corroborate those of other studies [3]. Out of the 18,784
registrations made in the analyzed period, 30% resulted in failures or
dropouts, what was fairly constant over the years. We evidenced a higher
failure rate for students who were not from the computer science area,
reaching 30.3% compared to 25.1% of students who are from the area.
We also found that more than 25% of who were approved attended two
1. Set
teaching
strategy
2. Apply
the
strategy
in a group
3. In another
group, without
the strategy,
verify the
presence of the
pattern
4. Compare the
two groups to
see if the
difficulty
decreased
5.
Analyze
the
results
Writing papers and thesis
Q3 2018
Q2 2018
Pattern and stra tegy validation process
Q1 2017
Finished the
pattern
documentatio n
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November 2016 Volume 41 Number 6
or more times the course. This course is among the ones with the highest
failure rates.
RQ3 – What are the difficulties of learning how to program from the
students’ perspective?
In the second half of 2015, 34 students from six courses filled diaries
about their studies. They reported difficulties and some strategies found
to solve them. In the following, we present some students' comments
identifying who wrote them by means of a subscript "a" followed by a
numbering. The data found in these diaries were analyzed using
Grounded Theory procedures and they were grouped by concepts,
forming four categories: Difficulties, Study Strategies, Preferences, and
Self-assessments. In the following, we present some results from the first
category. We detected that 'syntax error', with 13 occurrences, was the
problem most frequently reported by students, with comments like: “I
still have a lot of errors in basic things like braces, parentheses, and
semicolonsa1, “the program still didn't execute due to some syntax
errors that I don't know how to solvea20 and, “It is returning syntax error
all the timea22. This type of error makes students to return often to the
code before being able to check if their logic was correct.
Problems with 'variables' was the second most cited, as noted in the
following comment I had difficulty to understand what should be float
and what should be int type, so I had to go testing to finda1. The concept
'Language + IDE + Error Message' was also widely cited, having
complaints as: “initially, I had difficulty with the language, even with the
complementary material, I had difficulty putting into practicea5,
because the program's messages did not help at alla20 and,I could not
interpret the messages that the program showed, so I had to execute parts
of the program separately in another window until I could identify the
errora20. In addition to these complaints about the language and the error
messages, we received comments related to the IDE, as the instructor's
site doesn't have the link to download the updated version of the IDE, and
the available version doesn't work on Windows 8a17.
In an another study, aimed at getting more information about the students
and their behavior during the studies, using the Think Aloud method, we
conducted interviews with six students, lasting about one hour each. These
students did not succeed during the semester and needed to make the final
test if they wanted to be approved. During the interviews, they were
challenged to solve four exercises with increasing degree of difficulty.
Their interview session was registered, including the computer screen and
audio recordings, for analysis.
One of the observed attitudes, adopted by 2 of the students, was to take
notes while they read the statements (student 1 and 3). These 2 had no
better results than the others, but one of them, when asked by the interview
moderator, informed thatannotating helps to remember what needs to be
done because otherwise I cannot remember”. Analyzing the behavior of
the respondents while running the session, we observed that this
annotation process helped, for example, in the definition of which and how
many variables were required to solve the task. One difference between
these students and the others is that they had less mistakes in declaring the
variables and setting their types, practically they did not need to go back
to the code to change what they had written.
The interview moderator observed in two students a reaction while reading
the statement. Student 6 had not read the entire statement when he stopped
reading to make the comment “I get nervous when I see the word matrix”.
The student 1, when started to read the second question spoke instantly “I
do not like function” and “I have difficulties with function parameters”.
Student 1 said “At a first glance I dislike this exercise, I like exercises that
have numbers”. In these three situations the students did not succeed on
solving the exercise. This may be a sign that the students create a barrier
to the content that they face more difficulty.
We also noticed uncertainty in students and some degree of absence of
analytical thinking. They are used to copy and paste the code to read
matrix elements, but when faced by compilation errors, there stated
comments like “We will see now. Must be something wrong. There is
always something wrong.” The moderator noted that the commands to
which they referred to were correctly written, but with undeclared name.
Moreover, in some moments, the student faced problems with intention
and practice. They verbalized something, but wrote something different.
This situation was detected during interviews and can be observed in the
comments “I do not know if it's like this to read an array, but okaya1 and
I think something is missing in this printa6.
Syntax errors were common in all the interviews and exercises, e.g.
opening and closing structures with brackets, colons, correct spelling of
the commands, among others. Some errors are noteworthy, such as: (A)
attempt to read the data in the matrix; (B) create an unnamed function,
besides the incorrect declaration of the variables to receive the parameters,
and (C) semi-colon ending a structure of repetition and selection that has
not even started.
When semantic errors occurred, students usually became more
disappointed than with syntax errors. With syntax errors, they seemed to
be more accustomed. The semantic errors made students to drop out the
exercise faster, because they already realized that they need more time to
fix semantic errors.
RQ4 – What are the difficulties of learning how to program from the
instructors’ perspective?
We randomly selected 14 instructors of the Computer Science
Department of the University of São Paulo, that taught introductory
programming. Individual interviews were conducted with each of them.
The interviews were recorded and are being analyzed using Grounded
Theory procedures. The objective of this study is to seek the difficulties
encountered by students in the instructorsview.
The main difficulty, cited by instructors, is the 'logical reasoning'. They
have tried pseudocode, but most have given up. Some instructors use the
pseudocode only to quickly explain the concept, then they go straight to
the programming language. Others use pseudocode in parallel, i.e., they
develop in pseudocode and then translate into the programming language:
“...if you don't know where to start, writes in natural language a draft.
After this, you go to the pseudocode and only at the end you go to
Pythonp3. They also reported that the experience sometimes makes it
difficult to teach: “I see a problem, it already is structured in my mind and
I don't know how it happensp1 .
About the 'syntactical issues of language', they all agreed that C syntax has
much more details to be observed during programming. It was also
commented that the 'choice of language' influences on the development of
the student.
They cited operators - arithmetic, logical and relational as sources of
difficulties. Students get confused with precedence. There is also difficulty
in differentiating the logical operators 'and' and 'or' and do arithmetic with
variables from the same type, but resulting in a different type. An example
is when the division of two integers results zero, as the division of 1 by 2.
To display the correct result, the type of the resulting value must be float,
it is hard to them realize the errorp4.
Among the structures of selection/decision and repeat/loop, most
instructors start teaching the loop structure, more specifically by 'while'.
It was often cited that 'while' gives the impression of having more control
about the structure, that the student prefers 'whilerather than 'for',
information that corroborates those of diaries written by students. Students
also have difficulty in embedded loops and how to set the break condition.
In the selection structure, the difficulty issee the if..else pairs. In
addition, the students mix concepts between decision and loop structures.
For arrays, there is the 'forgotten to put the index' regarding the position,
which is solved with the strategy of 'intensive practice': You have to do
by repeating, which is a tiring business at the beginningp1 . Instructors
also commented that students understand the concept, but fail to apply in
practice, information that reinforces what has already been published [23].
About function, the difficulty lies in understanding the scope of the
variables and the importance of the return value. Teachers believe that
there are not major problems with parameter passing, however, when it is
by reference and the language used is C, the difficulty increases.
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November 2016 Volume 41 Number 6
Instructors comment that there are some factors that help to make
difficult to teach how to program, as: heterogeneity of the groups and
between groups, low participation in class, low frequency, very large
classes, disinterest in learning, the programming language adopted,
trauma of students that repeat the course, among others. They also
expressed concern about trying to motivate the student. They use strategies
like working with games, challenge, and competition. Instructors
complained about trying to know by heart instead of learning. This was a
strategy also quoted by the students in the diaries.
5. NEXT STEPS
The next steps of the research are:
1. Complete the database analysis about the last 10 years of the
Introduction to Programming course at USP (RQ1).
2. Perform the systematic literature review to find difficulties
reported (RQ2).
3. Apply the technique of diaries in more courses and run a
confirmatory questionnaire with students (RQ3).
4. Complete interviews with instructors from USP and apply an
extended survey for instructors from outside. Analyze and
tabulate the data that will give us information about the
students' difficulties perceived by teachers (RQ4).
5. Consolidate the results from the systematic literature review
and the data collection in a single model
6. Analyze the source code produced by students (RQ5).
7. Validate the patterns (RQ6).
The specific timelines were presented in the method section.
6. CONCLUSION
Until now, we are not a lot of results, but some patterns are already defined.
One of these is the difficulty that students have to work with functions.
Understanding the scope of variables and why it is necessary to pass and
return parameters is not easy for them. Some strategies used by instructors
to mitigate this barrier were explained in the interviews with instructors.
We expected that the patterns of difficulty related to programming learning
help students in their studies, teachers in preparing their lessons, and
researchers in developing new tools to support teaching and learning
programming. This will help to train the next generation of software
engineers.
7. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We would like to express our thanks to the instructors and students from
the University of São Paulo for their valuable assistance with our research
project.
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ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes
Page 6
November 2016 Volume 41 Number 6
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