Wanted: a strategy for teaching programming to newbies?

What is a good strategy for teaching a programming language to beginners?

I wasn’t a briliant student in any of the years I studied – I was lazy and better in finding records (vinyl) in record stores than actually studying – but I guess I was ok. Anyhow, I was kind of good in math (and history iirc). So I never encountered the problems that I have discovered among some of our students lately. This does not, and I don’t mean to, imply that I am smart and they are stupid. Studying lambda calculus now I appreciate my students’ problems better – so far I suck at lambda calculus so I cant’t be that smart!

Now, as a teacher, at a University I see a lot of frustration among students wanting, or are requested, to learn to program. Are the students stupid or is there something else that is incorrect? I’ve touched the topic before and will do so more in the future. My belief and my experience say the latter. So how do attack the problem of frustrated students? Tell them that they are doing university studies and they should get used to it? Well, to some extent it is true and perhaps important for students to realise, but I don’t think that’s the only way to go. So I want to get a bit deeper into the problems the students encounter. What are the main problems in learning how to program? Listing and discussing the main problems I think we can ask ourselves the question of what  a good strategy is.

Two main problems. One problem stands out, mathematical skills are required. Another one is the complexity of popular languages. I’ll try to go through the two problems below.

Mathematical background
Most languages, or rather the education (lectures, books, …) of it, require a mathematical background. Concepts like function and variable are assumed to be familiar to the reader.

Given the last two courses I’ve been involved in, where programming has been introduced to students with no thorough mathematical background I have understood via my own experience in supervising and listening to students but mostly via chats (not structured as proper interviews) with students that functions and variables are hard to grasp. How tolve this? I see two solutions

  1. Require a mathematical background for the course/program
  2. Try to find other means as a teacher. Be it the course literature, lecturing methods, dedicated tools.

Perhaps (1) is the only one that will work properly and this is used in programs where you end up as a computer science engineer. Doing (1) in a program for Applied IT or something similar where the students should not become cs engineers would perhaps make my life as a teacher easier but I think we will miss a lot of talented students – I don’t believe in a programming gene! I have met a lot of talents in students with no thorough math background. So for me it is interesting to look into (2). Fact is, I have been totally absorbed by this the last couple of weeks. I will write more about this, lots more… but I need to read, think (yes, sometimes I can think!), discuss and probe students a lot more.

Complexity of programming languages:

I have often showed a small piece of code to exemplify how complex a language is. At a conference in January I saw the same code presented by someone else to exemplify my point.. I can interpret this coincident in two ways – either I am clever or I need to study more literature on the subject since this is the canonical example. I’d go for the latter. Anyhow, lets look at the following piece of code;

int x=1;

Trivial isn’t it. Apart from the fact that isn’t if you were to explain everything behind the scenery. I think it would be fairly easy to postpone r-value and l-values and so forth. But if you tech Java, a popular language since the industry uses it, you have to write all the code below to simply output “Hello” on the stdout.

public class LeoSayer {
    public static void main(String args[]) {
        System.out.println("Hello");
    }
}

Now, this is complex. Ok, we can skip using the public keyword in the class. But still, class? static? public? void? main? String? args? []? System? System.out?

Of the code above I think only the println(“Hello”) would be easy to explain. But the rest?

….. As I see it we now have two options of explaining all the extra code:

  1. Still maintain that Java is easy to learn – but this is too hard to explain so just skip it.
  2. Saying Java is complex – so we need to skip it. Just accept.

How about explaining all the code? The students would leave the room before you’d come to the word static!

Note: I have written a small tool, that is too large to fit in the margin, that would remove most of the problems in the Java code above. More on this tool another day.

So clearly Java is not perfect as the first language. Last term, when introducing programming to students, we switched approach a bit. We started off by teaching some of the basic stuff like variable, function and assignment using Python. And later, after two weeks, switch to Java – when introducing Object Orientation. If Object Orientation is the way to go is another question – for me it has never been natural to think OO. Can’t help to state some other questions: Should the University adapt to industry needs? Should Universities teach the best available languages and make the industry adapt? Can we do both? Should Universities even consider the industry needs?

Anyhow, in Python, to output “Hello” you write:

print "Hello"

… using Python you can choose to use it interactively or execute the code via a script. This piece of code was understandably easier for students to understand than the Java counterpart. With Python you can go from procedural style to OO – but I believe Python’s OO syntax is too different from Java’s so I prefer to leave Python before reaching OO.

Apart from students disliking the syntax differences between Python and Java and having to make a switch between the languages we did see an improvement in results. There was actually less frustration in total compared to the year before. Unfortunately the results are not scientifically backed up – so you have to trust me on this one. Even though the students were frustrated about having to learn two languages I noticed that they asked less questions than the year before when we taught only Java. The frustrations they had is something we (read I, me, myself) have to get rid off – if we decide to keep the Python first and then Java strategy.

So after all this random thoughts, it’s almost time to state the question. But first some limits to the question:

  • The students don’t know mathematics
  • We cant assume that the students are willing to die to learn programming – we should perhaps make them want to do so. Using Free Software would be one strategy since you can explore everything you use. But that is a question about motivation. Another time!
  • The students should know Object Orientation and Java after having finished.

Ok, the question:

Can you recommend/propose a strategy when teaching programming?

I will set out on yet another quest trying to find a strategy. This is perhaps a sub task of the book finding quest or perhaps it is the opposite. Any input is welcome, as long as it is constructive….

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