Both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) are crucial to facilitating students learning. What goes on inside the mind of a teaching assistant? How can understanding this help us train TA’s better for the roles they play in education? Join us to discuss via a paper by Julia M. Markel and Philip Guo.  From the abstract:
As CS enrolments continue to grow, introductory courses are employing more undergraduate TAs. One of their main roles is performing one-on-one tutoring in the computer lab to help students understand and debug their programming assignments. What goes on in the mind of an undergraduate TA when they are helping students with programming? In this experience report, we present firsthand accounts from an undergraduate TA documenting her 36 hours of in-lab tutoring for a CS2 course, where she engaged in 69 one-on-one help sessions. This report provides a unique perspective from an undergraduate’s point-of-view rather than a faculty member’s. We summarise her experiences by constructing a four-part model of tutoring interactions: a) The tutor begins the session with an initial state of mind (e.g., their energy/focus level, perceived time pressure). b) They observe the student’s outward state upon arrival (e.g., how much they seem to care about learning). c) Using that observation, the tutor infers what might be going on inside the student’s mind. d) The combination of what goes on inside the tutor’s and student’s minds affects tutoring interactions, which progress from diagnosis to planning to an explain-code-react loop to post-resolution activities. We conclude by discussing ways that this model can be used to design scaffolding for training novice TAs and software tools to help TAs scale their efforts to larger classes.
Following on from our discussion of ungrading, this month we’ll be discussing pass/fail rates in introductory programming courses.  Here is the abstract:
Vast numbers of publications in computing education begin with the premise that programming is hard to learn and hard to teach. Many papers note that failure rates in computing courses, and particularly in introductory programming courses, are higher than their institutions would like. Two distinct research projects in 2007 and 2014 concluded that average success rates in introductory programming courses world-wide were in the region of 67%, and a recent replication of the first project found an average pass rate of about 72%. The authors of those studies concluded that there was little evidence that failure rates in introductory programming were concerningly high.
However, there is no absolute scale by which pass or failure rates are measured, so whether a failure rate is concerningly high will depend on what that rate is compared against. As computing is typically considered to be a STEM subject, this paper considers how pass rates for introductory programming courses compare with those for other introductory STEM courses. A comparison of this sort could prove useful in demonstrating whether the pass rates are comparatively low, and if so, how widespread such findings are.
This paper is the report of an ITiCSE working group that gathered information on pass rates from several institutions to determine whether prior results can be confirmed, and conducted a detailed comparison of pass rates in introductory programming courses with pass rates in introductory courses in other STEM disciplines.
The group found that pass rates in introductory programming courses appear to average about 75%; that there is some evidence that they sit at the low end of the range of pass rates in introductory STEM courses; and that pass rates both in introductory programming and in other introductory STEM courses appear to have remained fairly stable over the past five years. All of these findings must be regarded with some caution, for reasons that are explained in the paper. Despite the lack of evidence that pass rates are substantially lower than in other STEM courses, there is still scope to improve the pass rates of introductory programming courses, and future research should continue to investigate ways of improving student learning in introductory programming courses.
ACM SIGCSE Journal Club returns Monday 4th May at 11am. The paper we’re discussing this month is “Relating Natural Language Aptitude to Individual Differences in Learning Programming Languages” by Chantel Prat et al published in Scientific Reports.  Here’s the abstract:
This experiment employed an individual differences approach to test the hypothesis that learning modern programming languages resembles second “natural” language learning in adulthood. Behavioral and neural (resting-state EEG) indices of language aptitude were used along with numeracy and fluid cognitive measures (e.g., fluid reasoning, working memory, inhibitory control) as predictors. Rate of learning, programming accuracy, and post-test declarative knowledge were used as outcome measures in 36 individuals who participated in ten 45-minute Python training sessions. The resulting models explained 50–72% of the variance in learning outcomes, with language aptitude measures explaining significant variance in each outcome even when the other factors competed for variance. Across outcome variables, fluid reasoning and working-memory capacity explained 34% of the variance, followed by language aptitude (17%), resting-state EEG power in beta and low-gamma bands (10%), and numeracy (2%). These results provide a novel framework for understanding programming aptitude, suggesting that the importance of numeracy may be overestimated in modern programming education environments
The paper describes an experiment which investigates the relationship between learning natural languages and programming languages and draws some interesting conclusions that provide some good discussion points. Does being good at learning natural languages like English make you good at learning programming language like Python? Do linguists make good coders?
Computing educators are often baffled by the misconceptions that their CS1 students hold. We need to understand these misconceptions more clearly in order to help students form correct conceptions. This paper describes one stage in the development of a concept inventory for Computing Fundamentals: investigation of student misconceptions in a series of core CS1 topics previously identified as both important and difficult. Formal interviews with students revealed four distinct themes, each containing many interesting misconceptions. Three of those misconceptions are detailed in this paper: two misconceptions about memory models, and data assignment when primitives are declared. Individual misconceptions are related, but vary widely, thus providing excellent material to use in the development of the CI. In addition, CS1 instructors are provided immediate usable material for helping their students understand some difficult introductory concepts.
In case you’re wondering, CS1 refers to the first course in the introductory sequence of a computer science major (in American parlance), roughly equivalent to first year undergraduate in the UK. CI refers to a Concept Inventory, a test designed to tell teachers exactly what students know and don’t know. According to Reinventing Nerds, the paper has been influential because it was the “first to apply rigorous research methods to investigating misconceptions”.