Programming is hard, or at least it used to be. AI code generators like Amazon’s CodeWhisperer, DeepMind’s AlphaCode, GitHub’s CoPilot, Replit’s Ghostwriter and many others now make programming easier, at least for some people, some of the time. What opportunities and challenges do these new tools present for educators? Join us on Zoom to discuss an award winning paper by Brett Becker, Paul Denny, James Finnie-Ansley, Andrew Luxton-Reilly, James Prather and Eddie Antonio Santos at University College Dublin, the University of Auckland and Abilene Christian University on this very topic.  We’ll be joined by two of the co-authors who will present a lightning talk to kick-off our discussion, for our monthly ACM journal club meetup. Here’s the abstract of his paper:
The introductory programming sequence has been the focus of much research in computing education. The recent advent of several viable and freely-available AI-driven code generation tools present several immediate opportunities and challenges in this domain. In this position paper we argue that the community needs to act quickly in deciding what possible opportunities can and should be leveraged and how, while also working on overcoming otherwise mitigating the possible challenges. Assuming that the effectiveness and proliferation of these tools will continue to progress rapidly, without quick, deliberate, and concerted efforts, educators will lose advantage in helping shape what opportunities come to be, and what challenges will endure. With this paper we aim to seed this discussion within the computing education community.
Brett A. Becker, Paul Denny, James Finnie-Ansley, Andrew Luxton-Reilly, James Prather, Eddie Antonio Santos (2023) Programming Is Hard – Or at Least It Used to Be: Educational Opportunities and Challenges of AI Code Generation in Proceedings of the 54th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education: SIGCSE 2023, pages 500–506, DOI: 10.1145/3545945.3569759
Maybe you wrote that code and maybe you didn’t. If AI helped you, such as the OpenAI Codex in GitHub Copilot, how did it solve your problem? How much did Artificial Intelligence help or hinder your solution? Join us to discuss a paper by Michel Wermelinger from the Open University published in the SIGCSE technical symposium earlier this month on this very topic.  We’ll be joined by Michel who will present a lightning talk to kick-off our discussion. Here’s the abstract of his paper:
The teaching and assessment of introductory programming involves writing code that solves a problem described by text. Previous research found that OpenAI’s Codex, a natural language machine learning model trained on billions of lines of code, performs well on many programming problems, often generating correct and readable Python code. GitHub’s version of Codex, Copilot, is freely available to students. This raises pedagogic and academic integrity concerns. Educators need to know what Copilot is capable of, in order to adapt their teaching to AI-powered programming assistants. Previous research evaluated the most performant Codex model quantitatively, e.g. how many problems have at least one correct suggestion that passes all tests. Here I evaluate Copilot instead, to see if and how it differs from Codex, and look qualitatively at the generated suggestions, to understand the limitations of Copilot. I also report on the experience of using Copilot for other activities asked of students in programming courses: explaining code, generating tests and fixing bugs. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of the observed capabilities for the teaching of programming.
Michel Wermelinger (2023) Using GitHub Copilot to Solve Simple Programming Problems in Proceedings of the 54th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education Pages SIGCSE 2023 page 172–178 DOI: 10.1145/3545945.3569830
It’s all very well getting an AI to write your code for you but neither writing code or reading code are the same as understanding code. So what is going on in novices brains when they learn to actually understand the code they are reading and writing? Join us on Monday 6th March at 2pm GMT to discuss a paper by Quintin Cutts and Maria Kallia from the University of Glasgow on this very topic , from the abstract:
An approach to code comprehension in an introductory programming class is presented, drawing on the Text Surface, Functional and Machine aspects of Schulte’s Block Model, and emphasising programming as a modelling activity involving problem and machine domains. To visually connect the domains and a program, a key diagram conceptualising the three aspects lies at the approach’s heart, alongside instructional exposition and exercises, which are all presented. Students find the approach challenging initially, but most recognise its value later, and identify, unexpectedly, the value of the approach for problem decomposition, planning and coding.
We’ll be joined by one of the co-authors (Quintin Cutts), who’ll give us a lightning talk summary of the paper to kick-off our journal club discussion.  Quintin has added: “You can’t write if you can’t read. In just four pages the paper outlines a classroom approach to developing in novices good code comprehension right from the start of an introductory course. There’s also some feedback on what students thought, a year later – spoiler – they seemed to get a lot from it. Anyone teaching introductory programming might find such a short paper thought provoking, even if they don’t pick up the technique in their teaching. Worth a quick read, and coming along to listen/add to the discussion…”
Quintin Cutts and Maria Kallia (2023) Introducing Modelling and Code Comprehension from the First Days of an Introductory Programming Class in CEP ’23: Proceedings of 7th Conference on Computing Education Practice Pages 21–24 DOI:10.1145/3573260.3573266
More and more software development tools are available in the cloud, with tools like Replit, CodingRooms, GitHub Codespaces, Amazon Web Services Cloud9, JetBrains and Eclipse all offering online tools for developers to code collaboratively in the cloud. Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) which have traditionally been available as “fatter” clients are increasingly available as “thinner” web-based clients running in a browser. These tools can lower some of the barriers to installation and maintenance for their users. What are the strengths and weaknesses of these new tools for teaching introductory programming courses? Join us on Monday 6th February at 2pm GMT to discuss a paper by Phil Hackett and his colleagues at the Open University on this very topic , from the abstract:
This paper discusses a pilot research project, which investigated the use of online collaborative IDEs (Integrated development environments) during a first-year computing degree course. The IDEs used can be described as virtual computing labs because they replicate some of the actions possible in physical computing labs. Students were supported by a tutor with real-time help and feedback provided, whilst they were programming, without being collocated. The use of two different platforms is considered with the benefits and drawbacks discussed. Students and tutors indicated that they would like to use a virtual computing lab approach in the future.
We’ll be joined by the lead author of the paper Phil Hackett, who’ll give us a lightning talk summary of the paper to kick-off our journal club discussion. The paper was presented at Computing Education Practice (CEP) in Durham earlier this month. 
Phil Hackett, Michel Wermelinger, Karen Kear and Chris Douce (2023) Using a Virtual Computing Lab to Teach Programming at a Distance in CEP ’23: Proceedings of 7th Conference on Computing Education Practice Pages 5–8 DOI:10.1145/3573260.3573262
Java is widely used as a teaching language in Universities around the world, but what wider problems does it present for novice programmers? Join us to discuss via a paper published in TOCE by Neil Brown, Pierre Weill-Tessier, Maksymilian Sekula, Alexandra-Lucia Costache and Michael Kölling.  From the abstract:
Objectives: Java is a popular programming language for use in computing education, but it is difficult to get a wide picture of the issues that it presents for novices, and most studies look only at the types or frequency of errors. In this observational study we aim to learn how novices use different features of the Java language. Participants: Users of the BlueJ development environment have been invited to opt-in to anonymously record their activity data for the past eight years. This dataset is called Blackbox, which was used as the basis for this study. BlueJ users are mostly novice programmers, predominantly male, with a median age of 16. Our data subset featured approximately 225,000 participants from around the world. Study Methods: We performed a secondary data analysis that used data from the Blackbox dataset. We examined over 320,000 Java projects collected over the course of eight years, and used source code analysis to investigate the prevalence of various specifically-selected Java programming usage patterns. As this was an observational study without specific hypotheses, we did not use significance tests; instead we present the results themselves with commentary, having applied seasonal trend decomposition to the data. Findings: We found many long-term trends in the data over the course of the eight years, most of which were monotonic. There was a notable reduction in the use of the main method (common in Java but unnecessary in BlueJ), and a general reduction in the complexity of the projects. We find that there are only a small number of frequently used types: int, String, double and boolean, but also a wide range of other infrequently used types. Conclusions: We find that programming usage patterns gradually change over a long period of time (a period where the Java language was not seeing major changes), once seasonal patterns are accounted for. Any changes are likely driven by instructors and the changing demographics of programming novices. The novices use a relatively restricted subset of Java, which implies that designers of languages specifically targeted at novices can satisfy their needs with a smaller set of language constructs and features. We provide detailed recommendations for the designers of educational programming languages and supporting development tools.
Neil C. C. Brown, Pierre Weill-Tessier, Maksymilian Sekula, Alexandra-Lucia Costache and Michael Kölling (2022) Novice use of the Java programming language ACM Transactions on Computing Education DOI:10.1145/3551393
Automatic code generators have been with us a while, but how do modern AI powered bots perform on introductory programming assignments? Join us to discuss the implications of the OpenAI Codex on introductory programming courses on Monday 4th July at 2pm BST. We’ll be discussing a paper by James Finnie-Ansley, Paul Denny, Brett A. Becker, Andrew Luxton-Reilly and James Prather  for our monthly SIGCSE journal club meetup on zoom. Here is the abstract:
Recent advances in artificial intelligence have been driven by an exponential growth in digitised data. Natural language processing, in particular, has been transformed by machine learning models such as OpenAI’s GPT-3 which generates human-like text so realistic that its developers have warned of the dangers of its misuse. In recent months OpenAI released Codex, a new deep learning model trained on Python code from more than 50 million GitHub repositories. Provided with a natural language description of a programming problem as input, Codex generates solution code as output. It can also explain (in English) input code, translate code between programming languages, and more. In this work, we explore how Codex performs on typical introductory programming problems. We report its performance on real questions taken from introductory programming exams and compare it to results from students who took these same exams under normal conditions, demonstrating that Codex outscores most students. We then explore how Codex handles subtle variations in problem wording using several published variants of the well-known “Rainfall Problem” along with one unpublished variant we have used in our teaching. We find the model passes many test cases for all variants. We also explore how much variation there is in the Codex generated solutions, observing that an identical input prompt frequently leads to very different solutions in terms of algorithmic approach and code length. Finally, we discuss the implications that such technology will have for computing education as it continues to evolve, including both challenges and opportunities. (see accompanying slides and sigarch.org/coping-with-copilot/)
James Finnie-Ansley, Paul Denny, Brett A. Becker, Andrew Luxton-Reilly, James Prather (2022) The Robots Are Coming: Exploring the Implications of OpenAI Codex on Introductory Programming ACE ’22: Australasian Computing Education Conference Pages 10–19 DOI:10.1145/3511861.3511863
print(’Hello World!’) is all very well but it doesn’t help physics students solve the Schrödinger equation. Join us for our next journal club meeting on Monday 13th June at 2pm BST where we’ll be discussing a paper by Lloyd Cawthorne from the Department of Physics and Astronomy on teaching programming to undergraduate Physics students. From the abstract:
Computer programming is a key component of any physical science or engineering degree and is a skill sought by employers. Coding can be very appealing to these students as it is logical and another setting where they can solve problems. However, many students can often be reluctant to engage with the material as it might not interest them or they might not see how it applies to their wider study. Here, I present lessons I have learned and recommendations to increase participation in programming courses for students majoring in the physical sciences or engineering. The discussion and examples are taken from my second-year core undergraduate physics module, Introduction to Programming for Physicists, taught at The University of Manchester, UK. Teaching this course, I have developed successful solutions that can be applied to undergraduate STEM courses.
Spatial skills can be beneficial in engineering and computing, but how are they connected? Why are spatial abilities beneficial in engineering? Join us to discuss this via a paper on spatial skills training by Jack Parkinson and friends at the University of Glasgow. Here is the abstract:
We have been training spatial skills for Computing Science students over several years with positive results, both in terms of the students’ spatial skills and their CS outcomes. The delivery and structure of the training has been modified over time and carried out at several institutions, resulting in variations across each intervention. This article describes six distinct case studies of training deliveries, highlighting the main challenges faced and some important takeaways. Our goal is to provide useful guidance based on our varied experience for any practitioner considering the adoption of spatial skills training for their students.
Jack Parkinson, Ryan Bockmon, Quintin Cutts, Michael Liut, Andrew Petersen and Sheryl Sorby (2021) Practice report: six studies of spatial skills training in introductory computer science, ACM Inroads Volume 12, issue 4, pp 18–29 DOI: 10.1145/3494574
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.