Challenges with Learning to Program and Problem Solve: An Analysis of Student Online Discussions

Piwek, Paul and Savage, Simon (2020). Challenges with Learning to Program and Problem Solve: An Analysis of Student Online Discussions. In: The 51st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE ’20), ACM, New York.



Students who study problem solving and programming (in a language such as Python) at University level encounter a range of challenges, from low-level issues with code that won't compile to misconceptions about the threshold concepts and skills. The current study complements existing findings on errors, misconceptions, difficulties and challenges obtained from students after-the-fact through instruments such as questionnaires and interviews. In our study, we analysed the posts from students of a large cohort (approx. 1500) of first-year University distance learning students to an online 'Python help forum' - recording issues and discussions as the students encountered specific challenges. Posts were coded in terms of topics, and subsequently thematically grouped into Python-related, problem solving/generic programming related, and module specific. We discuss the set of topics and rank these in terms of the number of forum discussions in which they occur (as a proxy for their prevalence). The top challenges we identified concern student understanding and use of a mix of programming environments (in particular, Python IDLE for offline programming and CodeRunner for programming quizzes) and code fragment problems. Apart from these, Python-specific topics include, among others, collections, functions, error messages, iteration, outputting results, indentation, variables and imports. We believe that the results provide a good insight into the challenges that students encounter as they learn to program. In future work we intend to study the discussions in further detail in terms of theories of conceptual change.

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