APT: A principled design for an animated view of program execution for novice programmers

Rajan, Tim (1987). APT: A principled design for an animated view of program execution for novice programmers. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000de5f


This thesis is concerned with the principled design of a computational environment which depicts an animated view of program execution for novice programmers. We assert that a principled animated view of program execution should benefit novice programmers by: (i) helping students conceptualize what is happening when programs are executed; (ii) simplifying debugging through the presentation of bugs in a manner which the novice will understand; (iii) reducing program development time.

The design is based on principles which have been extracted from three areas: (i) the problems that novices encounter when learning a programming language; (ii) the general design principles for computer systems; and (iii) systems which present a view of program execution.

The design principles have been embodied in three 'canned stepper displays for Prolog, Lisp and 6502 Assembler. These prototypes, called APT-0 (Animated Program Tracer), demonstrate that the design principles can be broadly applied to procedural and declarative; low and high level languages. Protocol data was collected from subjects using the prototypes in order to check the direction of the research and to suggest improvements in the design. These improvements have been incorporated in a real implementation of APT for Prolog.

This principled approach embodied by APT provides two important facilities which have previously not been available, firstly a means of demonstrating dynamic programming concepts such as variable binding, recursion, and backtracking, and secondly a debugging tool which allows novices to step through their own code watching the virtual machine in action. This moves towards simplifying the novice's debugging environment by supplying program execution information in a form that the novice can easily assimilate.

An experiment into the misconceptions novices hold concerning the execution of Prolog programs shows that the order of database search, and the concepts of variable binding, unification and backtracking are poorly understood. A further experiment was conducted which looked at the effect that APT had on the ability of novice Prolog programmers to understand the execution of Prolog programs. This demonstrated that the performance of subjects significantly increased after being shown demonstrations of the execution of Prolog programs on APT, while the control group who saw no demonstration showed no improvement.

The experimental evidence demonstrates the potential of APT, and the principled approach which it embodies, to communicate run-time information to novice programmers, increasing their understanding of the dynamic aspects of the Prolog interpreter.

APT, uses an object centred representation, is built on top of a Prolog interpreter and environment, and is implemented in Common Lisp and Zeta Lisp and runs on the Symbolics 3600 range of machines.

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