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Understanding the challenges of learning to program at level 2

Project leader(s): 
Chris Douce
Faculty: 
STEM
Status: 
Archived

Learning to program is a skill that some students struggle with.  TT284 Web Technologies requires students to write code using a number of different programming languages: Javascript, PHP and Google AppInventor.  Many students who take TT284 would have completed TU100 My Digital Life and TM129 Technologies in Practice which introduces programming using two different graphical environments.

The objectives of this research was to identify (1) the extent to which students are able to learn the technologies that TT284 teaches, (2) whether the approaches used in TU100 and TM129 successfully equips students to study TT284, and (3) the ways in which tutors deal with the challenge of working with students who struggle with programming.

To understand these issues, a number of experienced TT284 tutors were interviewed. Interviewing tutors enabled us to understand both the challenges that particular students face, the responses that the tutors make to meet such challenges, and also learn about what additional support the faculty or the module team might be able to provide.

Two experienced TT284 tutors were recruited. These tutors designed an interview plan, and then ran a short pilot study by interviewing each other. Following the pilot study, twelve TT284 tutors were interviewed. The resulting interviews were transcribed and then thematically analysed. After the analysis, the results were presented to the two tutors through a focus group, where the findings were discussed.

Based on the findings, it was difficult to answer the original research questions: students differ extensively in their background and experience. Tutors noted that some students arrived on TT284 with significant programming experience, whereas other fundamentally struggled to understand many of the concepts that were presented in the module. There was a view that TT284 wasn’t a module that taught programming, and sometimes students became easily overwhelmed with the amount of resources that they had to understand and work with.

A striking finding is the extent to which the tutors differ in the ways that they use OU Live: some tutors prepare resources that are based around PowerPoint presentations, whereas other tutors use OU Live as a way to share screen displays. To take account of challenges that students face, tutors have taken it upon themselves to create videos. These videos, essentially, augment the materials that have been created by the module team.

The project, and results of the project have been presented through two internal conferences, and will also be presented at a Computing and Communications seminar. Furthermore, an abstract has been submitted for a special issue of Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning.

Related resources

Douce, C. (2015) Understanding the challenges of learning to program at level 2. eSTEeM Final Report. (PDF)

Chris Douce poster (PDF)

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