Sunday, 25 October 2009

Learning in relation to programming

To some extent, this is a shameless plug for people to read my PhD thesis (Thompson 2008). However, because of the nature of a thesis or dissertation, there are many ideas or ideas that don't reach the written page. One of my supervisors said that a PhD can set up the research agenda for the remainder of your academic life. I would like to think that in my case, it might continue beyond retirement as I take the principles that I have learnt about learning and apply them in a range of contexts.

The focus of my these was on understanding practitioner perceptions of the programming paradigm behind the language. I have held the belief for quite some time that the way that a person understands a task dictates how they perform that task so my goal in my research was to understand the differences that exist in the way programming practitioners understood or expressed their understanding of the programming task. I restricted my study to one paradigm although a number of my more experienced participants freely expressed views related to other paradigms. Although there is diversity in the way that practitioners expressed their understanding, there were common threads or critical aspects that helped identify the differences in awareness.

Ramsden (2003) and Biggs and Moore (1993) talk about the influence of the learner's perception on the learning task. Marton and Säljö (1997) and Marton, Dall'Alba, and Beaty (1993) have conducted studies on conceptions of learning. There are many other studies that could be referenced that further support the concept that in teaching, we need to help the learner change their conception of learning and of the subject matter.

What I claim my thesis does is help uncover some of the critical aspects and their variations that need to be addressed if we are to help the learner achieve the level of understanding that we desire.

For me, the work needs to be continued to further understand the critical aspects for understanding programming that apply across the programming paradigms. My work focused on object-oriented programming. More importantly, the results need to be applied in planning teaching so that the appropriate space of learning (Marton and Tsui 2003) is opened up to the learner and they have the opportunity to come to the level of understanding that we desire. The teaching strategy shouldn't simply be planed and used, it should be evaluated to determine whether it is opening up the correct space of learning and whether it is bringing about the desired change of awareness in the phenomenon being learnt.

However, I see a wider use of the research and teaching approach that I am envisaging. The core foundation is in the variations that are presented to the learner (Marton and Tsui 2003, Marton and Pang 1999). It is through the careful selection of variations in relation to the phenomenon that the learner becomes aware of the critical aspects that we want them to understand. In a programming context, these variations may be in the type of problem to be solved with a particular programming construct or the variations in the constructs used to solve a specific problem. There may be other variations as well.

The question that still challenges me is whether we can address a number of societies social issues and international disputes by looking at the variations in the way people are aware of specific issues and then presenting variations that help the participants see the alternative perspectives that exist. The goal would be to bring an understanding of the diversity of perspectives and the underlying critical aspects that bring about the differences. Hopefully instead of forcing people to conform, we might see greater acceptance of diversity and a willingness to work through the issues that tend to divide us rather than draw us together.


Biggs, J. B., & Moore, P. J. (1993). The process of learning (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall.

Marton, F., Dall'Alba, G., & Beaty, E. (1993). Conceptions of learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 19(3), 277-300.

Marton, F., & Pang, M. F. (1999). Two faces of variation, 8th European Conference for Learning and Instruction. Göteborg University, Göteborg, Sweden.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1997). Approaches to learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell & N. J. Entwistle (Eds.), The experience of learning : implications for teaching and studying in higher education (2nd ed., pp. 39-58). Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Marton, F., & Tsui, A. B. M. (Eds.). (2003). Classroom discourse and the space of learning. Mahwah, NJ; London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North.

Unity in diversity

Barclay (1975) commenting on Luke 6:12-19 says “It is one of the miracles of the power of Christ that Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot could live at peace in the close company of the apostolic band. When we are really Christian the most diverse and divergent types can live at peace together” (p 75).

I am not going to claim that unity in diversity only occurs in Christian communities. Rather it is a trait that I have seen within some academic departments as I have observed universities in operation. In such groups, individual lectures and researchers can hold strongly very diverse opinions yet form a cohesive group that works well together to build a strong reputation for the department and university.

I notice this particularly because I came out of a department that self exploded because there wasn't this unity in diversity. When there isn't unity, the internal infighting destroys the ability to build a community that grows.

There are problems with communities that hold strongly diverse opinions when others who are not part of the community endeavour to interact with it. My mix of experience with the two universities led to a reluctance to express my views and to join one such community when something that I expressed was strongly criticised and I was cut off from speaking. Talking to the individual later, he apologised but it does present one of the problems where groups have internal unity where there is a diversity of views but fail to be able to interact with others outside their group.

Reflecting on the Christian community, it isn't a group that has internal unity in the midst of diversity. It is a group that should be able to reach out to those around them who disagree with the Christian ethos. It is this ability to draw others to the fellowship that should be a real characteristic of the Christian community.


Barclay, W. (1975). The gospel of Luke (revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

What's happened to customer service?

We have now been in the UK for four months with one month in a rented house. What frustrates us is that we don't seem to be able to get any service from any organisation. The banking and insurance systems keep throwing up obstacles and now we don't seem to be able to get a phone line or broadband access in any sort of reasonable time. Everything seems to be credit checked, security checked, or any other inane check before they will do anything useful. We ring and ask for service and spend minutes just getting through the stupid front end voice systems and when we get somebody, they want information about things that don't yet exist in their own system.

In trying to find out what phone number we would have for our new installation, we were asked first what our phone number is and then told that they couldn't tell us and we would find out by ringing some code once the line was installed. Who designed this procedure? They knew the call was about a new installation. That is what the voice system asked in its long winded multi-level, time consuming introduction. This is poor design.

This isn't the only instance with this company. Their online system for ordering the service gave us possible dates that weren't available in their booking system. So we were sent a letter saying the install would be two weeks after the date we selected online. The operator when we asked whether we could have an earlier date went into a long excuse blaming the computers for why the systems are not linked. So operator, you are talking to someone who develops systems and teaches others how to develop systems for a living. Stop making excuses for bad business practice and get the systems sorted. Remember you have customers who want service not excuses.

Yes, New Zealand had delays in getting some connections but nothing like the delays and frustrations that we are having here. We feel like we are bleeding money into the UK system for nothing in return.

Come on UK, learn something about service and meeting the needs of people. Pull your heads out of the bureaucratic sands and see that people matter and their needs need to be satisfied. This is more than a government regulation or a leadership issue. This seems to be ingrained in your culture.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

SOLO applied to programming

Over the last five years, I have been involved in the BRACELet project in which we have endeavoured to learn something about novice programmers from data gathered primarily through exams (Whalley and Lister 2009, Lister 2008). this work has involved an iterative cycle of data gathering and analysis very much like an action research project but utilising different groups of students around the world.

One of the key tools in analysing our data has been the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Collis 1982, Biggs 1999). Our initial use of the SOLO taxonomy was to analyse student responses to a code summarisation question (Whalley et al. 2006). That has now been repeated in a number of studies revealing a very similar pattern of results (Sheard et al. 2008, Clear et al. 2008). There have also been some discoveries that have been a little like side journeys (Lister et al. 2006, Thompson et al. 2006). The work has also been extended in an attempt to find a correlation between reading, tracing, and writing (Lopez et al. 2008). A paper accepted for publication later this year draws together all of these studies and extends the work into new areas including using SOLO to classify code writing exercises (Clear et al. 2009).

As the research has progressed, the use of the SOLO taxonomy for analysing reading responses has been revised as we have learnt more about the classification issues. A summary of the principles applied is:.

SOLO categoryDescription
PrestructuralSubstantially lacks knowledge of programming constructs or is unrelated to the question
UnistructuralProvides a description for one portion of the code (i.e. describes the if statement)
MultistructuralA line by line description is provided of all the code. Summarisation of individual statements may be included
RelationalProvides a summary of what the code does in terms of the code’s purpose. Provides a summary of the code that recognises applicability of the code segment to a wider context

This hierarchy is based on the degree of integration and abstraction from the code. At the lowest level, the student has no or little comprehension of the code. At the next level, they are looking at individual constructs. At the next, they are working with multiple lines but still not seeing the whole as a unit. It isn't until the relational response that they are seeing the whole as a unit..

The translation to writing isn't quite as simple. Clear et al. (2009) will describe an initial attempt at using SOLO for analysing code writing responses. It is based on the following principles..

SOLO categoryDescription
PrestructuralSubstantially lacks knowledge of programming constructs or is unrelated to the question
Unistructural – direct TranslationRepresents a direct translation of the specifications. The code will be in the sequence of the specifications.
Multistructural - RefinementRepresents a translation that is close to a direct translation. The code may have been reordered to make a valid solution.
Relational - EncompassingProvides a valid well structured program that removes all redundancy and has a clear logical structure. The specifications have been integrated to form a logical whole.
Extended Abstract - ExtendingUsed constructs and concepts beyond those required in the exercise to provide an improved solution

This draws on an example of translation presented by Hattie and Purdie (1998).

Since the work done for Clear et al. (2009), we have done more work to verify the SOLO classification for writing. This work applies the analysis to further questions and seeks to clarify the principles for the analysis of code writing questions. This type of replication is important to ensure that an analysis tool achieves its objectives..

In the code reading exercises, we realised that come code snippets provided a better question base for summarisation questions than others. Code that had difficult to identify coding tricks presented particular problems (Lister et al. 2006). In code writing questions can be written that require little interpretation in order to be able to perform a direct translation. Other questions require considerable interpretation before a line of code can be written. The relationship between the wording of the question and the written code becomes more critical..

There is another element that these code writing questions raise. The different solutions represent different levels of integration of the code segments to form a comprehensive whole. This idea of integration was used for assessing major programming assignments (Thompson 2004, 2007). applying these principles to smaller code segments may appear to present some additional options for presenting code variations in teaching. This is a direction of research that I am keen to pursue..


Biggs, J. B. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at University. Buckingham: Open University Press..

Biggs, J. B., & Collis, K. F. (1982). Evaluating the quality of learning: The SOLO taxonomy (Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome). New York: Academic Press..

Clear, T., Lister, R., Simon, Bouvier, D., Carter, P., Eckerdal, A., Jacková, J., Lopez, M., McCartney, R., Robbins, P., Seppälä, O., & Thompson, E. (2009). Naturally occurring data as research instrument: Analyzing examination responses to study the novice programmer. Inroads - The SIGCSE Bulletin..

Clear, T., Whalley, J., Lister, R., Carbone, A., Hü, M., Sheard, J., Simon, B., & Thompson, E. (2008). Reliably classifying novice programmer exam responses using the SOLO taxonomy. In S. Mann & M. Lopez (Eds.), 21st Annual conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications (NACCQ 2008). Auckland: NACCQ.

Hattie, J., & Purdie, N. (1998). The Solo model: Addressing fundamental measurement issues. In B. Dart & G. M. Boulton-Lewis (Eds.), Teaching and learning in higher education (pp. 145-176). Camberwell, Vic: Australian Council of Educational Research..

Lister, R. (2008). After the gold rush: toward sustainable scholarship in computing. In Simon & M. Hamilton (Eds.), Tenth Australasian Computing Education Conference (ACE 2008) (Vol. 78, pp. 3-18). Wollongong, NSW, Australia: ACS.

Lister, R., Simon, B., Thompson, E., Whalley, J., & Prasad, C. (2006). Not seeing the forest for the trees: Novice programmers and the SOLO taxonomy. In M. Goldweber & P. Salomoni (Eds.), Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education (ITiCSE 2006) (pp. 118-122). Bolonga, Italy: Association for Computing Machinery..

Lopez, M., Whalley, J., Robbins, P., & Lister, R. (2008). Relationships between reading, tracing and writing skills in introductory programming, Proceeding of the fourth international workshop on Computing education research (pp. 101-112). Sydney, Australia: ACM..

Sheard, J., Carbone, A., Lister, R., Simon, B., Thompson, E., & Whalley, J. L. (2008). Going SOLO to assess novice programmers, Proceedings of the 13th annual conference on Innovation and technology in computer science education. Madrid, Spain: ACM..

Thompson, E. (2004). Does the sum of the parts equal the whole? In S. Mann & T. Clear (Eds.), Proceedings of the seventeenth annual conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications (pp. 440-445). Christchurch, New Zealand: National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications..

Thompson, E. (2007). Holistic assessment criteria - Applying SOLO to programming projects. In S. Mann & Simon (Eds.), Proceedings of the Ninth Australasian Computing Education Conference (ACE2007) (Vol. 66, pp. 155-162). Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Australian Computer Society Inc..

Thompson, E., Whalley, J., Lister, R., & Simon, B. (2006). Code Classification as a Learning and Assessment Exercise for Novice Programmers. In S. Mann & N. Bridgeman (Eds.), The 19th Annual Conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications: Preparing for the Future — Capitalising on IT (pp. 291-298). Wellington: National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications..

Whalley, J., & Lister, R. (2009). The BRACELet 2009.1 (Wellington) specification. Paper presented at the Proc. 11 Australasian Computing Education Conference (ACE 2009), Wellington, NZ..

Whalley, J., Lister, R., Thompson, E., Clear, T., Robbins, P., Kumar, A., & Prasard, C. (2006, 16 - 19 January). An Australasian study of reading and comprehension skills in novice programmers, using the Bloom and SOLO taxonomies. Paper presented at the Eighth Australasian Computing Education Conference (ACE2006), Hobart, Tasmania, Australia..

The move so far

We have now been in England almost four months. We had been away from New Zealand for five months in 2007 but this time, we know that there is no plan to return. What is more, there is no home base in New Zealand to return to. This is a one way ticket.

Finding work that would allow us to set up a home base took three months. I did have a two week contract back in August but the costs of doing the contract didn't leave much left to actually establish ourselves. The economic climate hasn't helped as well although there is clearly a need for some of my skills in the market here. However, employers are being fussy and not wanting to spend money on people who may not deliver. The selection process can drag out with no certainty of being employed or of the position being filled.

This is our third week of establishing a home base and we are beginning to realise just how much we have let go. Appliances (fridge and vacuum cleaner) and furniture items (sofa, dining suite, desks, bookcases) are all things that we are having to purchase. What do you rank in order of importance when you are starting from scratch?

In such a situation, it is easy to question the sanity of the move that has taken you to the other side of the world. This move isn't the same as a move across town or to another town in the same country. When you move house in the same town, you may have to pack some things into boxes but there are a lot of things that simply travel in the drawers or cabinets that they were already in. Our move has seen everything packed away, drawers and cabinets sold and many things having lost their storage homes. Now we are re-establishing the security that was lost but are we really going to regain it?

Things will never be the same as they were in New Zealand before we left. A return wouldn't re-establish any of those things lost either. When there looked like no work on the horizon we considered returning, but would things be any better? We would still need to find work, a home, furniture, etc. The New Zealand market place is smaller and it isn't where we believe God was calling us to be at this time.

Will the situation be different in eight months time when my current work contract comes to an end? I don't think so. By then we may have shed more of the excess baggage, but the dreams and visions that we had before our departure from New Zealand would remain unfulfilled. Retreating or going back is not an option. As always in life, we need to focus on the dream and what we believe we really need to be doing. When that happens, we can continue to move forward believing that we are on the path to achieving that dream.

My current work allows me to teach and to practice some of what I have learnt from completing my PhD in Computer Science Education. However, the bigger challenge is to continue that research and its application to make a difference in the delivery of computing education and to see where the techniques learnt may be applied in other fields. My PhD research looked at the variations of practitioners' awareness of object-oriented programming. It reinforced what I believed about the importance of our perceptions in what we do. The research also uncovered a possible way of helping change perceptions by looking at the variations that open up a space of learning.

In another project, we (myself and others from other institutions around the world) have been exploring how we can use data coming from our assessment practices to better understand the way our students understand or are learning programming. In that work, we have used the SOLO taxonomy to analyse student work and to see the correlations between reading, tracing, and writing of code. That work, like my PhD research extension, is ongoing.

I see a strong connection between these two themes. The BRACELet work is helping reveal variations in answers to what appear to be simple questions. These variations in answers help us to see the differences in the way that students have integrated even simple ideas. I am now asking the question as to whether we can use these variations in solutions to open up a space of learning for our students? I have in the past used variations of solutions to help students see how different programming constructs can be used to achieve the same thing. I will continue to do that. But on this journey, I want to use variations to extend the understanding of the students and to stretch them to see things in a new way.

In my current position, I don't have responsibility for the course but I can plan some lectures and tutorial sessions. It is in these sessions that I will endeavour to utilise the techniques that I have learnt. However, I will not be getting the research data that I desire. There is more work to do before I can be in that position. Some of that work is ensuring that I publish some of my current findings and that I am getting the message out there to those for whom this work is relevant. That has to be more focus and I must avoid the distractions related to our living circumstances. Retaining focus when the world around us has changed can prove difficult but it is something that we have to do if we want to achieve the vision or dreams that we have set ourselves.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Reawakening Faith

Now that we are endeavouring to resettle at least for the next nine to twelve months, we are realising that, despite our efforts to travel light by disposing of quite a lot of stuff before leaving New Zealand, we still have far too much stuff for an English house. However, it isn't just the accumulation of assets that causes problems with these moves.

As I reflect, I realise that I had come to trust in the comforts of our New Zealand home and the certainty of having work. Although I now have work, it is only for nine months so I have to keep looking for the next position. We now have a roof over our heads but it doesn't feel like home. The sense of comfort has gone but we have too many possessions that stop us living simply.

I observe the canal boats and think of the release; the freedom to go where the canals lead. This has led me to think of the cycle journey vision (26 July) and what we would need to discard in order to be able to move freely around the country. I see that we have become settled people rather than travellers living in a confined space with limited resources. We are a people who have settled and who are used to collecting “things.” Some of these remind us of the journey already travelled but many are simply clutter taking up space that we no longer have. They act as anchors to make us settle.

As I reflect, I think about faith and what it means. Do we really have faith when we have developed a settled mentality? If our faith were threatened, would we let go in order to hold on to the comforts that we have? I suspect that my faith is really secondary to feeling comfortable and settled. My faith, like my New Zealand living arrangements, has its regular settled routines. Sure, I reflect and consider things but my faith isn't shaken or stretched very much. I may dream of the journey but in the end I want to be able to return to the security of a settled faith and life. My faith may have elements of a journey but in reality it is a place of settlement where there are few struggles and issues to face. Maybe my faith, like my life, needs a shake up so that I really learn what it means to trust and walk in faith.

Moving around the world with no certainty of employment is reawakening my faith. It is forcing me to consider whether I want to retain the settler mentality. As I write this, I am thinking that in twelve months when we may have to move on again, I want to have less of the clutter and an increased freedom to move where God might lead us. What will that mean? It will mean reconsidering what is important and and releasing assets so we are less encumbered by a settler mentality. Each day has to be another step in faith.