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The reflective abilities of expert and novice learners in computer programming

Betty Breed
Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Potchefstroom, South Africa

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh,
11-13 September 2003

Introduction

Computer programming is the component of Computer Science demanding a lot from learners in terms of critical and creative thinking, as well as problem solving skills. Learners must be able to use unstructured data, devise the most effective solution for the problem and encode it in a computer language to get logical and useful results. Above all, computer programming requires of learners to plan continuously, monitor and evaluate their progress and to function reflectively.

The importance of learners continuously reflecting while doing a programming activity is supported by research on programming. The interactive nature of modern programming languages can easily lead to the perception that planned and reasoned action is not important (Lehrer, Lee & Jeong, 1999:250). Learners often rely on the programming language itself to help them solve a problem, without themselves planning a solution beforehand and then using a computer language to implement the solution. This approach usually leads to using bad programming techniques resulting in unstructured programmes or rendering the learner unable to solve the problem.

When teaching computer programming you will always find expert learners and novice learners in the same class. According to Ertmer & Newby's (1996) view of expert and novice learners, this research will consider expert learners to be those learners who have no problems with computer programming. They are effective, reach their goals easily and attain high learning outcomes. Novice learners are considered to be those learners who find computer programming difficult. They are ineffective, do not reach their goals and often do not have any goals at all.

The purpose of this paper is to report on the results of a pre-test that was done to determine the differences between expert and novice learners in computer programming regarding their reflective abilities in each of the following phases:

  • before starting with the computer programme;

  • while doing the programming task; and

  • after finishing the computer programme.

Two methods of research were used. Firstly, a literature study to look into the role of reflection in effective learning, and secondly, an empirical study regarding the reflective abilities of expert and novice learners in computer programming.

Literature overview

An expert is usually considered to be someone who knows much more about a specific topic than most other people do. For many years this view also prevailed in education regarding the expert learner (Weinstein & Van Mater Stone, 1993:31). However, research (Ertmer & Newby, 1996:4; Weinstein & Van Mater Stone, 1993:32) has revealed that the difference between an expert learner and a novice learner entails more than the quantity of knowledge the learner possesses. There are also qualitative differences. Weinstein & Van Mater Stone (1993:32) mention among other the following qualities of expert learners: their knowledge is better organised and integrated than that of novice learners; they possess better strategies and methods than novice learners; they are better motivated than novice learners; and they are more self-regulated than novice learners.

The work of Weinstein & Van Mater Stone (1993) and that of Zimmerman (1990) emphasizes the role of strategic learning and self-regulated learning in effective learning respectively. Strategic learning implies that learners use metacognitive knowledge of themselves, of the task, of specific learning strategies and of the content to monitor the success of the strategies they use in reaching their desired goals. Learners must make decisions continuously regarding the strategies they use to determine whether it should be continued, changed or suspended (Ertmer & Newby, 1996:5). Self-regulated learning implies that effective learners are actively involved in their own learning through metacognitive, motivational and behavioural processes (Zimmerman, 1990:4). Effective learners use self-regulating learning strategies to a great extent, while ineffective learners usually only do as instructed by the teacher (Zimmerman, 1990:8).

The work of Weinstein & Van Mater Stone (1993) and that of Zimmerman (1990) form the base of Ertmer & Newby's (1996) view of effective learning. Ertmer & Newby's (1996) view emphasizes the critical role of the learners' thoughts (reflection) in effective learning. According to Ertmer & Newby (1996:4) reflection is the important link between strategic learning and self-regulated learning, and without this effective learning is not possible.

Reflective thinking is a generic construct and not inherent in particular subjects (e.g. computer programming) (Kember et al., 2000:390). Consequently educationists have for quite some time been advocating a model of instruction aimed at equipping learners to work reflectively so that they will be able to handle problems in any subject. Learners not using reflective thinking in problem solving, tend to be less systematic in collecting information and data, spend less time on planning the solution beforehand and usually do not consider alternative methods (Van Mierenboer, 1990:45). In general, these learners reach lower learning outcomes, than learners who do function reflectively while solving problems. Regarding computer programming, learners who do use reflective strategies, usually plan properly in advance, divide a problem into sub-problems if possible, collect data systematically and accurately, consider more than one solution for the problem and only then start coding the programme lines (Van Mierenboer, 1990:46).

It is known that reflection can occur in different ways in the learning process. The first form of reflection forms a feedback loop within a specific learning activity. It means that learners must execute the activity and at the same time reflect on what they are busy doing (Lehrer, Lee & Jeong, 1999:247). During the phases of a learning activity, viz. the planning beforehand, the application of strategies during the activity and the evaluation afterwards, effective learners will reflect on content and process continuously to enable them to utilise their existing knowledge structures, decide on appropriate strategies, determine their progress and make adjustments or changes, if necessary, to reach their goals. Adjustments and changes are necessary because of continual changes in personal, behavioural and environmental factors during the learning process (Zimmerman, 2000:14).

The second form of reflection is a feedback loop outside the specific activity. It is described as the intellectual and affective activities of learners when viewing the activities that they are presently involved in and trying to understand them in context of previous experiences and current knowledge, in order to come to new insights and decisions ((Dewey in Kusnic & Finley, 1993:12; Lehrer, Lee & Jeong, 1999:246). Effective learners reflect on previous experiences to orientate themselves for current or future thought and action (Ertmer & Newby, 1996:16). In this way they connect their existing knowledge and metacognitive knowledge with their current learning activities and it becomes easier to integrate and organise their knowledge.

Reflection is necessary because it allows learners to consider the planning that was done before the task was started, the evaluations and changes that occurred while the task was being executed and evaluations that were done after the task had been completed (Ertmer & Newby, 1996:14). Reflection thus enables learners to come to conclusions regarding the effectiveness of their planning and of strategies that were used, so that possible adjustments or changes can be made for future learning activities. In other words, reflection leads learners to strategic and self-regulated learning.

Method of research

Questionnaire

Based on the literature review, a questionnaire was designed. It is specifically aimed at determining the difference between expert en novice learners in computer programming regarding reflective thinking. The questionnaire consists of 3 sections:

- 4 items on reflective thinking before the learner starts coding the computer programme,
- 9 items on reflective thinking while the learner is busy coding the computer programme,
- 7 items on reflective thinking after the learner has completed the computer programme.

The learner must respond to an item by marking 1, 2, 3 or 4, according to the following key:

1

2

3

4

Not at all true about me

Not very true about me

Fairly true about me

Absolutely true about me

- the learner relied on the error messages of the compiler to solve the problem, and
- the learner could connect this problem to any previous experience or not.

Participants

The questionnaire will be used for research involving about 350 learners in Grade 11 in the North West province in South Africa.

In the pre-test, on which this paper is reporting, the second-year education students majoring in Computer Science at the Potchefstroom University were used. This class has 30 students.

Procedure

On a given day these 30 students received a problem that had to be solved by means of a computer programme. All 30 attempts were evaluated according to a preset memorandum. The 5 learners with the highest marks and the 5 learners with the lowest marks were identified as the "expert"- and "novice"-groups respectively.

On a second occasion the 30 students again had to write a computer programme to solve a problem. Afterwards they had to complete the questionnaire. The numbers of the questionnaires distinguished the experts from the novices, and from the rest of the class.

The responses of the students were processed by using the SAS computer programme (SAS Institute, 1990) to calculate means, standard deviations and other relevant statistics. The following statistical techniques and methods were used to analyse the data:

Results

Biographical information

For the purpose of this paper the frequencies of the questions on the respondents' biographical information will not be discussed.

Computation of the Cronbach Alpha values for Section B

To determine the reliability of the three constructs in Section B of the measuring instrument in the context it was used in, the Cronbach Alpha reliability coefficient was used. This value was calculated for each of the three phases, Before, While and After. The values are given in the next table:

Reflection..

Cronbach Alpha value

Before the learner starts coding the computer programme

0.67

While the learner is busy coding the computer programme

0.54

After the learner has completed the computer programme

0.73

The constructs all reach acceptable values of bigger than 0,5 indicating that the questions in each of the three phases have been grouped together in a reliable way and that the constructs of Section B can be interpreted as reliable for the population for which it was used.

Computation of statistical significant differences between the reflective thoughts of experts and novices in each of the three constructs of Section B

Cohen's effect sizes were then calculated to determine the practical significance of the differences. All questions in each of the phases were grouped together for the calculation of the mean for each phase.

Phase

Group of students

Mean

Standard deviation

d-value

Effect size of difference

Before

Novices

2.7

0.4108

2.56 Large

Experts

3.75

0.25

While

Novices

3.025

0.163

1.26 Large

Experts

2.4

0.4953

After

Novices

1.4857

0.4802

0.83 Large

Experts

1.8857

0.2928

From this table it can be seen that the d-value is bigger than 0,8 in each of the three phases indicating a practical significant difference between the experts and novices in each of the three phases. When comparing the means of the two groups in each of the phases the following observations are made:

There is a practical significant difference between expert learners and novice learners regarding the extent of reflection before they start coding the computer programme. In this phase experts reflect much more than novices do before starting to code the computer programme.

The individual items in this construct with a practical significant difference between experts and novices indicate that

- experts are more inclined than novices to read through the problem once before starting to develop a computer programme (d =2.56);

- experts are more inclined than novices to try recalling experience in developing a similar programme before (d = 1.79);

- experts are more inclined than novices to divide a problem into sub-problems, recalling previous experience, techniques and strategies used to solve the similar problems (d = 1.83).

2. There is a practical significant difference between expert learners and novice learners concerning the extent of reflection while they are busy coding the computer programme. In this phase experts reflect far less than novices do.

The individual items in this construct with a practical significant difference between experts and novices indicate that

- experts are less inclined than novices to stop and make a decision to divide the programme into sub-parts (d = 2.19);

- experts are less inclined than novices to stop and think about a technique/procedure that they have used in another programme (d = 0.89);

- experts do not frequently find it necessary to go back to previous steps in order to rectify a mistake (d = 0.89).

3. There is a practical significant difference between expert learners and novice learners concerning the extent of reflection after the computer programme has been completed. In this phase experts reflect a little more than novices do.

The individual items in this construct with a practical significant difference between experts and novices indicate that

- experts are more inclined than novices to read the question again to determine if they have followed the instructions of the problem (d = 1.79);

- experts are more inclined than novices to double-check for correct techniques and/or procedures (d = 2.56);

- experts are more inclined than novices to double-check their output and solutions to see if they make sense (d = 1.05).

Computation of statistical significant differences between experts and novices in each of the two questions of Section C

Cohen's effect sizes were then calculated to determine the practical significance of the differences. One of the questions had a practical significant difference between experts and novices indicating that in this specific case experts were more inclined than novices to connect the task to previous experience (d = 1.8).

Discussion

The result showing that experts reflect more than novices before starting to work on a computer programme is an indication that experts do proper planning before starting to code the programme lines. They divide a problem into sub-problems if possible, try to connect each of the sub-problems with a previous experience and consider techniques and procedures they have used before. What is quite surprising is that some experts have reported to read the problem only once before starting to work on the solution. This could be an indication that they read the problem attentively the first time to make sure that they understood it from the very start.

The fact that novices are more inclined than experts to be engaged in reflective thinking while working on the programming task could be because they did not plan properly in the first instance. The results show that it is only in this phase that the novices start considering dividing the problem into sub-problems and try to connect these sub-problems with previous experiences. Maybe it is because they are forced by necessity once they start struggling with the programme. Experts on the other hand, plan ahead and decide on what strategies and/or procedures to use before they even start with the task. According to Kember et al. (2000:384) the fact that experts are able to connect a problem (or sub-problem) to a previous similar problem could lead to habitual action so that reflection becomes less necessary.

Although a practical significant difference between experts and novices was found for the phase after they had completed the programme, it must be noticed that in both cases the means were quite low. The novices have a mean of 1.48 and the experts a mean of 1.88. Keeping in mind that the average is 2.5, these means indicate that in this specific population the novices, as well as the experts, do not tend to do much (if any!) reflection after the programming task has been completed.

Final remark

There are still quite a few unanswered questions that came from this pre-test. Although this pre-test was primarily meant to test the reliability of the questionnaire, it produced interesting results regarding the differences in reflective thinking between expert learners and novice learners in computer programming. It remains to be seen if the same tendencies will come forth once the final research has been done with the 350 Grade 11-learners in computer programming.

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This document was added to the Education-line database on 22 September 2003