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Making Learning Computer Programming Accessible For Normal Students

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Introductory computer programming courses have unacceptable failure rates, with “reported withdrawal, failure and D-grade rates approaching 50%”, say Qusay H. Mahmoud, Wlodek Dobosiewicz and Donald Swayne in a recent article in IEEE Computer (“Making Computer Programming Fun and Accessible”, Computer, Feb. 2004, pp. 108, 106-107) Instead of complaining like most CompSci professors that these lazy students had to change, they decided to change they way they teach.

As instructors at the University of Guelph (Canada), Mahmoud, Dobosiewicz and Swayne decided to use Javascript as the first language for students. It has several advantages over the traditional Java or C++, including the lack of a compiler and the ability to build it in traditional HTML pages. Students moved through a variety of exercises, learning the various elements of programming, before moving on to Java programming later in the course.

They report a 100% pass rate at a mean of 73%.

Not bad. And it’s about time.

I remember my introductory programming course when at university in the 80s. It was so nightmarish that I ended up withdrawing with a D-, even though I paid for college by programming pollution models for paint ovens during the summer. The professor apparently assumed that everyone had programmed in C before.

I took the class with two friends, both physics majors who would go on to get Ph.D.s in theoretical physics where all the experiments are done in simulations on supercomputers and not “for real”. The professor would assign problems, collect them, grade them, return them and then, a couple of days later, give us the information that we needed to complete the assignment.

I withdrew with a D-. My friends had to continue and they studied like mad to squeak by with a C. Sure, there were CS majors who breezed through this class but only because they had taken extremely good programming classes that covered the structures of programming in “C” (a programming language). That’s insane: if three people who make their money either programming or managing programmers cannot get something out of the class, the professor can’t teach and shouldn’t be in charge of a class.

I have always argued that if you want to learn how to program, get a book and learn Java but for goodness sakes don’t take a programming class from a computer science department. They are simply useless in the real world, relics of the old days of giant computers and esoteric languages that no one else understood.

I’m glad to see that University of Guleph has adopted a more useful teaching pattern for introductory programming, especially for the students’ sakes. If I had had a better programming class back in college, I bet I would be doing something other than managing programmers right now.

And I bet U. of Guleph keeps a lot more women in their CompSci program.

Mahmoud, Qusay H., Wlodek Dobosiewicz & Donald Swayne, “Making Computer Programming Fun and Accessible”, Computer (IEEE), Feb 2004, pp. 108, 106-107)

Image Credit: Now that’s fun. “Excelsior Vintage Jazz Band”. © 2012 Rob Schofield (CC BY-ND 3.0)

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