An Empirical Study on Factors Affecting Learning of Programming: The Impact of Learning Culture on Outcomes

Author: Ritu Sharma

Sharma, Ritu, 2018 An Empirical Study on Factors Affecting Learning of Programming: The Impact of Learning Culture on Outcomes, Flinders University, College of Science and Engineering

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The processes and emotions undertaken when learning programming are considered to be inherently different from those experienced when learning other topics, subjects and courses. Whilst many past studies have analysed factors that may affect learning of programming, the discussions that started around the 1970s are still on-going today. Current educators are still trying to define the key factors in learning programming. However, as most of these factors have been studied in a specific learning culture, it is imperative now to understand whether both educational and cultural differences can influence the learning of programming.

In this study, we report the results of a comparative study between two universities representing different learning cultures: one in Australia and one in India. Each takes a particular approach to the culture of learning programming and therefore each acts as a foil to the other, supporting and making visible the elements of this thesis. A learning culture generally refers to how teachers select their pedagogy and how students receive instruction. In our study, it consists of the teaching methodology used to teach programming, the assessment structure, the attendance structure and the examination structure. The factors considered are prior programming experience, gender, family background, preliminary preparation and revision, family background and study choices. The need for a strong comparison between university students who have different learning cultures motivates us to choose Australia and India as the countries in which to conduct this study. It is important to study if the factors affecting learning programming are similar or different in these two universities, as learning programming is considered a difficult task, but most of the research conducted to date has focused on a single learning culture. The Universities chosen for this study are Flinders University from Australia and Thapar University from India. These shall be referred as Australian University and Indian University throughout the thesis.

The study has been conducted in two parts. The first part analyses the factors chosen on the basis of factors described in Tinto’s model. The second part of the study is formed on the basis of central part of Tinto’s model.

The results of the first part of the study show that prior programming experience, gender, reason to study programming, attendance, and revision have different effects, while activities performed in the lecture theatre and preliminary preparation before lectures and laboratories have parallel effects in the two universities. These findings help us gain insight as to whether certain factors are dependent/independent of learning culture, so that educators can focus on the specific factors that will help students learn programming more effectively in the context of a particular learning culture. If the factors are dependent on culture, then the factors that positively affect student performance in a particular learning culture may be taught in a manner that will positively affect the performance of students.

The research will also be valuable to the lecturers teaching programming as the identified factors may be built into the teaching methodology. Before making the comparison, the similarities and differences between the two chosen Universities were studied in terms of methods of teaching programming, education culture, examination structure and assessment structure.

The second part of the study was designed on the basis of the central part of Tinto’s conceptual model. It studied the use of social media as a tool to enhance student engagement and serve as an additional resource of peer to peer interaction and social integration in the process of learning programming. This approach is then compared with the discussion feature of a Course Management System (CMS) system used at Australian University.

Various forms of social media were studied and Facebook was chosen. The secondary purpose of this study was to explore if the use of CMS or Facebook may help improve student engagement and serve as an additional source of support while learning programming. Facebook can be helpful to those students who find themselves unable to solve a particular problem. Thus, early access to help may ease the process of learning programming, save time and provide motivation to progress further. It may also be beneficial to the lecturer as a mechanism for tracking the students’ progress. Monitoring engagement in social media may help identify those students who are not involved in social learning, so that appropriate support can be provided for those who need it.

The research model used for this research, defined the framework of the research questions, which were in turn tested against the null and alternative hypothesis. The data for the first part of the study was collected from both Australian University, Australia, and Indian University, India, across three academic semesters. The total number of respondents from Australian University was 198 and the total number of participants from Indian University was 94. The combined results of the three semesters for each University were merged for the analysis performed on the combined data of each University. The results suggest that most of the factors affecting the performance of students are different for each University. This suggests that the factors affecting the learning of programming are context- and culture-dependent.

The other part of the study was conducted across four semesters and was open to Australian University students only as the study couldn’t be conducted at Indian University for ethical reasons. The use of mobile phones is prohibited in the academic area, which made it difficult to conduct this study. It investigated the use of a Facebook group as an additional resource for learning programming alongside CMS. This study concluded that both Facebook and CMS may enhance student engagement and serve as additional resources for peer to peer interaction and social integration in the process of learning programming, but the students preferred CMS over Facebook.

After the completion of the study, some significant factors were extracted for both Universities, which may prove helpful to the process of learning programming for first year students. A few common factors were also identified, which suggest that focusing on those factors may be beneficial to students. From the second part of the study, it was learnt that CMS as well as Facebook may help improve student engagement and serve as an additional resource in learning programming. It was also found that the students preferred CMS provided by the university, as compared with Facebook, as a key mechanism through which to communicate with their peers. Thus, it may be helpful to students if they are encouraged to use CMS to communicate with each other, and beneficial to the lecturer who can use CMS to keep a track of the students’ discussions and learning.

Keywords: introductory programming, tertiary education, factors, interrelationships, context, empirical study,First-year programming, engagement, learning management system, discussion forum, Programming, cultural difference

Subject: Computer Science thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Science and Engineering
Supervisor: Dr. Haifeng Shen