Spotlight on PPIGers


Enda Dunican

I am conducting research entitled 'Grounded Theory Study of Novice Programming Students in Irish Third-Level Educational Institutions'

I am engaging in a qualitative study of novice computer programming using the Grounded Theory research method. Data collection will comprise three methods:

  1. Open-ended interviews
  2. Participant observation in programming labs
  3. Focus groups

Any feedback or comments PPIG colleagues could give me would be gratefully received, particularly if they have experience of using participant observation in computer programming labs or engagement in focus group discussions with programmers or programming atudents. Furthermore any references to qualitative data collection in this area would be very useful. I may be contacted at: enda.dunican (at)

Christian Holmboe

I finished my PhD earlier this year. The thesis, entitled 'Language, and the Learning of Data Modelling' should be of general interest to the PPIG community, can be downloaded in pdf-format.


This thesis belongs to the domain of computer science education research, but also deals with issues relevant for general educational science, socio-linguistics, and linguistic philosophy.

It addresses three aspects of the relationship between language and the learning of data modelling:

  1. scientific concept building;
  2. choice and use of natural language terms as labels for elements of the data model;
  3. discourse as mediating tool in collaborative learning environments.

The thesis is written from a situated cognition perspective focusing both on individual and distributed forms of knowledge. The data material comprises tape recordings of classroom interaction and students' written explanations of five scientific concepts from the domain of data modelling. Both high school students and first year university students were studied.

Towards a Vygotskyan background, students scientific concept building processes are described as a trajectory from initial hunches to holistic knowledge, influenced in parallel from definitional and practical knowledge.

Informed by the theories of Wittgenstein, it is shown how the discursive practices have strong influence on the conceptual understanding of the students, who seem to form consistent scientific language communities inside the classroom.

Focusing on the different language games coexisting in the discursive practices of data modelling, it is demonstrated that object-oriented modelling may not be as close to everyday reasoning as assumed, and that this accounts for some of the problems faced by students.

Other problems are related to the distinction between natural and artificial languages, which plays an important role both for scientific concept building and for labelling of attributes and entities. Furthermore, a framework is developed for analysing the students' discursive shifts between different semiotic systems and abstraction levels. Proficiency is characterized by the ability to manoeuvre seamlessly across this framework.

The work was carried out at the Department of Teacher Education and School Development at the University of Oslo. Please note that the four individual research papers included in the thesis have all been accepted/published in international journals and are, of course, subject to copyright and distribution restrictions.

Derek Jones

Derek Jones, a past PPIG delegate and discussion list 'rabblerouser' boldly released his book, The New C Standard: An economic and cultural commentary, available to anyone who has an internet connection.

It was released with a fanfare on the news site Slashdot with an interesting comment: one major new angle is using the results from studies in cognitive psychology to try and figure out how developers comprehend code (!)

The Slashdot news item can be found here.

A related article can be found on the inquirer.

The book can be downloaded by following link: The New C Standard: An economic and cultural commentary.

I feel this superhuman effort is certainly worth a look. The New C Standard is incredibly well referenced and anyone who is familiar with some of the psychology of programming literature will no doubt recognise many of the papers that he has taken the time to explore.

Derek Jones is an ex-compiler writer who is now an accomplished technical writer.

James Vickers

I have just completed my MSc ILT thesis entitled 'Selecting students for first or national diploma based on problem solving diagnostics' which was a culmination of 3 years worth of research into aptitude testing of computer programmers.

As I am a teacher working in a English further education college (mainly with students aged 16-19) I have been dismayed in recent years as to why we have so many students failing software development courses.

My management set me the task of finding out whether or not we could test to see if students were 'capable' of programming or not. I did some research into this area, and found that many of the existing tests were either commercial (and for that matter, aimed at Industry selection, not education) or inapplicable.

To cut a long story short, I devised my own test which has proven a predictor of both general ability (about 90% accurate for 16 year olds), and also has proven a direct indicator for performance by the end of their course. i.e. Student who scored 51% on my test would gain a bare pass, but a student who scored 80% would gain a pass with distinction.

James can be contacted through his website.