Programming Paradigms, Information Types and Graphical Representations: Empirical Investigations of Novice Program Comprehension.
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This thesis describes research into the role of various factors in novice program comprehension, including the underlying programming paradigm, the representational features of the programming language, and the various types of information which can be derived from the program. The main postulate of the thesis is that there is no unique method for understanding programs, and that program comprehension will be influenced by, among other things, the way in which programs are represented, both semantically and syntactically. This idea has implications for the learning of programming, particularly in terms of how theses concepts should be embodied. The thesis is focused around three empirical studies. The first study, based on th so-called "information types" studies, challenged the idea that program comprehension is an invariant process over languages, and suggested that programming language will have a differential effect on comprehension, as evidenced by the types of information which novices are able to extract from a program. Despite the use of a markedly different language from earliier studies, the results were broadly similar. However, it was suggested that there are other factors additional to programming notation which intervene in the comprehension process, and which cannot be discounted. Furthermore, the study highlighted the need to tie the hypotheses about information extraction more closely to the programming paradigm. The second study introduced a graphical component into the investigation, and looked at the way in which visual representations of programs combine with programming paradigm to influence comprehension. The mis-match conjecture, which suggests that tasks requiring information which is highlighted by a notation will be facilitated relative to tasks where the information must be inferred, was applied to programming paradigm. The study showed that the mis-match effect can be overridden by other factors, most notably subjects' prior experience and the programming culture in which they are taught. The third study combined the methodologies of the first two studies to look at the mis-match conjecture within the wider context of information types. Using graphical representations of the control flow and data flow paradigms, it showed that, despite a bias toward one paradigm based on prior experience and culture, programming paradigm does influence the way in which the program is understood, resulting in improved performance on tasks requiring information which the paradigm is hypothesised to highlight. Furthermore, this effect extends to groups of information which could be said to be theoretically related to the information being highlighted. The thesis also proposes a new and more precise methodology for the analysis of students' accounts of their comprehension of a program, a form a data which is typically derived from the information types studies. It then shows how an analysis of this qualitative data can be used to provide further support for the quantitative results. Finally, the thesis suggests how the core results could be used to develop computer based support environments for novice visual programming, and provides other suggestions for further work.