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A Comparison of Novice Coders' Approaches to Reading Code: An Eye-tracking Study

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Undergraduate Students' Development of Computational and Programming Skills

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Geoffrey L. Herman University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Geoffrey L. Herman is a teaching associate professor with the Deprartment of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also has a courtesy appointment as a research assistant professor with the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. He earned his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a Mavis Future Faculty Fellow and conducted postdoctoral research with Ruth Streveler in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. His research interests include creating systems for sustainable improvement in engineering education, conceptual change and development in engineering students, and change in faculty beliefs about teaching and learning. He is a member of the Computing Research Association - Education steering commitee.

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Sofia Meyers University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Sarah-Elizabeth Deshaies University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Orcid 16x16

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We seek to describe how students' code reading strategies change as they gain experience with programming. As an individual gains expertise in a domain, their ability to find information in domain-relevant displays improves. This improvement is often accompanied by an increased focus on problem-relevant portions of a display as measured by eye gaze duration. Prior eye-tracking studies in programming have suggested that expert programmers focus on "beacons" such as keywords or function names, but these studies have relied on small sample sizes and comparing students with professional programmers. In this study, we compared the eye gaze patterns of 56 complete novices (students who had never studied programming after a brief 30-minute instructional intervention) and 34 experienced novices (students who had taken at least three programming courses) as they read code. While experienced novices generally spent less time tracing code than complete novices, they spent more time when tracing complex iterations. The majority of complete novices demonstrated an understanding of the assignment operator and conditional statements but almost none demonstrated an intuitive understanding of iteration. Further analysis needs to investigate differences in the order of eye gazes and the role of code complexity in eye gaze patterns.

Herman, G. L., & Meyers, S., & Deshaies, S. (2021, July), A Comparison of Novice Coders' Approaches to Reading Code: An Eye-tracking Study Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36567

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