Understanding conceptual transfer in students learning a new programming language

Tshukudu, Ethel (2022) Understanding conceptual transfer in students learning a new programming language. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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There is a large literature from at least as early as 1985 on the difficulties encountered in learning programming languages, and in particular additional programming languages. This thesis concentrates on how students transfer their knowledge from their first programming language to their second. The central idea is to adapt and use theories from linguistics of how people learn second natural languages to illuminate the problems of learning second programming languages. The major claim of this thesis is that: Semantic transfer based on syntax similarities plays a role in relative novices’ conceptual transfer between programming languages; the implementation of deliberate semantic transfer interventions during relative novices’ second language learning can lead to improved conceptual transfer and understanding in learning a second programming language.

This thesis uses mixed methods to investigate how students transition from procedural Python to object-oriented (OO) Java. It includes a sequence of nine research studies building on each other. First, an exploratory qualitative study is carried out on how semantic transfer in natural language applies to programming language transfer; secondly, a Model of Programming Language Transfer (MPLT) is developed based on the first study’s findings; thirdly, four quantitative studies are carried out to validate the model; fourthly, a study that collects school teachers’ views and experiences on second language learning is carried out; fifthly, a study is conducted to explore transfer interventions with students; and the last study builds and investigates a pedagogy for transfer deriving from the MPLT.

The findings support the thesis claim that semantic transfer based on syntax similarities plays a role in relative novices’ conceptual transfer between programming languages. The transfer can be positive when the first programming language (PL1) and the second programming language (PL2) share similar syntax and semantics, negative when PL1 and PL2 share similar syntax but have different semantics, and there is little or no transfer when PL1 and PL2 have different syntax but share similar semantics. The results also reveal that transfer teaching interventions based on the MPLT could improve conceptual transfer and understanding in students learning a second PL.

The contribution of this thesis is two-fold: First, a validated model of programming language transfer that has three categories that reflect the types of potential transfer students encounter when learning a second programming language. The model provides a unified way to measure transfer in second language learning. Second, a validated unified pedagogical guideline for promoting transfer in programming languages derived from the MPLT. Researchers, educators and curriculum designers can use these instruments to advance research, teach, and design teaching materials. First, the researchers can use the instruments to further programming language transfer research by adopting them in other programming language contexts. Second, educators can use the instruments as a guideline for improving second and subsequent programming language teaching. Lastly, Computer Science (CS) curricular designers can draw on these instruments as guidance to design teaching material that promotes transfer as students transition to new programming languages. They can also use them for teacher professional development.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA75 Electronic computers. Computer science
Colleges/Schools: College of Science and Engineering > School of Computing Science
Supervisor's Name: Cutts, Professor Quintin
Date of Award: 2022
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2022-82984
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 17 Jun 2022 10:47
Last Modified: 17 Jun 2022 10:48
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.82984
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/82984
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