All Ireland Society for Higher Education (AISHE), AISHE-C 2009: Valuing Complexity

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Using Student Understanding to inform the development of Learning Content
Frances Sheridan, Orla Lahart

Last modified: 2009-09-28


The challenges associated with teaching computer programming are recognised (Biddle & Tempero, 1998; Jenkins, 2002). However, categorising the different ways in which students understand or think about programming is central to improving teaching and learning in the area. This paper presents an empirical study, which investigates students’ understanding of the iteration concept in computer programming. The study involved two phases carried out over two academic years. Phase one involved 22 student interviews using a phenomenographic research approach (Stamouli, 2007). A phenomenographic research study identifies a finite set of ways in which students understand particular phenomena. The data arising from student interviews formed categories of understanding, which indicate that although students may be proficient in programming iteration, a deep understanding of the concept may be lacking. While this type of data may also be captured in exams, an empirical research study such as this is necessary to explain the origins of the understanding or misunderstanding.


As a result of phase one, a number of modifications were made to the teaching resources associated with iteration and their delivery. Phase two involved 18 student interviews using a phenomenographic research approach. Once again, data from these interviews formed categories of understanding. A comparison of those categories arising from phase one and phase two of the empirical study indicate a deeper understanding among students from phase two of the research study. This suggests that analyzing student understanding and using this to inform the development of learning content may have a positive effect on teaching and learning.


This paper has the following format, section one provides an overview of the key challenges with teaching computer programming. Section two provides a detailed explanation of the phenomenographic research approach. Section three presents phase one of the empirical study and its results, with section four outlining the modifications made to teaching resources based on those results. Section five describes phase two of the study with its results and section six draws conclusions and outlines the next steps in the research journey.

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