In today’s lab meeting we were discussing another paper, this time on the emotions experienced by novice programmers during their very first programming lesson. It was presented by Bosch et al* at the 2013 conference of Artificial Intelligence in Education.  The study participants were undergraduate students from the Psychology Student Pool who had no experience of programming. These students underwent a 3-stage process over a period of 2 hours: first they completed a series of “scaffolded” problems, with hints and help available. Then they completed two “fadeout” exercises, with no help available. Finally the students were asked to review the videos of themselves completing the first two exercises and asked to select what their emotions were at various points from a subset of Pekrun’s taxonomy of academic emotions.

The authors found that four emotions were experienced more frequently than the others: flow/engagement, confusion, frustration and boredom. The proportions of these apparently varied depending on which of the first two stages of the experiment (scaffolding/fadeout) the students were performing. They also correlated the emotions with the success of the students at completing the tasks, and attempted to systematically link them to three student behaviours (running the code, idling, or constructing the code).

As ever, having a paper to start the conversation produced a lively debate! One of our big problems as a group centres on the idea of flow/engagement being the desirable state for learning. As teachers and learners, we have found that periods of frustration are not altogether bad, and the joy of passing through that frustration to understanding is sometimes one of the key highs of learning. Equally, what externally looks like flow/engagement may very well not be. There have been other studies that the group knew of where people looked like they were in this flow/engagement state, but when the researchers examined what they had produced it was rubbish. What was felt might be a better approach would be to try to examine the routes through the different emotional states, and correlate those routes with different outcomes. The challenge then becomes how to identify that someone is on a destructive pathway and, crucially, what (pedagogically) to do about it, rather than reacting instantly to prevent frustration.

The use of the thirteen emotions also raised some issues for the group. By limiting the responses, in a sense the researchers are pre-determining their outcomes. There also didn’t appear to be any agreement with the subjects on what the terms actually meant to them. Jim’s experience in counselling suggests that when dealing with emotions you sometimes have to explain what the word refers to before people understand what they are feeling. Equally some of the group remembered working a project with Madeline Balaam where they negotiated the terms to be used in reporting the emotions with a group of students, rather than predetermining them.The group also thought this would have been quite an interesting project to use the same techniques that Pejman used, where he used biometric data to highlight areas that were worth talking about with a player, rather than asking them for feedback on blocks of around 20 secs at a time.

We also came up with some interesting ideas for follow-up studies. Obviously in this experiment they were relating the emotion to results within the same session. However, we felt it would be valuable to do a slightly more longitudinal study, and relate the emotions in the first lesson to outcomes after an entire term of study. This would help to demonstrate the importance (or maybe unimportance) of the first lesson. Also, we thought it would be interesting to try the same study with a group of computer scientists, or at least with students who had expressed some level of interest in trying to learn to program. The comparison in the emotions experienced in the two groups could be helpful in exploring the role of motivation in the emotions and outcome.

The group were very definitely thoroughly engaged by this paper, which touched on so many areas of expertise for all of us. An entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable discussion.

*Bosch, N., D’Mello, S., & Mills, C. (2013). What Emotions Do Novices Experience During their First Computer Programming Learning Session. In H. C. Lane, K. Yacef, J. Mostow, & P. Pavlik (Eds.), Artificial Intelligence in Education (Vol. 7926, pp. 11–20). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-39112-5