Teaching students to think

The hardest thing I find as a Computing teacher is teaching students to think. They always seem to get totally hung up on the syntax of how you are supposed to write a particular statement (my students’ favourite being the “if loop” …Grrrrr…) or where the colons are meant to go. I’m teaching using Python which I chose deliberately for three reasons. One – it has the most minimal of syntax twiddles, for example no curly brackets and semicolons. Two – It forces you to use proper indentation (halleluiah!) and data types. Three – it was recommended by OCR in their support materials for teachers. They promptly un-recommended it when I asked them a tricky question. Ho hum.

How do you get students to think?

OK so you’ve taught them the theory behind something, and now you’re asking them to go off and write a program to perform a particular task. I usually find one of the following things happens:

– Very good students will act like programmers. They write the program in small parts, test as they go along, and experiment with things. These are the ones who will go away and in their own time play around to make the program even better. They might even (shock horror) look things up in the textbook or online.
– The majority of students will write a behemoth of a program, then run it, receive a syntax error, don’t bother to read the error and then give up and ask for help.


So how do you turn someone into a programmer? I really don’t know, but these are some of the things I think could be useful:

Students must practice – I always compare my job to that of a football coach. The football coach can give tips all day long, and that might improve the player a little bit. But if the player doesn’t practice, he won’t get any better. As soon as they investigate and try things of their own accord, they will become better – I have this on authority from a Computer Science lecturer.

Use games – I like teaching using games, because it interests the students and they are more likely to try to think if they are interested in the task. Games I have used include Blackjack, Magic 8-Ball, Noughts and Crosses, Higher-Lower, Text adventure games etc. I’ll post some of these (Python) worksheets and solutions at a later date.

Use functions early on – In my experience, most students don’t like using functions as they would prefer to simply write a huge program. If you don’t use them early on, I think it would be very difficult to persuade them to use them at all after bad habits have been established. Also, for the love of god, make them separate out their functions and main section (a comment with #———- will do) or you will be going cross eyed trying to find variable definitions and random input lines in the middle of function definitions. This Is Not Fun.

Stop helping – OK I’m not saying don’t help at all. I find students are very adept at getting you to do their work for them. I don’t mean sitting down and programming it, I mean asking for help on small parts of a program, so often that when you come to mark it you find out you wrote most of it yourself. It’s hard to do but if you can train them to ask for help in the manner of “I’m trying to do X but it isn’t working” or “What I want to do here is X but I don’t know how to do Y” instead of just ‘help i’m stuck’ then it makes them think before reaching for the crutch.

Give pre-written programs for them to decode and discuss – I suck at this. I usually try to get students to write a program from some instructions or something they have learnt in class. I think that on occasion there is a huge benefit from not teaching them anything, giving a pre-written program you made yourself and getting them to investigate how and why it works (in a way structured by you of course). After all, isn’t this how most “Be an amazing programmer in 20 hours!1111” books work? I must try this soon and let you know whether it works.

Big up Pseudo Code – I don’t know if this is a universal thing, but my students hate using pseudo code. I suspect this is because it forces them to think about the inner workings of the algorithm rather than proudly presenting a syntactically correct print statement. I did a worksheet on  Practicing Pseudo Code last week to try to help students to write sensible pseudo code (they tend to write things like “decide which player goes first” instead of breaking it down into smaller tasks) which worked quite well, the students discussed the code in pairs before writing it down and comparing with others.

From my current experience, the parts of the exam which my students find the hardest are the “off piste” type questions which demand they write an algorithm that solves a given problem. This is what I shall be working on in preparation for the January modules.

8 thoughts on “Teaching students to think

    1. Yes – absolutely! Half of the time though, I try to circumvent the “Help, I’m stuck” with the question “well what are you trying to do?”. Sometimes the answer is “Don’t know” 😉 This is something I need to work on, but is tough.

      Flow charts – yes we do use them! However, once again people get stuck on the “which symbol do I use here” or don’t break tasks down into simple enough language for the computer to understand.

  1. I hate pseudo code, but I do sometimes like to write my programs as comments first; top-level comments sketch out the basic tasks, then I indent and break down each task. I’d usually stop once I recognised I could do the comment in a few lines of code, but you could go down to proper pseudo code, which you then replace with real code.

    Usually the top-level comments end up being functions or classes, my code ends up nicely commented, I can often find problems with my logic before I get too deep into syntax, and when I come back to it a week later it’s easier to see what I haven’t done. Although I only tend to do this when I’m faced with a complex problem, I would imagine it could help beginners? And the teachers who have to mark their code.

    1. Some students are amazing at commenting and see the point of it straight away. Others think it is like an unnecessary chore that I’m inflicting on them because I’m mean and evil. (I am, of course, but this isn’t why I ask them to comment!) I wouldn’t use pseudo code myself now, but I do remember using my own version of it in the very early days of 1st year Java assignments, so I do think it has some worth. Besides that, most of the code in the exam is in pseudo code as the exam has to be language independent, so it’s kinda required.

  2. Rather than having students each code one monolothic program, provide an API and have various students implement bits of the code. This does several things to address your issues:

    1. A student will receive a clean function signature with a clear goal. Often the problem for new programmers is simply being overwhelmed and not knowing where to start.

    2. They’re forced to work in functions since all they’ll have are functions to implement and other functions to call. There’s simply no opportunity to do something monolithic.

    3. At some point they’ll have to call functions written by other students and thus have the opportunity to review code and find defects.

    4. You get to introduce testing by having some students write tests that other functions work. As a bonus you end up having the assignment grade itself. 😉

    1. This is a good idea, I may well try it out! When students first begin using functions, one of the hardest things they find in getting to grips with is the parameters/arguments problem. From my experience, you simply couldn’t ask them to write a function like

      int highest(int x, int y)

      …or something and expect to get any sane result!

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