The doctoral dissertations of the former Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) and Aalto University Schools of Technology (CHEM, ELEC, ENG, SCI) published in electronic format are available in the electronic publications archive of Aalto University - Aaltodoc.

Challenges of Teaching and Studying Programming at a University of Technology – Viewpoints of Students, Teachers and the University

Päivi Kinnunen

Dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to be presented with due permission of the Faculty of Information and Natural Sciences for public examination and debate in Auditorium E at Helsinki University of Technology (Espoo, Finland) on the 11th of December, 2009, at 12 noon.

Dissertation in PDF format (ISBN 978-952-248-195-5)   [10266 KB]
Dissertation is also available in print (ISBN 978-952-248-194-8)


This thesis analyses the challenges of the instructional process at a university of technology from the viewpoints of students, teachers and the university administration. The first research question concerns the difficulties students encounter when they study computer programming. Special attention was given to the students' reasons for dropping out of the introductory programming course (CS1). The second research question concerns computer science teachers' conceptions of studying and teaching. The third research question concerns how the instructional process was seen at the teaching organisation level. These three viewpoints represent holistic approach to the challenges of the instructional process.

General System Theory (GST) was used as the framework throughout the theoretical and empirical parts of this thesis. Three analysis models were developed: the "dimension doughnut", the three-layered didactic triangle and the feedback loop. These tools were used as starting points for developing the categorisation of earlier literature based on its didactic focus, and to analyse systematically the collected empirical data. The empirical data was collected from students in the introductory programming course, computer science teachers, representatives of the administration and formal documents. Both qualitative and quantitative research methods were utilised.

The results suggest that the students' reasons for dropping out of the CS1 course were manifold and that they tend to cumulate. On average, dropped out students reported ten reasons that contributed to their decision, of which four affected their decision critically. The reasons included: course arrangements, difficulties to understand course topics, difficulties with time management, no consequences for dropping out, and preference for other courses. Computer science teachers' conceptions of studying were often content oriented. The teachers considered theory and concepts of computer science and the ability to apply knowledge to be the most difficult for the students. The experiences from the previous years courses and customs affected greatly the teaching process. Due to the large-scale courses, it was difficult to make adjustments to the ongoing course. The analysis of the formal documents and interview data of the administrative personnel revealed problematic aspects. For example, goal setting and planning were substance oriented. As a result, soft skills were not systematically discussed or taught during the studies. Moreover, the collection of feedback was not systematic and collected feedback was not always utilised. The results highlighted how students', teachers' and organisation's instructional processes interrelated.

Keywords: teaching, studying, learning programming, introductory programming, drop-out reasons, instructional process, teaching organisation

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© 2009 Helsinki University of Technology

Last update 2011-05-26