Evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of Parsons problems and dynamically adaptive parsons problems as a type of low cognitive load practice problem

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Ericson, Barbara Jane
Foley, James D.
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Learning to program can be difficult and time consuming. Learners can spend hours trying to figure out why their program doesn’t compile or run correctly. Many countries, including the United States, want to train thousands of secondary teachers to teach programming. However, busy in-service teachers do not have hours to waste on compiler errors or debugging. They need a more efficient way to learn. One way to reduce learning time is to use a completion task. Parsons problems are a type of code completion problem in which the learner must place blocks of correct, but mixed up, code in the correct order. Parsons problems can also have distractor blocks, which are not needed in a correct solution. Distractor blocks include common syntax errors like a missing colon on a for loop or semantic errors like the wrong condition on a loop. In this dissertation, I conducted three studies to compare the efficiency and effectiveness of solving Parsons problems, fixing code, and writing code. I also tested two forms of adaptation. For the second study, I added intra-problem adaptation, which dynamically makes the current problem easier. For the last study, I added inter-problem adaptation which makes the next problem easier or harder depending on the learner's performance. The studies provided evidence that students can complete Parsons problems significantly faster than fixing or writing code while achieving the same learning gains from pretest to posttest. The studies also provided evidence that adaptation helped more learners successfully solve Parsons problems. These studies were the first to empirically test the efficiency and effectiveness of solving Parsons problems versus fixing and writing code. They were also the first to explore the impact of both intra-problem and inter-problem adaptive Parsons problems. Finding a more efficient and just as effective form of practice could reduce the frustration that many novices feel when learning programming and help prepare thousands of secondary teachers to teach introductory computing courses.
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