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Investigating the viability of mental models held by novice programmers

Ma, L. and Ferguson, J.D. and Roper, M. and Wood, M. (2007) Investigating the viability of mental models held by novice programmers. In: ACM SIGCSE Bulletin. ACM Press, New York, USA, pp. 499-503. ISBN 1-59593-361-1

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Abstract

This paper describes an investigation into the viability of mental models used by novice programmers at the end of a first year Java programming course. The qualitative findings identify the range of mental models of value and reference assignment held by the participants. The quantitative analysis reveals that approximately one third of students held non-viable mental models of value assignment and only 17% of students held a viable mental model of reference assignment. Further, in terms of a comparison between the participants' mental models and their performance in in-course assessments and final examination, it was found that students with viable mental models performed significantly better than those with non-viable models. These findings are used to propose a more 'constructivist' approach to teaching programming based on the integration of 'cognitive conflict' and program visualisation.