Support for new computing teachers: A tool to find Scratch programming errors

Post Syndicated from Bonnie Sheppard original

We all know that learning to program, and specifically learning how to debug or fix code, can be frustrating and leave beginners overwhelmed and disheartened. In a recent blog article, our PhD student Lauria at the Raspberry Pi Computing Education Research Centre highlighted the pivotal role that teachers play in shaping students’ attitudes towards debugging. But what about teachers who are coding novices themselves?

Two adults learn about computing at desktop computers.

In many countries, primary school teachers are holistic educators and often find themselves teaching computing despite having little or no experience in the field. In a recent seminar of our series on computing education for primary-aged children, Luisa Greifenstein told attendees that struggling with debugging and negative attitudes towards programming were among the top ten challenges mentioned by teachers.

Luisa Greifenstein.

Luisa is a researcher at the University of Passau, Germany, and has been working closely with both teacher trainees and experienced primary school teachers in Germany. She’s found that giving feedback to students can be difficult for primary school teachers, and especially for teacher trainees, as programming is still new to them. Luisa’s seminar introduced a tool to help.

A unique approach: Visualising debugging with LitterBox

To address this issue, the University of Passau has initiated the primary::programming project. One of its flagship tools, LitterBox, offers a unique solution to debugging and is specifically designed for Scratch, a beginners’ programming language widely used in primary schools.

A screenshot from the LitterBox tool.
You can upload Scratch program files to LitterBox to analyse them. Click to enlarge.

LitterBox serves as a static code debugging tool that transforms code examination into an engaging experience. With a nod to the Scratch cat, the tool visualises the debugging of Scratch code as checking the ‘litterbox’, categorising issues into ‘bugs’ and ‘smells’:

  • Bugs represent code patterns that have gone wrong, such as missing loops or specific blocks
  • Smells indicate that the code couldn’t be processed correctly because of duplications or unnecessary elements
A screenshot from the LitterBox tool.
The code patterns LitterBox recognises. Click to enlarge.

What sets LitterBox apart is that it also rewards correct code by displaying ‘perfumes’. For instance, it will praise correct broadcasting or the use of custom blocks. For every identified problem or achievement, the tool provides short and direct feedback.

A screenshot from the LitterBox tool.
LitterBox also identifies good programming practice. Click to enlarge.

Luisa and her team conducted a study to gauge the effectiveness of LitterBox. In the study, teachers were given fictitious student code with bugs and were asked to first debug the code themselves and then explain in a manner appropriate to a student how to do the debugging.

The results were promising: teachers using LitterBox outperformed a control group with no access to the tool. However, the team also found that not all hints proved equally helpful. When hints lacked direct relevance to the code at hand, teachers found them confusing, which highlighted the importance of refining the tool’s feedback mechanisms.

A bar chart showing that LitterBox helps computing teachers.

Despite its limitations, LitterBox proved helpful in another important aspect of the teachers’ work: coding task creation. Novice students require structured tasks and help sheets when learning to code, and teachers often invest substantial time in developing these resources. While LitterBox does not guide educators in generating new tasks or adapting them to their students’ needs, in a second study conducted by Luisa’s team, teachers who had access to LitterBox not only received support in debugging their own code but also provided more scaffolding in task instructions they created for their students compared to teachers without LitterBox.

How to maximise the impact of new tools: use existing frameworks and materials

One important realisation that we had in the Q&A phase of Luisa’s seminar was that many different research teams are working on solutions for similar challenges, and that the impact of this research can be maximised by integrating new findings and resources. For instance, what the LitterBox tool cannot offer could be filled by:

  • Pedagogical frameworks to enhance teachers’ lessons and feedback structures. Frameworks such as PRIMM (Predict, Run, Investigate, Modify, and Make) or TIPP&SEE for Scratch projects (Title, Instructions, Purpose, Play & Sprites, Events, Explore) can serve as valuable resources. These frameworks provide a structured approach to lesson design and teaching methodologies, making it easier for teachers to create engaging and effective programming tasks. Additionally, by adopting semantic waves in the feedback for teachers and students, a deeper understanding of programming concepts can be fostered. 
  • Existing courses and materials to aid task creation and adaptation. Our expert educators at the Raspberry Pi Foundation have not only created free lesson plans and courses for teachers and educators, but also dedicated non-formal learning paths for Scratch, Python, Unity, web design, and physical computing that can serve as a starting point for classroom tasks.

Exploring innovative ideas in computing education

As we navigate the evolving landscape of programming education, it’s clear that innovative tools like LitterBox can make a significant difference in the journey of both educators and students. By equipping educators with effective debugging and task creation solutions, we can create a more positive and engaging learning experience for students.

If you’re an educator, consider exploring how such tools can enhance your teaching and empower your students in their coding endeavours.

You can watch the recording of Luisa’s seminar here:

Sign up now to join our next seminar

If you’re interested in the latest developments in computing education, join us at one of our free, monthly seminars. In these sessions, researchers from all over the world share their innovative ideas and are eager to discuss them with educators and students. In our December seminar, Anaclara Gerosa (University of Edinburgh) will share her findings about how to design and structure early-years computing activities.

This will be the final seminar in our series about primary computing education. Look out for news about the theme of our 2024 seminar series, which are coming soon.

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