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Recommendations for teachers of programming

December 29th, 2008 No comments

The software developers I deal with usually have at least 3 or more years professional experience in industry (I have not taught a beginners programming class in over 25 years) and these recommendations are based on what I tell these people. I like to think that they are applicable to teaching those with a lot less experience.

First. Application domain expertise generally has greater value than programming expertise. That is, an investment of time in learning the application domain will yield a greater return on investment that learning more programming techniques.

Implications:

  • Minimize the amount of programming knowledge that your students need to know. For instance, there is little to be gained by teaching them the umpteen possible combination of looping constructs that can be written; in practice one or two account for 90% of all usage in industry. Teach the common cases and keep hammering on them until people use them without thought.
  • Criticize students for their failure to understand the application domain not coding constructs they use. For instance, use of loops when other techniques are available is not inefficient coding it is a failure to understand the application domain, anyway (if the application domain involves strings they should think string manipulation not looping over individual characters, if a domain uses vectors use vector arithmetic not loops over individual values, if a domain uses sets think set manipulation), why are you even thinking about coding efficiency?
  • Set problems that enable students to build on previously learned programming skills to solve different application domain problems.
  • Second. Computer time is cheap, people time is expensive.

    Implications:

  • Code optimization is invariably an inefficient redistribution of time from computers to people. Writing efficient code is an advanced topic best left until after graduation and a year or two in industry. If performance is an issue concentrate on the algorithms.
  • Programming by fitting together chunks of code having a well understood (to the author) behavior can be a fast way of getting programs written (once students have a repertoire of the necessary chunks) and the fact that the code is not the most computer efficient is irrelevant.
  • Developers trying to optimize every bit of code they write is the single biggest cause of poor coding habits that I encounter and these habits tend to be so ingrained that it requires a huge effort to change them. Don’t warp peoples minds when they are at their most impressionable at the start learning to program, just because you were abused is not a reason for you to abuse others.
  • Third. Most software is written to solve an immediate problem, used a few times, and then forgotten about (I know of software projects costing in the millions where the code was never used; my own contribution to never used code is somewhat smaller, but still much larger than I would have liked). The point is that writing software involves a cost/benefit trade-off, how much should I invest in making code maintainable given the risk that the benefits from this investment may not be recouped.

    Implications:

  • If a program is only run a few time it does not really matter how fast it runs, ie, optimization at the code level is pointless and in many cases the algorithm used will not make a lot of difference.
  • A few brief comments specifying input/output, any assumptions made and revision dates (a few seconds typing can save an hour later trying to figure out which is the ‘latest’ version). Anything more is bureaucratic dead weight, usually inserted to keep management happy, rarely correct and a general time sink. Don’t put people off commenting because of the memories they have of the pointless comments their instructor made them write.
  • Fourth. Don’t fool yourself that you are teaching programming; you probably just give a lecture or two and expect students to pick up the details from one of the assigned course books.

    Implications:

  • Students pick up lots of folklore that gets them through the course; work with this not against it. You are the chief wizard, give them a few powerful principles spells that can be applied to solve the problems they are likely to encounter. Understanding takes more time than is available, accept this fact.
  • Fifth. Coding style does exist and can have an effect on the cost of writing and maintaining code as well as how well a compiler can optimize it. These costs and benefits vary with the context in which the code was created and used. A good programmer will adopt a coding style appropriate to the context, just like an actor plays a role with the appropriate characterization (eg, comedy, thriller, suspense). It takes more experience than most undergraduate have to be able to properly discern what style is being used, let alone be capable of changing their own style.

    Implications:

  • Encouraging students to adopt some coding style is at best a waste of time and often causes people to thoughtlessly adopt inappropriate practices and becoming inflexible in their habits (to the point of ignoring further learning opportunities). Let students experiment and find a method of writing that works for them no matter how much it offends your sense of taste (they probably think the same about your dress sense as you do about their coding style and both issues are equally irrelevant).
  • Warn students that they are likely to encounter people proclaiming the one true way to writing great code and recommend that they ask these self proclaimed gurus for proof (ie, experimental studies published in peer reviewed journals) that using the proffered techniques will result in the claimed outcome.